The Islamic State, the most feared terrorist gang in the world, was steadily losing status in recent months, until it took responsibility for the Sri Lanka mass bombings. Before that, it was defeated on the battlefield many times and gave back large patches of conquered territory -- by one measure, it's been forced to abandon acreage roughly the size of Britain. Its biggest battles are now internal, arising in its own ranks, especially in criticisms of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Baghdadi is the caliph, chosen in 2014, and in theory totally in charge. He still stirs interest in the U.S. State department, which offers US$25 million for information leading to his capture. But within ISIL he's not universally popular. MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) has assembled a 7,000-word collection of comments on the leadership of ISIL, which treat al-Baghdadi harshly.
At the heart of the ideological dispute, MEMRI says, is the issue of takfir. Takfir means excommunication, when one Muslim declares another a non-believer; the word derives from kafir (unbeliever). People may be classified as ultra takfiris, those Muslims who habitually call others unbelievers. There's a derivative belief that someone not proclaiming takfir about a person who deserves it must be an infidel. Takfir is the crushing blow that underlings sometimes deliver to their chieftains.
Al-Baghdadi's strength has rested in the power of his oratory. Last summer, as ISIL was losing battles and surrendering territory, he sent a message to all of his agents, real and imagined -- "Supporters of the caliphate everywhere, we bring you glad tidings that the State is well, since it wishes for what Allah has to offer, which is good and everlasting. Beware, oh lions of communications and knights of media, beware not to glean your information from any source besides the State's central media. The battle is in your arena." Perhaps to make ISIL again as relevant as it seemed two years ago, its official news agency, Amaq, when claiming the Sri Lanka bombings, bragged that "1,000 Crusaders" were killed or wounded.
MEMRI advises us that two factions duel over issues in ISIL. One is "scholars' camp," composed of former officials in the now-defunct ISIL religious bureaucracy. The other consists of "extremists" or ultra takfiris. The dispute brought to the surface criticism of injustice in the ISIL leadership. Until recently dissenters refrained from criticizing al-Baghdadi. They declared their loyalty to ISIL and ascribed the organization's faults to those al-Baghdadi appointed to carry out orders, including the delegated Committee, the executive body.
Members of the ISIL Media Department are enemies of the scholars' camp. The scholars oppose the media apparatus, seeing it as a bastion of extremism. Until al-Baghdadi proclaimed his directive, they were able to cling to the belief that he was neutral or somehow above the dispute. But hearing al-Baghdadi give unequivocal support to the Media Department made it clear that he was siding with the extremists.
A soldier who uses the name Yaktum Imanahu sent a message deploring al-Baghdadi and his deputies, whom he calls "henchmen." "Fear Allah, oh caliph, and be aware of that which your entourage has corrupted. Fear Allah ... As for the soldiers: they have been disturbed, terrified and impoverished by the people who work for you. ... The soldiers, instead of praying for their rulers, have begun to curse them due to their mistreatment. By Allah, we will be your rivals on the day of resurrection and we will argue against you in front of Allah, since you betrayed your trust."
Those of us who hope to see ISIL crumble and die can find only a modest optimism in the MEMRI summary. As one expert on terrorism put it, ISIL "still has its brand and an ability to inspire." Scores of its leaders have died in battle but many volunteers are waiting, ready to be exploited or to be credited with Sri Lanka, truly or falsely.