The Prison-Shaykh

by Florian Flade

A few days ago news out of Jordan spread through Jihadi online forums and later even made it in Western mainstream news – as a small note „Terror-Shaykh arrested“.

Issam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi has been arrested in Jordan last Friday – again. He had not returned home, family members told the media.
It is the fourth time al-Barqawi was detained since the 1990s. Years of abuse in prison cells had not changed the preacher´s view on Jihad previously, why should it now?.

All that does not sound that unusual for a cleric of the militant Salafi movement. The problem is: Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi better known as Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is not a usual clerical figure.

The Palestinian-Jordanian cleric is widely regarded as the most influential Jihadi intellectual of our days. He is the most important theological-philosophical pillar of today´s Salafi Jihadi movement, ranging from small militant factions in Gaza and the Levant to al-Qaeda´s worldwide network and radical Jihadi loners around the globe.

In a 2006 study on trends in radical Islam, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is identified as „the most influential living Jihadi Theorist“.

„Maqdisi is part of a new trend revealed by our data: there has been a shift in intellectual influence from laymen in Egypt (like Sayyid Qutb) to formally trained clerics from Palestine (often living in Jordan) and Saudi Arabia“, the report says.

„By all measures, Maqdisi is the key contemporary ideologue in the Jihadi intellectual universe — he is the primary broker between the Medieval Authorities, the Conservative Scholars, and the Saudi Establishment Clerics on the one hand, and the Jihadi Theorists on the other“, the study coordinated by Jarret Brachman, expert on Jihad ideology figures.

Who is Shaykh al-Maqdisi?

Al-Maqdisi, born 1959 in Barqa near the Westbank town of Nablus, has put himself in the position of a „writing warrior“ for the Jihadi cause.
His family fled Palestine when he was a four-year old boy, moving to Kuwait. There he got in touch with radical rejectionist groups like „Ahl ul-Hadith“, a movement allied with Juhayman al-Utaybi, the leader of a ultra-religious Salafi group who occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979.

Influenced by the Salafi, Anti-Government movements emerging in Saudi-Arabia and Kuwait in the 1970s, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, experienced his first own radicalization when he moved to Mosul in northern Iraq to study at the local University. In Mosul, native and foreign radical Islamist theologists shaped his way of thinking about religion and politics.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi became an outspoken enemy of the Iraqi Baath regime and was arrested and sent to Saudi-Arabia in 1984, where he first settled in Mecca and later in Medinah.
At the University of Medinah al-Maqdisi intensively studied the work Saudi cleric Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahhab and supported Abdel Wahhabs idea of returning to strict 7th century Islam without Western influence.

Writing his own theological texts and essays, al-Maqdisi very soon became a famous yet amateurish Salafi ideologue in the Middle East.

In the 1980s al-Maqdisi made connections with Islamic relief organizations operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He travelled to Peshawar in 1988 to follow the stream of young Jihadis from the Middle East who went to the Hindukush to fight the invading Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

Among the Arab Mujaheddin, al-Maqdisi rose to the position of a well-regarded prominent War-Cleric, preaching Jihad against the atheist communists and corrupt Arab regimes.

Meeting Bin Laden

The Palestinian Salafi preacher met a fellow countryman, Dr.Abdullah Azzam, the first Jihadi cleric of his generation. Azzam was the driving intellectual force behind the foreign jihadis coming to Afghanistan and he was the main spiritual mentor of Osama Bin Laden.

In 1988, one Arab Mujahid remembers, al-Maqdisi, Abdullah Azzam and Bin Laden had dinner in one house in Islamabad, sharing their view of Jihad.

Al-Maqdisi moved to Jordan in the early 1990s and began his work as a preacher in different mosques in the country. Jordanian authorities were concerned about the 32-year old Salafi cleric and monitored his lecturing activities closely. The Palestinian had just published a book titled „Democracy is a Religion“ in which he said the doomed citizens of democratic countries were „kuffar“.

Besides his preachings Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi was also actively recruiting young Jordanians to join the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Those Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian veterans returning from the battlefields in Afghanistan, al-Maqdisi contacted to form terror cells in the region.

Becoming Zarqawi´s mentor

Eventually, in April 1994, al-Maqdisi was arrested and sent to notorious Suwaqah prison for inciting violent Jihad and calls to topple the Jordanian government. In prison he shared cells with a young Jordanian veteran of the Afghanistan Jihad named Ahmad Fadil al-Khalaila alias „Abu Musab az-Zarqawi“ . Both men had met in Pakistan for the first time and became like father and son.

Az-Zarqawi had returned to Jordan from Afghanistan in 1993. He was excited to reunite with al-Maqdisi who was his intellectual godfather. The spiritual Warrior-Shaykh al-Maqdisi and the former criminal turned Jihadi soldier az-Zarqawi formed a small terror group to carry out attacks in Jordan against American and Israeli targets.

Five days prior the Jordanian police´s arrest of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi in March 1994, az-Zarqawi was detained for planned terror attacks.
While in prison the two radicals began to influence cellmates, building up a hierachry of prisoners ruled by Sharia.

„The brothers elected me as their Emir“, al-Maqdisi later recalled time in Suwaqah, „I was the leader for about one year, then I focussed on religion. I decided to pass the leadership to Zarqawi. This was not the result of an argument between us. We just wanted to act like one voice, one leadership, in talks with the prison guards.“

Al-Maqdisi continued writing about theology and Jihadi theory while in prison, giving theological advice to Zarqawi and his followers. What Azzam was to Bin Laden, al-Maqdisi was to Zarqawi – one was the thinker, the other acted.

When King Hussein of Jordan died in 1999, the new monarch ruling in Amman, King Abdullah, pardoned most political prisoners, including radical Salafis like al-Maqdisi and Zarqawi.
Both were among those 3,000 prisoners released in March 1999 as part of the new government´s Royal Amnesty.

The Student Becomes Mass-Murderer

Abu Musab az-Zarqawi did not feel safe in Jordan, he knew all his activities were monitored by the Jordanian intelligence. So he left for Afghanistan, first traveling through Iran into Pakistan joining with the al-Qaeda forces of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri.

His spiritual guide, Shaykh al-Maqdisi, instead stayed in Jordan, returning to writing theological essays, some of which were later discovered in the Hamburg flat of the 9/11 Hijacker cell.

Due to al-Maqdisi´s continued preaching against corrupt un-islamic regimes, including that of King Abdullah of Jordan, al-Maqdisi was rearrested on charges of supporting terror attacks against Western targets in the country.

During his second term in jail, al-Maqdisi witnessed his ambitious student az-Zarqawi rising in the ranks of al-Qaeda, becoming the group´s Emir in Iraq after the US-invasion in 2003.
As al-Qaeda´s general in Iraq, az-Zarqawi was building up a powerful and deadly terror network, kidnapping Western hostages and killing them personally by beheading them in front of a video camera.

Az-Zarqawi´s brutality and growing aggression against Iraqi Shiites led al-Maqdisi to condemn his acts. Out of his prison cell in Jordan, al-Maqdisi urged az-Zarqawi to stop the borderless bloodshed of civilians and stick to the moral rules of Jihad, outlines by late Abdullah Azzam in the 1980s.

Al-Maqdisi distanced himself from the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, saying he does not agree with az-Zarqawi´s line on killing as many Shiites as possible and thereby triggering an Iraqi civil war in which US troops would suffer heavily.

In Juli 2005, Jordan released al-Maqdisi, telling him not to publish any literature calling for Jihad. After he gave an interview to Arab TV channel Al Jazeera in the very same month, Jordan authorities detained the cleric again. He had called Osama Bin Laden a „Shaykh“ in the interview and told about abuse and torture in Jordanian prison cells which only hardens the Salafi belief in political revolution meaning the implementation of Sharia in the Arab states.


Three years without trial, then came the second release of al-Maqdisi from a Jordanian jail in March 2008. Meanwhile the Jihadi mentor had built up a significant supporter and sympathizer community on the internet.
On his own website „tawheed“, al-Maqdisi was uploading hundreds of books and documents dealing with the religious justification for jihad. Fatwas were issued, comments written about actual political events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

„Battle-hardened“ by his time in prison Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi rose to prominence in the online-jihad community, outrunning the other al-Qaeda linked clerics of his time like Abu Musab as-Suri.

Some of the Zarqawi and al-Qaeda supporters suspected al-Maqdisi of being to soft in his stand on the Shiite question. Prison had made him a regime-loyal preacher, many jihadis claimed. To defend himself against these claims, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi quoted US-based think-tanks and terrorism reports in which he was named as the top influential Jihadi theologist.

His own son was killed recently in Iraq in clashes with U.S. forces, showing the radical theology of the scholar had a clear impact on his own family, reaching far outside of his Jordanian residence.

A Salafi group in Belgium called „Sharia4Belgium“ asked for al-Maqdisi´s advice on how to act in their strife to implement Quranic law in Europe. Other online activists wanted to know what is the best way to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Why Re-Arrested?

Now the Jordanian authorities decided it was time for al-Maqdisi to spend another round in prison. Why he was arrested this time, remains unknown. Officially the fact he wrote a book critical of Arab regimes, mainly the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian government, was named as the reason to detain al-Maqdisi this time.

„I am innocent of what you worship besides Allah, your corrupt laws, the ideologies, constitutions and principles of your rotten governments, your courts, slogans and media.“ – Maqdisi wrote in his latest book about the As-Saud-monarchy.

The big question is: Does throwing the radical cleric into Jordanian dungeons over and over again, solve the problem?
Al-Maqdisi remains a strong symbol as well as a powerful influence on al-Qaeda´s newest generation. Remember what happened when a street criminal, tattooed alcoholic from poor Zarqa town met the charismatic Palestinian preacher. Prison intensified their relationship and opened the doors for al-Maqdisi to brainwash numerous young men who felt the regime´s oppression physically and psychologically every day.

Al-Qaeda´s most blood-thursty radical was al-Maqdisi´s most ambitious student – for sure he was not the last one.

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