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Assessing the death of IS’ Grand Mufti: Turki Mubarak Binali

On June 20, the US central command announced the death of the Islamic State ideologue Turki Mubarak Binali which the extremist group’s official networks also confirmed. Binali’s death is a significant victory in the ideological war against IS.

Who is Turki Mubarak Binali?

The Islamic State is reeling under its various losses in its capital cities located in Iraq and Syria resulting in increased attacks in locations across the world. US air strikes on the propaganda production center resulting in the death of its ‘Grand Mufti’, Turki Mubarak Binali is another nail in the coffin for the group.

Binali was an ex-Bahraini citizen stripped of his citizenship after his departure to join the Islamic State in Syria in 2013. He pursued his Islamic studies in UAE and later Lebanon apart from his own home country Bahrain and was considered a prodigal student of the Jordanian extremist cleric, Al Maqdisi, the spiritual mentor to the founder of IS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Binali’s works comprised of writing essays, monographs and the biography of Abu Bakr Baghdadi whereby he supported various stances of the Islamic State. Furthermore, he was also involved in mediating conflicts within the group and provoking attacks across the world. Binali moved ranks rapidly, becoming the chief religious advisor to Abu Bakr Baghdadi within the Sharia council in 2014.  The Islamic State’s reliance on the Sharia council and his intellectual contributions within it makes his death a critical one for the group.

Jihadist king makers: The Sharia council

The Sharia council is one of the three most powerful units in the group’s hierarchy alongside the media and the military councils. Consisting of six members including the Caliph, it is charged with interpreting the Quran and the statements of the prophet to provide justification for its acts. Crucially, it also acts as a kingmaker of sorts, responsible for choosing the caliph and his successor.

Binali’s role in the Sharia council required him to be a trained jurist who memorized the entire Quran and many canonical books of Hadith, a necessary pre-requisite for commenting on jurisprudence. Simultaneously, he was also sympathetic and supportive of the Islamic states ambitions which allowed him to freely interpret these tools of knowledge. This was no easy feat to achieve for the group whose Sharia council often suffered defections due to the dogmatic decision making process of IS that rejected any disagreement in interpretations and application of Islamic law.

Under Turki Binali’s stewardship, the Sharia council asserted the permissibility of declaring a caliphate without controlling territory, a decision that led to the announcement by Abu Bakr Baghdadi in 2014. Binali was also the heir apparent to Baghdadi in the year 2015, although he was relived of this role later on.

Jihadist Debates: Highlighting the importance of ideologues

Undoubtedly, Binali’s utility came from his presence as a recruiter. IS uses a multi-faceted process to expand its membership, physically and virtually. It relies heavily on its propaganda machinery and the oppression of civilians to fuel the rhetoric and attract outsiders. Simultaneously, it engages in ideological warfare as well in internet forums. Binali operated in this virtual battleground which witnesses multiple debates regarding various military and sovereignty issues through jihadist lens.

These debates are often played out between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda with would be extremists and members of the groups participating in it. In 2013-14, Binali was a key figure involved in critiquing and refuting various ideologues of Jabhat-un Nusra and other rebel groups in Syria regarding IS’ credibility. This argumentation boosted IS’ legitimacy which was instrumental in gaining converts from other jihadist groups. Such converts were oftentimes comprised of battle hardened fighters – an important asset in an armed rebel group fighting the government.

Moreover, Bin Ai was also proficient in simplifying complex jihadist literature on many issues such as the necessity to pledge allegiance to the caliphate and the permissibility of taking slaves during modern conflicts among others. This helped attract outsider to the group as well showcasing his ability to recruit on many levels. Binali was thus, a mammoth figure within Jihadist scholarship and his death snatches away many opportunities for the group to capitalize and ideologically battle its opponents.

Dismantling the Ideological Support: A Crucial Task.

The United States has actively gone after the propaganda network and top command of the Islamic state in the past two years. Consequently, the Islamic State is already reeling from the loss of its various others senior members. Previously in 2016, the group lost Adnani, the spokesperson who famously asked western Muslims to attack any of their fellow citizens as a show of allegiance to the group. Its propaganda arm was further weakened when Abu Sarama (credited with orchestrating a legitimacy coup against Al Qaeda when he coined the term ‘The Jews of Jihad’ to describe them) was killed in early 2017 resulting in the decline its periodical magazine Rumiya’s quality.

The Islamic State is trying to prevent its senior members from being killed and simultaneously working to replenish those it has already lost apart from its foot soldiers. In the coming days, the group is slated to completely lose its territory in Iraq and Syria and most commentators have predicted its retreat to the online space. Undoubtedly, it will be biding its time, waiting for ripe conditions in conflict zones to reappear physically.

This lull in organized jihadist activity will likely be characterized by newer contemporary debates within jihadist forums with IS needing to defend its losses and deflect critiques aimed at it. Without the likes of ideologues like Binali, the group will find it difficult to find experienced and trained individuals who will be able to legitimize and religiously defend its actions and stances.

As the Islamic State has experienced so far, the replacement of talented and influential propagandists and ideologues has only been made more difficult by rigorous security procedures in countries where such figures may originate from as well as the targeted killings of its intellectual community. Thus, the war on the group can only be sustained if the group is attacked both militarily and ideologically, and the death of Binali is a definite step towards dislodging its ideological support base.

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be reached at mohammed016@e.ntu.edu.sg

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