No one can reasonably expect any jihadist organization to be a total monolith in outlook among members, and the Islamic State is no exception. The idea of dissent in the Islamic State is foremost associated with the issue of takfir (declaring people to be non-Muslims, even those who self-identify as Muslim). Indeed, the group’s application of this idea has been publicized both in propaganda as well as in leaked material. However, the Islamic State’s championing of takfir is not without its criticisms. Some critics are extreme, even going so far as to proclaim takfir on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Others are less virulent in their response and are reluctant to fight people they see as fellow Sunni Muslims, especially other jihadis in groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra). This reluctance to fight flows in part from their hesitancy to accept the doctrine of takfir as espoused by the Islamic State.
However, criticisms of the Islamic State are not just made by those who differ with its interpretation of takfir. Indeed, there exists a more subtle kind of dissent that focuses on critiquing strategy, tactics, and conduct. In many cases, those offering these types of critiques continue to identify with the Islamic State project ideologically. One brief example of this comes not from Iraq and Syria, but rather Yemen, where a large number of officials and soldiers denounced the wali (governor) that the Islamic State had appointed over the Yemeni provinces.
In December 2015, the dissenters argued that the conduct of Islamic State leadership in Yemen had fallen short on multiple counts, including expulsion of soldiers who raised a case against a military official, poor battle planning in the Hadhramaut area, and mistreatment of the ansar [native supporters]. Ultimately, the dissenters made clear that they still had a pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi but disavowed the overall wali. The Islamic State’s central leadership made clear that this rejection was unacceptable and amounted to breaking allegiance with the Islamic State. In the end, the Islamic State moved to expel those who persisted in dissent, and it is clear that the group suffered setbacks in Yemen as a result.
Returning to Iraq and Syria, there are also clear examples of this type of dissent. The work presented here was written by Abu al-Faruq al-Masri, an elderly member of the Islamic State. As discussed above, it is not a critique not of the caliphate project per se, but rather of the strategies and conduct pursued by the group. As is typical of the writing style of many Islamic State members, al-Masri uses standard Arabic. For context, al-Masri has been based in Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital of the Islamic State, and appears to have had access to the highest-ranking personnel in the group. Indeed, he appears to have presented advice on strategy to the Majlis al-Shura (consultation council) of the Islamic State, which directly advises al-Baghdadi. This work, titled ‘Message on the Manhaj’ (‘Manhaj’ referring to the direction/program), was originally delivered as a private lesson to his followers. Approximately six months ago, al-Masri disappeared, with a high likelihood that he was arrested by the Islamic State’s security apparatus.
As mentioned in the work itself, al-Masri had previously been imprisoned after coming into conflict with the Islamic State leadership in Raqqa, and a previous book he had issued on the political and organizational program of the Islamic State was banned by the Islamic State authorities in Raqqa. This small book—obtained from a source in Raqqa via a well-connected intermediary within one of the rebel groups (who has previously given this author hundreds of documents)—is not in widespread circulation as it is banned by the Islamic State. In the previous work on the political and organizational program of the Islamic State (also obtained via the well-connected intermediary), al-Masri had also mentioned his role in forming a council that played a part in organizing the Hisba (Islamic morality enforcement) and Zakat bureaucracies in a number of Islamic State provinces, as well as suggesting a program for organizing the provinces outside of Iraq and Syria that was reviewed by the Delegated Committee (a committee in the Islamic State that issues general directives on governance).
The exact identity of a figure by the name of Sowlani (clearly a play on the name of Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, whom al-Masri despised) whose name is mentioned more than once in the Message on the Manhaj is not certain, but he is apparently a senior Islamic State official in Raqqa.
Taking a step back from the different points raised in the book, al-Masri’s criticisms of the direction of the Islamic State can be summarized as follows:
– The choice of Raqqa as the de facto center of the Islamic State in Syria was a mistake. Aleppo would have been far better.
– It was a mistake to accept openly all those allegiance pledges to create new wilayat (provinces) for the Islamic State, as not all areas have the circumstances present in Iraq, Syria, and Libya that make them ripe for development in the Islamic State’s state-building project.
– Jabhat al-Nusra should have been destroyed earlier. It would have helped win over most of the rebels to the cause of the Islamic State.
– Trying to take on the whole world runs counter to the Prophet’s precedent in strategies and alliances, and it effectively dooms the Islamic State project in its infancy. Consequently, the group is needlessly losing soldiers in battles.
– The principles of Wala and Bara (terms that translate to ‘loyalty and disavowal,’ e.g. being loyal to Islam and Muslims and disavowing disbelievers and their doctrines) do not translate to absolute obedience to an emir; rather, obedience depends on whether the emir’s orders are within the framework of what God has commanded.
At the same time, al-Masri follows some key components of the Islamic State’s ideological orthodoxy, such as attacking the idea of a need for a popular support base to implement Islamic law. The concept in Arabic is known as al-hadhina al-sha’abiya (lit. ‘the popular nursemaid,’ also translated as ‘hearts and minds’). Among Islamist movements in the Syrian civil war, the idea has most notably become associated with Ahrar al-Sham, a movement also attacked by al-Masri. Indeed, Ahrar al-Sham’s deputy, Ali al-Omar, explicitly pointed to the need for al-hadhina al-sha’abiya in a lecture he gave that was broadcast in late May 2016. The idea is also associated to a lesser extent with al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, who have increasingly sought to brand themselves as a more reasonable jihadist alternative to the Islamic State.
Al-Masri also follows Islamic State orthodoxy with his insistence on takfir against the rebel factions, and he notes the problems regarding many fighters who are unwilling to take on these factions, particularly when they appear to be of similar dress and orientation (i.e. Islamist in some way). Thus, his critique actually corroborates the trend noted above of reluctance to engage in takfir.
Turning to al-Masri’s criticisms of the path that the Islamic State has taken, one may wonder how subsequent events either support or refute his criticism. Certainly there is much to be said in support of his argument regarding the issue of international expansion of the Islamic State. Since the group presents itself as a realized state and caliphate, it has sought to boost its global appeal through the declaration of multiple provinces, following the acceptance of allegiance pledges in a number of places around the world. However, in terms of realizing actual governance and an administration along the lines of what has arisen in Iraq and Syria, only the Libyan provinces have shown signs of success. But even these have been rather limited and short-term, limited signs, as these initiatives have now come into serious doubt as militias have largely dismantled the Islamic State’s control over the strip of coastline centered on the city of Sirte. Al-Masri at least seems to realize that if the so-called ‘distant provinces’ of the Islamic State cannot realize a state-like existence, then the credibility of the Islamic State project on the global stage comes into doubt. Indeed, one should note that in most of the areas where the Islamic State has expanded with claims of operations—such as Bangladesh, Somalia, and the Philippines—no new wilayat have been announced. This is likely because the Islamic State now realizes that simply announcing new provinces in every area where operations are claimed will ring hollow if those new wilayat fail to demonstrate some sustainable progress in governance. Even given this reluctance to announce new provinces, the group has engaging in renaming several areas, referring to Bangladesh as ‘Bengal’ and the Philippines area as ‘East Asia.’
Perhaps less realistic is al-Masri’s idea of forming alliances based on the Prophetic precedent. As the work “Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State” makes clear, in theory the Islamic State could pursue diplomatic relations and treaties with other states in accordance with Shari’i politics, but in practice the conditions stipulated by the writer in the treatise are too rigid to strike any meaningful accord. In addition, there is no getting around the fact that the Islamic State will never be granted recognition from the international community (despite some pundits advocating this line in an attempt to sound original), and that a number of the group’s actions necessitated by their ideology—such as the genocide against the Yezidi people—have inevitably drawn the world’s hostility. Nonetheless, one can still see al-Masri’s critique as a more sober view that contrasts with the face that the Islamic State presented of trying to take on the coalition—against all realistic odds—in engagements such as the Kobani campaign that ultimately cost the group dearly in terms of manpower.
More in the realm of speculation is al-Masri’s contention that Jabhat al-Nusra should have been destroyed earlier. It is possible to understand the author’s reasoning in so far as the al-Qa’ida affiliate became an integral part of the Syrian insurgency and received widespread acclaim as an effective fighting force against the regime. But could not the insurgency have rallied around another powerful group like Ahrar al-Sham instead? In 2013, as what was then ISIS was establishing itself as a real presence on the ground in Syria, in most places it was one of many factions and rather thinly spread across the north of the country. It seems unlikely that the group could have taken out Jabhat al-Nusra in all places where the latter had a presence and destroyed it and al-Qa’ida with a decisive blow.
In sum, as the Islamic State continues to bleed territory and the Mosul campaign rages on, many of the critiques pointed out by al-Masri seem to ring even more true and worthy of consideration. Understanding the critiques of this once Islamic State insider are important not only to understand the group’s current struggles but what it may see as the lessons learned from those struggles.
Below is the full text of ‘Message on the Manhaj’ with translation.
Message on the Manhaj
Abu al-Faruq al-Masri
Concerning my opinion about the Islamic State
I have said it: [the Islamic State] is, by God, an obligation and also a pillar for the establishment of the religion, for prayers, fasting, zakat, and purification can only be established through it.
And the Islamic State is the Muslim’s fortress, his might, his glory, and it is the aim of man and his obligation when he is created.
The Almighty has said: “And I did not create Jinn and men except that they should worship Me. I do not desire sustenance from them and I do not desire that they nourish Me”- al-Dhariyat [Qur’an 51:56-7]
And I respond in this place and pulpit of mine to the advocates of jihad who have gone behind the concept of hearts and minds, minimizing the precepts of the religion that have prescribed clearly without doubt the necessity of establishing the religion by force.
The Almighty has said: “Those whom We have enabled in the land have established prayers, given zakat, and commanded what is right and forbidden what is wrong. And to God belongs the outcome of affairs.”- al-Hajj [Qur’an 22:41]
It is al-Qa`ida in particular I mean, which has squandered its glory in the youth of jihad who compromised, engaged in concealment, and today have struck their heads in lamentation.
Today they are in the camp of error that has not found its objective in irja’ [excessive pragmatism/moderation].
Concerning my opinion on the course of the Islamic State
I offered a dissenting view in my previous book—The Political and Organizational Manhaj for the State—a book whose banning was supervised by the authorities who resembled the taghut in Wilayat al-Raqqa.
I made clear in it that the state that has no center has no force, and that moving from the war of the gangs and fight-or-flight [i.e. insurgency/guerrilla warfare] to the war of the state versus the states of kufr requires in the first instance organization of the provinces, not their mere grouping.
For from the beginning, the soldiers have paid no attention to the center of the state that has arisen and its center has been unsecure and unstable, and it is the issue that forms the first ring of weakness in the formation of the structure of the provinces.
And indeed this has led to the weakness of the centralization of the other provinces that depended in the first instance on the centers of gravity of their neighbors as in Raqqa.
For I suggested with the announcement of the Islamic State in Bilad al-Sham that its center should be Aleppo, Sunni Aleppo that is only mixed with a small component of the People of the Book. And within them is a big population from those who had not yet affiliated with an organization and whose doctrines had not been mixed with the evil of the evil ones.
In addition, Aleppo is an industrial city of business distinguished in its military position that facilitates the extension to the rest of the areas and could serve as a powerful link to the centers of the other provinces if announced as centers for the caliphate.
But it was Sowlani who suggested Raqqa, and it was the beginning of error as I made clear to them as they neglected my advice.
Then it was that the centers of the distant provinces whose allegiance pledges had been accepted as they were in the labor pains of jihad had been brought above their potential. And I had advised the Majlis Shura to take their allegiance pledge secretly, but God forgive that course that did not go with the guidance of the Prophet, for the Messenger of God had a lot of his companions in Mecca who accepted Islam and kept their Islam secret, and all the best was in that.
For not all the wilayat have the circumstances of Iraq, al-Sham, and Libya from productive land, nursemaid environment, and great maneuvering spaces.
My opinion concerning fighting them
For I said: by God, I see in fighting al-Qa`ida the strongest fight as the first one, for if al-Qa`ida had vanished two years ago and its strength had vanished, the hearts of many of the factions and components would have leaned towards you: the ones that believe there to be in al-Qa’ida the troop of the mujahideen, even as they do not realize that Jowlani- may God degrade him- is a youth in jihad who has not had the experiences of those before him and did not realize how jihad reached the building of the state through us.
Had al-Qa’ida been destroyed, with it would have been destroyed the evidence foundation of many of those in error and no one would have hesitated to join the state.
For that happen solely because of the apostasy of Jowlani from the allegiance pledge to the caliph, by which also the first rank [the leadership] was split, and the door of slaughter in the body was opened.
And Jowlani’s apostasy was in the most dangerous labor pains that the Ummah experienced, in the web of establishment and placing of foundations, so Qa’idat al-Jihad has abandoned the base of Islam!
And many of the mujahideen thought that in the apostasy of Jowlani there was a decisive word for the emir of al-Qa’ida al-Zawahiri, but it was not for America to be pleased with them after the length of jihad except by Zawahiri’s assuming the manhaj of irja’, the degradation of the soul and the international accounts that the White House in America has set.
Concerning my opinion on fighting them
On the apostates (of the Free Army, and whoso is loyal to them), so I said: “By God, I will fight their heads and cut them off: that is better for me than fighting the rest of the body over years.”
For if they had torn out the heads of error, most of them would have been corrected and God would have guided the one who is guided and the one who flees would have fled from them.
It is also that in fighting them is harm to the state militarily and internally, for the length of the fight will give rise to vengeance for their fight against the state, and in it much blood will be spilt, as they are owners of the land—and indeed the land belongs to God—but if the state’s fight against them had been short, many doctrines and rituals would have returned.
Many of the soldiers of the state have refrained from fighting the factions whenever there appeared to them the similarity of their colors, the banners of some of them, their beards, and the shortness of their dress.
And the head of fitna among them is Ashrar al-Sham [a common Islamic State play on Ahrar al-Sham: lit. ‘the evil ones of al-Sham’] who have claimed that they are its Ahrar, have painted their banner, struck up their words as a melody, and thus the hearts of many have become seduced in them, and if they were subdued, the multitude would be subdued.
Concerning my opinion on Shari’i politics
By God I have not compromised in my creed secretly or openly, and I have not been content for truth to be suppressed or its words kept hidden.
And for you in the Messenger of God is a good example as the kings of the Arabs have become blind to his projects and course.
For the Messenger of God refuted the case of Quraish on the Day of Hudaybiya when he brought cattle and baggage to the House of God while performing the `Umra.
So Quraish began calling to the Arabs and non-Arabs that “Muhammad and his companions have come to you to commit blasphemy against your deities and violate the House of God,” and when they came, they saw from the Messenger of God the opposite of the Quraish and their case.
And thus the Prophet isolated the Quraish from the rest of the Arabs, and the project of the Islamic State began flourishing with the thought of Muhammad (SAWS).
Indeed the announcement of enmity to the world is strangulation and burying alive for the project of the caliphate in its cradle, and it is the non-Shari’i politics that violates what the Prophet established for the Nabawi state [state of the Prophet].
For the Nabawi state had its ally from the non-Muslims and means to rely on in the event that the enemy overcame it.
And it is the matter for which Sowlani detained me by the force of his oppression.
And by God I do not speak the truth in this day except out of my desire to protect the soldiers of the state the likes of whose might and fraternity I have not seen. Indeed, prison is more beloved to me than seeing them destroyed in battles of attrition and wars that can be circumvented and whose fruits can be picked from their impurities [i.e. there are other ways to win a battle].
I do not see in these battles anything except burning for the soldiers of the state and being distracted from the head of disbelief—America—and from the Great Satan Israel.
And I bear witness to God that I have disagreed with you in this path of yours out of concern and experiences for whose acquisition we have paid a price from our blood.
And I do not fear anyone except God in this book of mine that I may be the one whose tongue has been contemptible or I may have erred in judgment.
And anything besides that, it is our manhaj in which we have experienced the bitterness of the worldly life.
And let this book of mine reach what God wills that it should reach despite the wrong I have experienced previously.
Section on Wala and Bara
Wala and Bara to God the Exalted: that man should disavow all that God has disavowed.
God Almighty has said in the ruling of revelation: “There was for you a good example in Ibrahim and those with him when they said to their people: ‘We disavow you and what you worship besides God: we have rejected you and enmity and hatred have arisen between us and you forever.”
“And the call to prayer from God and His Messenger to the people on the day of al-Hajj al-Akbar is that God and His Messenger disavow the idolaters.”
Wala and Bara are not to a sheikh as the Sufi has done, having misled the people with his saying: “The one who has no sheikh, Satan is his sheikh”- and so he has given loyalty to himself and his wali.
And thus he has subsequently entered into idolatry when he has sanctified his sheikh and imam as the adherents of Sufis, practitioners of bid’a, have done in this time of ours and before.
And Wala and Bara are not to the emir, for the emir has the right of obedience in what God has ordered. And Wala is not to him and Bara from his enemy who may perhaps be an enemy to himself only and not an enemy to the religion.
For if, as some of the Shari’i officials say, it is that Wala to the emir is Wala to God, they have committed a grave error.
And it is the beginning of the deviation toward idolatry that ruined the adherents of Sufism, for obedience to the emir is different from Wala to him.
And obedience is to be in what God has ordered, and the soldiers should not be bound to an order from the emir in what contravenes the law of God.
Otherwise, idolatry enters into his creed and he does not realize it. Wala and Bara to God and His Messenger means that you follow the orders of God and declare takfir on the one hostile to Him and associating partners with Him, and there is no room for the human mind to make any relative judgements in Wala and Bara, for they are precepts made clear here with definitive evidence: that you should declare takfir on taghut and be loyal to the one loyal to God.
As for the pledge of allegiance to the Imam and emir, it is a pledge of allegiance on the basis of principles: if they are violated, the Muslim is free from his pledge of allegiance.
I announce my pledge of allegiance to the Amir al-Mu’mineen, the caliph, the sheikh, the servant of God Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Qurashi al-Hashimi al-Husseini, for I say: I have pledged allegiance to you on hearing and obedience, will and compulsion, adversity and ease, and thus I must not conflict with the one in authority unless I see clear disbelief in my eyes, with proof on it being from God. So it is a conditional pledge of allegiance defined in the framework of the law.
In conclusion to this short message in which I have been concise and summarized as far as I can, I say to the soldier of the caliphate:
You are the brick that has been laid for this great project that God ennobled us to realize, but this is the Sunna of God that is not to be temporized or violated. So if you commit wrong, are ignorant or silent, the Sunna of God has no mukarama in it [i.e. you cannot automatically expect help from God].
For the guidance of the Prophet is not only the appearance of the Shari`ah [law], but also the core of pure Tawheed that is not contaminated with idolatry or flattery [i.e. saying one thing and meaning another].
And indeed the state—may God protect it—will not last in an error it persists in, for the soldiers of the Prophet were defeated at Uhud on the day they violated an order in the field.
So the error in the Prophet’s soldiers had its consequences, so how much more so is it true for an error on our part?
I have been concise in this message of mine to reduce the burden of printing and publication I have contended with, and it was that I calculated that summarizing the talk is easiest for the one who receives it.
And I conclude with a hadith of the Prophet (SAWS):
“When a judge issues a judgement and uses his skill and judges correctly, he will have double the reward, but when he judges and uses his skill and makes an error, his reward is single.”
So perhaps we may come upon two rewards in what God has provided us from advice, and I do not find anything more gratifying or finer than the understanding of my brothers in the state for that by which God has granted me success.
For it is the best jihad after a raid that the Muslim undertakes in the path of God.
Exalted are you, oh God, and praise be to you. There is no deity except You. I seek Your forgiveness and I repent to You.
Abu al-Faruq al-Masri
May God reward best on my behalf Abu Sumayya al-Tunisi in reviewing and other matters.
 Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Dissent in the Islamic State’s Yemen Affiliates: Documents, Translation & Analysis,” 2016. Available at http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/02/dissent-in-the-islamic-state-yemen-affiliates.
 The lecture is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTjbD1Al90A.
 For more discussion of “Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State,” see Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “’Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State’- Full text and translation,” 2016. Available at http://www.aymennjawad.org/18215/principles-in-the-administration-of-the-islamic.