This is a cross-post from the CST
Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, better known as Abu Qatada al-Filistini, has not been in the UK for nearly three years, but his legacy still looms. He was deported to Jordan in 2013, acquitted on terrorism charges there, and since his release has been doing in Jordan what he did in Britain: encouraging people to support violent jihad and spouting antisemitism.
This post will describe some of Abu Qatada’s activities and output since his deportation from the UK, particularly his recent statements and writings denouncing IS, supporting rival jihadist groups in Syria and reiterating his antisemitic views. These are important developments to examine in and of themselves. They assume even greater importance because Qatada remains a positive point of reference for the British Islamist advocacy group CAGE and Moazzam Begg, as will be discussed in greater detail below.
Snapshot of the London Years
An essential primer on Abu Qatada’s jihad-related activities in the 1990s and early 2000s are the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) judgments during his custody in Britain (here). Arriving to the UK with his family as asylum seekers in 1993, Abu Qatada went on to use his London exile as an opportunity to rally support for jihadist causes worldwide across the Middle East, Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya. From the UK, Qatada played a sort of unofficial, spiritual and legal guiding role for many jihadists. Abu Qatada freely edited, co-edited and wrote for several jihadist publications, including the Algerian GIA’s al-Ansar and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s al-Mujahidun. For example, as terrorism expert Petter Nesser explains, “Qatada functioned as an ideologue for the GIA by writing essays and legal opinions in support of the group’s atrocities,” although he later withdrew his support (Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, 2016, pg. 40). Qatada gained international notoriety after his sermons were found in the apartments of some of the 9/11 plotters; he even published an article adducing legal-religious justification for the attacks titled “The Legality of the Events in America.” From 2001 to 2013, Qatada spent time in and out of British prison and was, quite controversially, never formally charged or tried for any crimes. Following a complex and lengthy judicial process, Abu Qatada was deported in July 2013 to face two terrorism trials in Jordanian civilian courts. He was cleared, in June 2014, of involvement in a 1998 bombing campaign, and he was again cleared, in September 2014, of planning a disrupted plot in 2000.
Abu Qatada, however, remains a pivotal figure in certain jihadi circles. In March-April 2015, al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praised him and fellow jihadi scholars during a digression in an audio message dedicated to praising the January 2015 attacks against Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris:
“We in Al-Qa’idah place our trust in the shaykhs and ulema of jihad whose sincerity, fondness, and compassion for jihad and mujahideen has been proven by the [past] days, such as our beloved Shaykh Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Shaykh Abu-Qatadah al-Filastini, may God protect them” (Released in Arabic by Al-Sahab Establishment for Media Production; Translated by BBC Monitoring, “Al-Qa’idah leader praises Charlie Hebdo attacks, urges more,” 01 Dec 15)
Abu Qatada’s (Nuanced) Opposition to Islamic State
Since his acquittals in Jordan, Abu Qatada has remained in the country and has resumed his earlier career of prolific writing, speaking and preaching. A major focus of his work has, predictably, related to the proper conduct of jihad. Since January 2016, for example, Qatada’s articles have featured in three of the four issues of Al-Masra, the new Arabic newspaper published by Ansar al-Shariah in the Arabian Peninsula, the front group for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (Interestingly, the first issue includes a separate article, under the title “O Aqsa, We Are Coming,” which references the infamous hadith of “O ‘Abdullah. There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.”)
In recent years, Abu Qatada has regained international attention primarily due to his outspoken opposition to IS. In public statements and published works, which have been posted and circulated among non-IS jihadist sources, Abu Qatada has denounced IS and its gruesome beheadings. In his anti-IS treatise, The Cloak of the Khalifah, Qatada offers a lengthy exposition on the purported Islamic reasons why the ISIS declaration of the caliphate is a “falsehood” and “deviance” based on “ignorance” of the sources. Qatada has also been quoted as stating that the “announcement of a caliphate by the Islamic State (IS) is void and meaningless because it was not approved by jihadists in other parts of the world.” In March 2015, he made similar remarks in a series of interviews with journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem that were released on YouTube (see here, here and here). While Kareem spoke in English, Abu Qatada responded in Arabic, with English subtitles provided for the video’s intended viewership. In response to Kareem’s question on the validity of Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate, Abu Qatada stated that, “This declaration has no right to be given the honourable name of the ‘Khalifa.’ This is a false claim and incorrect call.” He also referred to the IS leader as “the criminal Baghdadi.” Qatada’s severe denunciations, however, are more nuanced than is often discussed, a point to which we will return shortly.
CAGE and Abu Qatada
Abu Qatada’s anti-IS sentiments have excited certain activists in the UK. In September 2014, following his acquittals in Jordan, Victoria Brittain, the Guardian’s former associate foreign editor and also co-author of Moazzam Begg’s memoirs, referred to Qatada as “a widely respected scholar and cleric.” (Brittain also appeared in an episode of Moazzam Begg’s “Absent Justice” Islamic Channel programme to discuss Abu Qatada’s case.) According to Brittain, Abu Qatada’s “prestige within the Muslim community in Britain and far wider afield as a respected scholar and a dignified authority figure grew in parallel with his demonization by the UK authorities.” One can only imagine the (justified) protests such a claim would have provoked had, say, a former Daily Mail editor suggested that Abu Qatada’s views were held with such reverence within Britain’s Muslim communities. But if Brittain’s claims are actually correct, it may explain why this country now has such a problem of jihadist extremism.
More recently, in June 2015, CAGE’s Iftar dinner prominently featured Abu Qatada. Gareth Pierce QC spoke about his legal history in the UK, and then Moazzam Begg interviewed Abu Qatada via Skype to discuss his legal ordeals.
Regrettably, a video or transcript of the interview is not available, so the precise content of Abu Qatada’s remarks are not known. That same month, however, Moazzam Begg published an opinion piece taking “Lambertism” to its logical conclusion: he argued that the most effective way for the UK and the West to defeat Islamic State is to engage with “the largest, most effective opposition forces in Syria,” namely Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra Front). IS fighters killing and torturing these opposing jihadist fighters is, for Begg, grounds for West forces to support them. Begg also contended that:
“Arguably the most credible voices against IS have been Islamic clerics traditionally associated with Al-Qaeda. These include Jordanian scholars Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada.”
Begg even suggested that, had Abu Qatada made these anti-IS comments in the UK rather than Jordan, Qatada could have helped prevent young British Muslims from joining IS:
“Cameron must be wondering how many young Britons would have joined IS if Abu Qatada made these statements from the UK instead of Jordan?”
Begg, of course, makes no mention of the logical corollary that Abu Qatada could have inspired these same young Britons to join AQ-linked or other jihadist outfits in Syria.
Using Abu Qatada as an antidote to Islamic State is a troubling proposition. In the same Bilal Abdul Kareem interviews, which were posted in March 2015 and predated Abu Qatada’s appearance at the CAGE dinner, Abu Qatada did not stop merely at denouncing IS. He proceeded to offer some essential, often overlooked, caveats. He clarified that he opposes IS in great part because they fight against other sincere jihadists in Syria, and because IS wantonly and improperly applies takfir (declaring someone to be an unbeliever) against Sunni Muslims. Abu Qatada actually praises IS for its jihad against “the enemies of Islam”:
“We love those who fight against the enemies of Islam however this group, in Syria, fights against the Mujahideen. They are usurping the name “Mujaahid” but in reality they are not fighting in Syria from an Islamic standpoint…Let no one come and say that we stand with the enemies of Islam against ISIS because this is a lie! We stand against ISIS because they are targeting the Muslims. This is our position. As for their fighting against the Iranian Shia’ in Iraq, apostates, and Alawites then this is a praiseworthy Jihad…We don’t opposed [sic] ISIS because they are the enemies of Allaah. We oppose them because they oppose the sincere Mujahideen. They made takifr on them, fought them, slaughtered them, enslaved their women and other things that are known to everyone.” (Video 2)
Syrian Jihad and Abu Qatada
Since the summer, Abu Qatada has promoted his views elsewhere. In October 2015, he published an article in the second issue of Al-Risalah whose cover depicted a masked fighter holding two pistols with the title “Victory Loves Preparation.” Al-Risalah is an English-language magazine, published by the so-called Global Islamic Media Front, and it describes itself as “an independent magazine published by the beloved brothers the Mujahideen in Shaam…it has no connection to our beloved brothers in Jabhat al-Nusra.” This is not an anti-jihadist publication. Its contents suggests it would server very poorly as material to prevent English-speaking youth from joining jihad. In essence, the magazine is similar in style and content to AQAP’s Inspire or Islamic State’s Dabiq, both of which have been found in possession of numerous suspects convicted in terrorism trials.
Qatada’s article opens with blessings for the Syrian jihadists and for the magazine:
“This letter is to my beloved brothers from the Mujahideen in the blessed land of Shaam. I ask Allah to bless this Online da’wah magazine and to make it an avenue to spread the truth along with the best of guidance. Likewise, to protect the Sunnah. Also to bless the ones who oversee this project, so that they may convey the best of advice to the Muslims and believers alike” (pg. 41).
His piece is titled “The Markets of Faith,” which Qatada attributes to an “expression used by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam to refer to the field(s) of Jihad” (pg. 44). (Azzam, of course, was the leader of the Arab Afghan mujahedeen and Osama Bin Laden’s mentor.)
Qatada also explains that the Syrian Mujahideen are fighting and sacrificing their lives to remove taghut (rebellious leaders) and to lay the foundations for the Muslim Ummah, not only in Syria but also worldwide:
“The Mujahideen are not only freeing areas within Syria, but rather they are laying foundations for the freeing of this entire Ummah. And they are not only removing this taghut solely, instead they are laying the foundations to remove every taghut from the world – Arab and non-Arab. If they understand this they will prepare the best of preparations, they will be firm within their hearts, and will not abandon Jihad until the rule of Allah is established, or they are killed in the process.”
In order to promote this work, Abu Qatada took to social media, just like every good 21st century writer, and he tweeted blessings to Al-Risalah and referenced his English article: “The beloved brothers in Al Risalah Magazine published an article of mine titled: “The Markets of Faith,” in the English language. May Allah reward them, for the magazine is beneficial to all Muslims.” Al-Risalah, of course, duly retweeted him and feature it again in a separate press release clarifying the magazine’s authorship.
Abu Qatada and Antisemitism
Abu Qatada’s anti-Jewish views have been on record since the 1990s. In one document titled “Islam and America, a Relationship Founded Upon the Sword,” Abu Qatada reportedly wrote about a “Jewish-American conspiratorial alliance” in which “the Jews control the American state and its policies towards Muslims” (Petter Nesser, “Abu Qatada and Palestine” (2013), Welt des Islams, Vol. 53, Issue 3-4: pg. 440).
The SIAC judgment in 2007 referenced his incitement for the murdering of British Jews (Sections 28 and 31):
“…even in December 1996, the Appellant was already proclaiming that it was acceptable to fight Jews within the UK…In October 1999, the Appellant made a speech at the Four Feathers mosque [in Marylebone, London] in which he effectively issued a fatwa authorising the killing of Jews, including Jewish children. He told the congregation that Americans should be attacked wherever they were, that in his view they were no better than Jews and that there was no difference between English, Jews and Americans.”
More recently, on 9th and 18th January 2016, Abu Qatada posted two videos on his very active YouTube channel (here and here). His topic of discussion are lessons that can be learned from the antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These videos were part of his “1,000 books before death” lecture series, and he tweeted links to them as well (here and here). In one video, he openly laughs and mocks Holocaust commemoration in Britain, recounting his experiences while in UK prison. Abu Qatada, who is seen holding a copy of the Protocols in Arabic, invokes a checklist of classic – albeit slightly derivative – antisemitic motifs that the Holocaust is a lie; that Jews consume Passover matzahs baked with Christian blood; that Jews control the world and run the global economy; and that the West hates Jews because they seem them as bloodsuckers. Translated excerpts can be read here.
Qatada even spoke about how the Bolshevik Revolution was won due to Jewish (Rothschild family) money, and that Jews are behind all Communist Parties (still, apparently). On 5th February, he tweeted a similar sentiment that Jewish money was behind the Bolshevik Revolution, and that Muslim soldiers were promised to have the right of self-determination once victory is achieved.
These comments partly echo Abdullah Azzam in his work The Red Cancer. Azzam explicitly wrote about the alleged Jewish foundations of the Bolshevik revolution, as well as Jewish designs to spread communism in Arab countries in order to corrupt and undermine them:
“The Bolshevik revolution was Jewish in ideology, planning, funding and execution […] As for the funding (of the revolution), it was Jewish; the Brooklyn area of Eastern New York was the plotting base for the revolution; Trotsky was from there, and this area is still the center for the Jewish plotting to destroy mankind. […] All communist revolutions in the world are Jewish.
…The Jews orchestrated the organization and formation of communist parties in the Arab world; they are its leaders and planners […]. We have seen that all the communist organizations in the Arab world were controlled by the Jews […] as for communist leaders of Arab origin, they were trained by Jewish leaders after their minds had been changed and become Jewish” (Quoted in Thomas Heggammer’s “Abddallah Azzam and Palestine” (2013) Welt des Islam, 53-3-4).
Conspiracies relating to the Bolshevik Revolution appear to be a sort of “event horizon” among conspiracy theorists worldwide, forming a rich, ecumenical conspiratorial tradition that appeals across ideological sentiments. The academic Jovan Byford, in Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (2011), argues that these conspiracies are often discussed in connection with theories of the New World Order, and that they often make either explicit or indirect references to a Jewish conspiracy:
“It is today virtually impossible to find an elaborate account of world conspiracy that does not allege, in one way or another, that understanding the causes of the Russian Revolution of 1917 demands a different explanation to that found in mainstream historiography” (pg. 102).
In this sense, then, Abu Qatada is not alone.
This blog previously posted about Abu Qatada’s UK legacy shortly after his deportation. We examined some of the commentary published that was critical of the UK’s treatment of Abu Qatada, but which also failed to address his known ties to extremism during his time in the UK. Around the time of his deportation, Victoria Brittain wrote a piece that still resonates. She expressed her sincere view that Abu Qatada is not an “Islamic counter-terrorism myth” but rather “a scholar with wide intellectual and cultural interests”:
“Our security services and politicians turned this man into an Islamic counter-terrorism myth. If instead they had chosen to talk to him, as I have many times, they would have found that the man behind the myth is a scholar with wide intellectual and cultural interests. He wrote books while he was in prison. His home is filled with books.”
This last comment sums up the credulousness of some of Qatada’s supporters. His home may well be filled with books; but one of those books is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which made it into Qatada’s YouTube series of 1,000 books to read before dying. His own writings repeatedly justify violent jihad in specific contexts, particularly against non-Muslims. His support for jihadist groups in Syria remains undimmed. It is to our benefit that he no longer resides in this country, and it is both absurd and dangerous for anybody to suggest that he could help with efforts to persuade young British Muslims away from jihad.