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It was reported on jihadist websites and by local activists that Turki al-Binali, a senior cleric of the Islamic State (IS) and perhaps the most important public proponent of the caliphate’s formation, had been killed in Syria by an airstrike from the U.S.-led Coalition on 29 May. IS has been silent on this despite releasing their newsletter al-Naba and the tenth edition of their English-language propaganda magazine Rumiyah since then. On Tuesday, the intelligence services of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq confirmed that al-Binali had been killed.
Turki ibn Mubarak al-Binali was born on 3 September 1984 in Muharraq to a wealthy family, well connected to the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain. Al-Binali began his religious education early, though his exact path is vague.
Al-Binali spent some time in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s where he studied under Abdullah Ibn Jibreen (d. 2009), a member of the Council of the Committee of Senior Scholars (al-Majlis Hay’at Kibar al-Ulema) and the Standing Committee for Islamic Research and Verdicts or Fatwas. Ibn Jibreen followed the Saudi Kingdom’s state-sanctioned salafist approach to religion, often called Wahhabism, and was given to sectarian incitements of the kind that do so much to undermine the Saudi monarchy’s counterterrorism work. Al-Binali spent time with Ibn Jibreen in al-Suwaidi District of Riyadh, which al-Binali called the “Tora Bora quarter,” and, in 2004, Ibn Jibreen wrote a laudatory letter of recommendation for al-Binali to the Islamic University of Medina.
Al-Binali also at some point studied with Zuhayr al-Shawish (d. 2013), according to a profile of al-Binali by Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton who has written extensively on IS’s ideology and jihadist ideology in general. Al-Shawish was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood from an important family in Syria. In the 1950s and 1960s, al-Shawish had amicable relations with the Syria-based Muhammad Nasrudeen al-Albani (d. 1999). Al-Albani was employed by al-Shawish, and al-Albani published a monthly column in al-Tamaddun al-Islami (Islamic Civilization), a magazine al-Shawish edited. When the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood split, al-Shawish and al-Albani sided with the Damascene branch and wrote polemics against the Aleppine branch. But relations soured: al-Albani’s salafi approach meant he disagreed on the fundamentals with the Brotherhood. Al-Albani became a stern critic over time of the methodology of the Brotherhood and other Islamists; their utilitarian approach to advancing their cause did not match his insistence on the purity of practice.
This schism between scholarly salafis (sometimes called “quietists”) like al-Albani and advocates of political Islam like al-Shawish remains important, and it is instructive that al-Binali should have had his worldview formed by both Wahhabist and Islamist currents since this synthesis lies at the root of IS’s ideology. In this vein, though he does not appear to have met him, it is interesting that al-Binali was significantly influenced by Salman al-Awda, a prominent part of the Saudi opposition movement, al-Sahwa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Awakening), “a blend of Wahhabism and concepts inherited from the Muslim Brotherhood,” as Stephane Lacroix phrases it in his book Awakening Islam. Other important clerics whose work IS relies on—Nasir bin Hamad al-Fahad, Ali bin Khidr al-Khudair, and Hamoud bin Uqla al-Shuaibi—were participants in the Awakening trend. Similarly, al-Binali has been associated with Hajjaj al-Ajmi, a fundraiser for extremists in Syria. Al-Ajmi is a haraki (activist or political) salafi, a trend that likewise combines traditional ideas and revolutionary methods.
In 2007, after a year-and-a-half at the College of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Dubai, al-Binali’s studies in the United Arab Emirates were terminated when he was expelled, relating to his extremist beliefs, particularly a pathological sectarian hatred of Shi’is. Al-Binali went to Beirut, Lebanon, and then back to his home country of Bahrain. Al-Binali was banned from entering Kuwait, Egypt, and Qatar because of his tendency to takfir, the branding of other Muslims as heretics, and he was later arrested in Bahrain for the same thing. During his detention, one of his visitors was allegedly Adnan al-Arur, the Saudi-based Syrian salafi cleric, who tried to talk him out of these views.
Al-Binali found his way into the jihadi-salafist milieu, being instructed for a time by Umar al-Hadouchi, a Moroccan jihadi preacher, and most importantly falling in with the Jordan-based pro-al-Qaeda scholar Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), the most prominent jihadi cleric alive. This would be crucial later on.
Within the jihadi world, the attack on the Islamic State as it rose in 2013-14 centred on its lack of established jihadi credentials, and al-Binali was criticized for being too young to be credible. But in 2009, al-Barqawi had written the introduction to a book by al-Binali that said, “I provided him with an ijaza (permission) to teach all of my books when I saw in him extraordinary passion and support for the religion … If a shaykh has the right to take pride in any of his students, I am proud of this beloved brother.” Later that year, with al-Barqawi back under house arrest, al-Barqawi gave permission for al-Binali to issue fatwas at a forum controlled by al-Barqawi. If al-Binali was qualified to act in al-Barqawi’s name in 2009, it was rather difficult to claim al-Binali had no religious standing in 2014.
JIHADI TRAVEL AND PROPAGANDA
Al-Binali’s biography had and has a number of gaps. Information put out by IS-linked media since his death has filled in a few blanks. The release of al-Binali’s last will and testament suggests he was a shari’a official in the Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and a video showed al-Binali in Yemen, using the name Haatim al-Muqbil, in 2012. According to Bahraini media, al-Binali had travelled to Abyan and associated with AQAP much earlier.
[UPDATE: Al-Binali had also visited Tunisia in August 2012 during the last days of Ramadan, where he engaged in da’wa (missionary activity) and met with Sayfullah Benhassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), the founder of Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST), al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in the country. The leader of AST’s military wing at inception was Boubaker al-Hakim, a French-born jihadist of Tunisian descent who joined IS in 2013 and might or might not be dead. Whether Benhassine himself is alive is unclear: he was reported killed in a U.S. drone strike in Libya in July 2015.
A store of articles and videos on a pro-IS forum, brought to my attention by Héni Nsaibia, an intelligence analyst at MENASTREAM, uncovered further details of al-Binali’s movements. Somewhere around May 2013, al-Binali visited Morocco, being hosted in Tetouan by the clerics Muhammad al-Bukhabza (Abu Khubza al-Maghribi) and Abderrazak Ajha, who was arrested in March 2015 after trying to journey to Syria to join IS (to which he had sworn allegiance), and in Hoceima by his old mentor al-Hadouchi. Al-Binali was back in Tunisia for a second consecutive Ramadan in the first days of August 2013, visiting Bizerte on the northern coast, and Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid in the interior. Of note: all these cities are known for their strong salafi currents and later became significant providers of foreign fighters. Just after this, al-Binali visited Saudi Arabia and met with the late Abdullah ibn Jibreen, Abdullah al-Sa’ad, and Sa’id bin Zu’air, among others. In this same period, al-Binali went to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, where he met Shaykh Awad Bangar.]
Al-Binali would return briefly to Bahrain, before departing in June 2013 and going to Libya. When it was that al-Binali was recruited by IS and how is not known. At this time IS was believed to be part of al-Qaeda, but the soon-to-be caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), was running a parallel infrastructure in Syria through his then-deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr). In Libya, al-Binali gave public speeches proselytizing for IS’s cause at a time when the groundwork of IS’s networks was being laid in the city that would become its de facto capital, Sirte. IS fully conquered Sirte in mid-2015 and was dislodged in December 2016. Al-Binali would later return to Libya at least once, in 2014, and rumour has it that al-Binali made the journey again in the summer of 2016.
By 2013, IS was preparing for its caliphate. Al-Khlifawi was directing the security aspect of infiltrating Syria and co-opting or eliminating obstacles. Other operatives, like Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), and Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), were knitting together the human terrain for a statelet. Al-Absi was simultaneously involved in an effort to garner international support, travelling to Saudi Arabia, according to two IS defectors, and meeting with jihadi clerics like Sulayman al-Alwan to solicit and coordinate statements of support that could be released at the right moment to give the impression of a mass-uptake of IS’s cause when it declared its caliphate.
Al-Binali was assisting with the international side of IS’s drive for support at this time, acting as a roving propagandist-recruiter, attempting to peel away individuals and networks who were already jihadists from al-Qaeda, and to popularize and normalize IS among the broader Muslim masses.
Al-Binali would acquire quite a reputation in this period as the lead defender of IS and its leader, refuting all arguments made against the legitimacy of its policies. Al-Binali was also the most prominent exponent of the idea that IS should declare a caliphate. In August 2013, al-Binali published the only authorised biography of the caliph, “Extend Your Hands and Pledge Allegiance to al-Baghdadi”. The caliphal ambitions of IS had been visible since it declared itself to be a state in 2006; this document from al-Binali was the earliest and most detailed to spell it out, and call directly for the formal establishment of a caliphate. It was a trial balloon, in effect, from IS. Al-Binali traced al-Badri’s lineage to the Quraysh, a traditional qualification to be caliph, and knocked down all arguments that could make al-Badri ineligible to be caliph. Al-Binali, for example, argued—in-keeping with what was said in 2006—that al-Badri controlled as much territory as the Prophet Muhammad when he received bay’a (pledge of allegiance) from his followers, so this was no disqualification.
MOVING TO THE CALIPHATE
Al-Binali might have been to Syria to directly liaise with IS in 2013, and is believed to have made his final move to IS-held territory in February 2014. By the next month al-Binali was leading a “support network actively recruiting Gulf nationals to join ISIL in Syria,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department. In April 2014, al-Binali started to use his real name and confessed to being behind two online pseudonyms, Abu Humam al-Athari and Abu Sufyan al-Sulami. (Other pennames that are clearly al-Binali’s include Abu Hazm al-Salafi and Abu Hudayfa al-Bahraini).
Al-Binali got into public disputes with prominent jihadist authorities like Abdul Munim Halima (Abu Basir al-Tartusi) and Iyad al-Qunaybi. In mid-2014, al-Binali first clashed with his old mentor, al-Barqawi. In late May 2014, al-Barqawi had written of the problems with younger jihadi clerics who dismiss the corpus of jihadi jurisprudence that has been built up in the last few decades and ignore their elders, people like al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Umar Mahmud Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), who is second only to al-Barqawi as a source of jihadi spiritual guidance. On 7 June 2014, al-Binali wrote an essay, “My Former Shaykh,” which explicitly rejected a link between age and seniority, and said that if age mattered at all it was only as an explanation for Othman’s “confusion” in siding with al-Qaeda over IS. Al-Binali had held this view for some time: at age 23, while awaiting deportation in the U.A.E., it shocked his captors that he considered himself licensed to issue religious opinions. Al-Binali maintained that Islam has no restriction on the age at which a man can become a jurist.
It would take a few more months for relations between al-Binali and al-Barqawi to collapse completely. After their public spat, contact had been re-established in October 2014 during the attempt to negotiate the release of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig. Al-Binali and al-Barqawi had a “very warm” exchange over WhatsApp on 24 October, and it looked as if Kassig would be released; Jordan arrested al-Barqawi on 27 October and the chance was gone. Contact resumed again later in the year and after IS captured Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot, on Christmas Eve 2014, Amman used al-Barqawi as an intermediary to try to negotiate his release. Al-Barqawi realised on 3 February that he had been betrayed when IS sent him a video ostensibly providing proof-of-life for al-Kasasbeh and the password was “Maqdisi the pimp, the sole of the tyrant’s shoe, son of the English whore”. The video showed al-Kasasbeh being burned alive, something that had happened a month prior. Three hours later the entire world saw the video, and the public exchange that followed, which included al-Binali referring to al-Barqawi as a Sururi, finalized the rupture.
THE CALIPHATE’S SCRIBE
Al-Binali has been linked to some of the key media and recruitment material of the Islamic State. The IS training manual—the book all recruits must learn and be tested on to “graduate” from IS training camps—is the Muqarrar fi al-Tawhid (Course in Monotheism), and it is written by al-Binali. In October 2014, IS published an article in its English-language magazine Dabiq that shocked even some of its own members in its forthright justification for enslavement and sexual violence. The same month, a pamphlet describing the legal and moral basis for slavery was issued by IS’s Fatwa and Research Office, which it is believed al-Binali headed.
That pamphlet said that enslaving “women of the disbelievers” was “among the greatest forms of honour” for Islam—by which it means IS—because it was “a clear affirmation, showing the supremacy of the people of shari’a … and the dominance of their state”. The document explicitly sanctions the rape of female slaves: “there has come in the shari’a [an] allowance to enjoy sabaya (slave girls) and lie carnally with them. … And this is from the mercy of the shari’a, as well as its justice, glory, and wisdom”. The ability to rape slaves means that mujahideen on military duty, those away from their wives for extensive periods and especially the single ones, will not sin, says the pamphlet, and it is also a “generosity” that gives men another option if they want more wives but would be unable to treat a new wife equally to the those he already has. Moreover, since there is no taboo against children born to slave girls, impregnating slaves is “increasing … strength for the Muslims”. The “captivity and enslavement becomes for [non-Muslim] women among the greatest blessings of God,” the pamphlet added, since it might convert them to Islam and therefore allow them to “escape eternity in Hellfire”. Even without conversion, enslavement is “a mercy from God” because it provides “the practical and realistic means to save these women from waste and desolation, and it is the most useful way of protecting them … and their offspring,” the pamphlet concluded.
When IS conquered the Yazidi areas in the summer of 2014, it murdered at least 3,000 Yazidis outright and then took captive around 7,000 people, mostly women and girls (estimates range from 4,000 to 11,000 people). Many Yazidis escaped or were ransomed quickly, but approximately 3,000 Yazidi females have remained in IS custody, enduring a nearly-indescribable ordeal.
THE BINALI FAMILY AND BAHRAIN
Al-Binali’s extended family have demonstrated connections to IS.
One relative, Mohamed Isa al-Binali, had been a police official at the Bahraini Interior Ministry until he quit in June 2014. Mohamed then appeared in an IS video in late September 2014, “A Message to the Bahraini people”. The video was IS’s response to Bahrain joining the U.S.-led anti-IS mission, Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. With three other Bahraini jihadists, sitting on the banks of the Euphrates, Mohamed calls for other members of the security forces to defect from the Khalifa regime, for a boycott of the Bahraini Elections, and for Bahrainis to abandon the island nation that is not being ruled by the shari’a and instead to join IS in its mission of “purifying” the Fertile Crescent.
Al-Binali’s brother, Abdullah Mubarak al-Binali, was arrested in April 2015 as he tried to leave Bahrain, using somebody else’s passport. It is believed Abdullah was headed for the caliphate; the trial continues. In May 2015, another relative, quite possibly a brother, Ali Yusef al-Binali, was killed fighting for IS in Syria.
On 31 January 2015, the Bahraini government stripped Turki al-Binali and a number of others of citizenship. This means al-Binali was formally stateless at the time of his death.
IMPORTANCE AND LEGACY
The actual power al-Binali held within IS and the formal position he occupied is a matter of some controversy.
Tore Hamming, a PhD candidate at European University who tracks jihadi messaging very closely, says al-Binali “was head of IS’s Shari’a Council in the beginning and authored some highly important articles, verdicts and fatwas”. The Shari’a Council is divided into two components, one dealing with the “prevention of vice,” which is to say the running of the hisba (religious police) and courts that enforce IS’s version of Islamic law, and the other dealing with “the promotion of virtue,” namely the propagation of IS’s worldview in books, videos, and other media to accrue converts and recruits. Al-Binali seems to have been part of this latter section of the Shari’a Council.
Defectors have buttressed the claim that al-Binali headed the Shari’a Council. One said that al-Binali had replaced Umar al-Qahtani (Abu Bakr al-Qahtani), a Saudi, as head of the “religious department,” presumed to mean the Shari’a Council, in late 2014. Other former members of IS have said al-Binali was “the head of the apparatus for commanding right and forbidding wrong”. But there are reports that it was Abdul Rahman al-Talabani who formally led the Council. There was also the U.S. Treasury’s claim that “in November 2014, Binali was appointed to the post of chief religious advisor for ISIL.”
It is “unclear … exactly what his position was or if he lost influence near the end,” says Cole Bunzel. “There were rumours he was the overall mufti, and there were rumours he was pushed aside.” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at The Tahrir Institute and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, says there is “no evidence [al-Binali] was the group’s highest cleric. We know that Abu Ali al-Anbari had been the highest cleric until his killing in March last year”. Hassan added that he has “evidence of al-Anbari’s superior religious position in the form of religious training he provided to provisional imams and recruiters”.
Shortly after the caliphate declaration—in late 2014 and certainly by early 2015—al-Binali had “disappeared almost completely from public view,” as Bunzel put it. One of the few occasions after that when al-Binali did ostensibly appear, in late 2015, to issue a fatwa calling for the mass-killing of puppies in the United States, was a fabrication. Al-Binali maintained his silence even after the embarrassing May 2015 leak of obsequious—and just bizarre—emails he had sent to Hani al-Sibai (Abu Karim), a jihadi cleric at a comparable level to al-Barqawi or Othman who is based in London, along with other jihadist agitators like Abu Mahmud al-Filistini. The last speech from al-Binali came after Taha Falaha was struck down.
Why al-Binali was removed from public view, and whether this denoted a reduced status within IS, is unclear. Bunzel says his “sense is this was part of a deliberate effort by the Islamic State not to let any one of its thinkers to become too much of a celebrity”. But this does not necessarily correspond to a reduction in power. Indeed, there were reports, as noted above, to the contrary—that al-Binali had become less public because he had been elevated to the head of the Shari’a Council. Since IS’s senior leadership has not maintained a public social media presence, and recently even its foot-soldiers were banned from engaging on platforms like Twitter, al-Binali going dark could be taken as circumstantial evidence of promotion. That said, as Hassan noted, there were counter-rumours that the reduction in visibility was indeed a sign of al-Binali’s marginalization—by Falaha.
It is possible that the reduced visibility was originally because of promotion and then became about demotion when al-Binali would not do what the leadership wanted. Hamming says his best information is that al-Binali did have his standing diminished at a certain point, and the “best explanation [he] has received so far is that it was because [al-Binali] refused to pronounce takfir on Jabhat al-Nusra”. As Hamming noted, though al-Binali is a long-standing radical, “he was still too ‘reasonable’ to think takfir on another jihadi group would be legitimate”. This is plausible: al-Binali has a record of working to discipline and contain the so-called Hazimi faction, which found IS too lenient and ended up declaring that the caliph was an infidel. And last month, when IS’s Delegated Committee issued a highly controversial ruling that expanded the legitimate uses of excommunication still further, al-Binali was among those to protest, penning a twenty-point refutation. After al-Binali was sidelined, says Hamming, “I have been told that he has been teaching courses, mainly in Raqqa, and from time to time giving khutba.”
Whatever the case, there is no disagreement that the key roles al-Binali played were in the run-up to the caliphate declaration, when he was one of the most public, eloquent, and prolific of IS’s propagandists, who provided IS a crucial legitimacy among jihadists because of his links with al-Barqawi, which allowed IS to try to annex individuals and groups in al-Qaeda’s orbit. Within the territories held by IS, al-Binali has been at the forefront of disseminating IS’s message, though it is an open question whether this ever translated into real power. Hassan suggests it did not; that al-Binali was an explainer for decisions taken by others. For example, Hassan says he “believes that Anbari was the one who gave the directive to enslave Yazidis, regardless of who wrote the fatwas to justify it”. In this context, the claim by the KRG that al-Binali had taken on the task of overseeing the foreign attacks after Falaha was killed, while possible because of the expansive remit of IS’s media apparatus, should be taken with some caution.
Al-Binali was killed in Mayadeen, a town in the Deir Ezzor Province, downriver from Raqqa city, IS’s Syrian “capital”. IS has transferred significant resources from Raqqa to Mayadeen in recent months. Deir Ezzor borders Iraq’s Anbar Province, and IS administers this cross-border zone as Wilayat al-Furat. It is here that the organization will make its final stand as a state, and where the rural hinterland will provide IS shelter when it finally relinquishes its hold on the urban areas. The U.S.-backed offensive against Raqqa commenced on 5 June and is deeply troubled because of the partners the U.S. has chosen, a sub-component of the larger problem that the U.S. has focused so intently on defeating IS it has neglected to specify what it plans to put in IS’s place, a contest for regional order that the actors in and around Syria are already engaged in. This short-sightedness threatens to undo even the counter-terrorism gains of the U.S.-led campaign and, with the convergence of the competing projects of the external powers in Deir Ezzor, IS might once again find itself able to survive in the space it has carved out for itself as everyone’s enemy and nobody’s priority.
UPDATE: The Coalition announced on 20 June that it had “killed Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS, in an airstrike May 31 in Mayadin, Syria”. The discrepancy about the date of al-Binali’s demise, which was initially reported as 29 May, seems to stem from a mix-up: the 29 May strike is believed to have killed Muhammad Baraa Kadek (Riyan Meshal), one of the founders of Amaq News Agency, though the Coalition has not yet confirmed this.