The Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the two Sunni terrorist groups vying not only for the leadership of the global jihadi movement but also for its soul, expressed different assessments of the devastating Feb. 6 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Despite the intra-Jihadi bloody conflicts, both groups are trying to exploit the natural disaster to arouse religious sentiment and mobilize support among Muslims around the world.
ISIS: “Earthquake is Divine Punishment”
In its weekly al-Naba newsletter (Issue 377) on February 9, the Islamic State featured an editorial titled “Nothing prevents us from sending miraculous signs, except for frightening,” in which it turned to the topic of the devastating earthquakes that recently struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. The global Sunni jihadi terrorist group has interpreted the earthquake as a message of warning and intimidation from God to the Muslims so that they should obey Allah and his Messenger and strengthen their faith.
The main idea of the article was built around Surah al-Isra (Verse 59) of the Quran, according to which Muslims should seek salvation from powerful natural disasters in repentance for their sins and wholeheartedly and willingly devote to Allah. Expressing its sympathy for casualties of the devastating disaster, the al-Naba editorial quotes the well-known Hadiths on the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, the utterances of famous imams al-Bukhari and Ibn Taymiyyah that “the earthquake is a formidable sign from Allah, which is sent down to people because of committing sins as a reminder of repentance and the crushing power of the Lord of the Worlds.”
The article implies that the salvation from such a powerful natural disaster should be sought in the Holy Quran, which edifies all Muslims to live according to the Sharia law of Allah Almighty in the Islamic Caliphate. Thus, by describing the earthquake as “a great sign of Divine Power reminding people of their weakness before the might of Allah,” IS ideologues tried to take advantage of this worst natural disaster in Turkey and Syria to arouse religious sentiment and mobilize new supporters around the Islamic State. Further, the IS propaganda mouthpiece called on the quake victims to repent of their sins, stop doing bad deeds and ask Allah for forgiveness.
Appealing to God’s wisdom, the al-Naba editorial draws the logical conclusion that only living under Sharia law and submitting to the Islamic Caliphate can save the lives of Muslims from the Almighty’s anger. According to the logic of the ISIS propaganda machine, Allah may inflict his wrath on those who are disobedient from disbelievers, hypocrites, and the like.
This message is in line with the Islamic State’s harsh Salafi-Jihadi ideology (al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya), which promotes the global agenda of building a single Islamic Caliphate that rejects the division of the unified Muslim Ummah along national, sectarian, territorial, and political lines. And, of course, by design of IS ideologues, a unified Islamic Caliphate should be ruled by their Caliph, a single political and religious authority who firmly adheres to Islamic law.
In addition to its editorial, Islamic State’s al-Naba Issue 377 published an infographic titled “Earthquakes” with a photo of collapsed buildings in the background. The infographic reiterated some of the editorial’s ideas that the earthquake is a frightening and discouraging message that Allah conveys to mankind so that they believe in Him and follow His path. In order to earn the favor of the Islamic Ummah, it called on Muslims to show kindness and give charity to the quake victims, as well as to provide them with temporary shelter. Also, the infographic notes that an earthquake is one of the preliminary signs of the end of days when people will be judged for their actions.
ISKP: “God’s Wrath against Taghut”
Developing the propaganda policy of the IS-Central jihadist parent organization, on February 11, the Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) media group Al-Azaim published an infographic with a photo of a destroyed Turkish city and defenseless people trying to save their loved ones from under the rubble, which clearly illustrates the enormous scale of the natural disaster. Worth noting, Al-Azaim media’s religious assessment of the devastating earthquake is much harsher and more critical than IS-Central’s al-Naba.
ISKP’s Uzbek-language media arm claims that the earthquake in Turkey and Syria is a punishment from Allah for their deviation from religious purity, violation of Tawhid and fidelity of Allah, neglected to apply Sharia law, rejection of the Holy Book of God, refusal to perform the five pillars of Islam, non-payment of Zakat and Fitrah, committing Shirk (idolatry or polytheism) and Haram (forbidden by Islam), and falling into sins such as usury, fornication, prostitution and bribery. Islamic State’s Uzbek propagandists claim that “a sane person is well aware that this earthquake is not just an accident or a natural disaster, but a divine punishment for the betrayal of Muslims and the shedding of their blood.” Further, Al-Azaim Media cites a well-known hadith about Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Rashidun, who said that an earthquake is a warning from the Lord to sinful people.
On February 18, 2023, ISKP’s official Voice of Khurasan Magazine, in its 22nd issue, published a notable article in English titled “The crimes of Turkish Taghut about which the Muslim masses remained silent,” which lists the reasons why Allah punished Turkey with earthquakes. IS-Khurasan claims that God’s punishment has befallen Turkey for “replacing sharia with Kuffar (unbeliever) laws, committing Shirk, waging war against ISIS, collaborating with NATO crusaders, and legalizing alcohol, homosexuality, adultery and nudity.”
Thus, the Islamic State’s increasing focus on earthquakes aims to capitalize on the world media attention that is focused on February’s tragic events in Turkey and Syria. Emphasizing that the earthquake was God’s punishment for violating Tawhid and living without Sharia law in Turkey and Syria, IS-Central’s al-Naba and its Khurasan province’s Al-Azaim media promoted the idea that only ISIS can unite the Islamic Ummah under its Caliphate and protect the believers from the wrath of Almighty. Clearly, ISIS is trying to take advantage of the earthquake to arouse religious sentiment and mobilize support among Muslims in the Middle East, where it has weakened significantly since the targeted killing of its top leaders last year.
Al-Qaeda’s Moderate Assessment
Following the ISIS statements, al-Qaeda and its several branches also expressed their reaction to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Not surprisingly, the two Sunni militant groups vying not only for the leadership of the global jihadi movement but also for its soul could not miss an opportunity to capitalize on this terrible natural disaster. From February 8-20, al-Qaeda Central (AC), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and al-Qaeda-affiliated armed insurgent groups in Syria, Huras al-Din and Ansar al-Islam, issued statements expressing their condolences to the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria.
To illustrate its sympathy, AQAP called for the provision of assistance to the victims in any possible way, such as providing material assistance, helping to remove the ruins, sending the wounded to the hospitals, caring for orphans and widows, and providing shelter for the homeless. Al-Qaeda Central also called on the entire Ummah and its supporters to force the rulers and monarchs of the Gulf states to aid oppressed Muslims suffering from natural disasters in Turkey and Syria, rather than wage war against Islam, Islamic scholars and fellow believers. Judging by its statements, al-Qaeda apparently seeks to position itself as a more moderate and pragmatic movement than ISIS. This demonstrates al-Qaeda’s grand strategy to reinforce its relationships with local populations and focus more on local issues and emergencies by planting ever deeper roots into local ground.
Turkey Is a Bone of Contention Between Jihadi Scholars
The role and place of Turkey and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the modern Islamic Ummah has often been the subject of debate between leading Salafi scholars and Jihadi ideologues influencing the ideological development of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Turkey’s three waves of military operations in northern Syria in 2016-2020 and its strong support for Sunni Mujahideen groups such as Sultan Murad Division, al-Hamzat Division and Ahrar al-Sharqiya within the Syrian National Army (SNA) have further escalated the intra-Jihadi debate.
Following the “rational cooperation” between Ankara and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), well-known Jihadi scholar Abu Qatada al-Filastini celebrated Erdogan and issued a fatwa legitimizing certain forms of interaction with the Turks.
At one time, some moderate Jihadi scholars warmly welcomed Erdogan’s pan-Islamic views, his strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and his consistent defense of Palestinian Muslims in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Well-known Jihadi ideologues Saudi Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi and Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, who has worked with various jihadi groups in Syria, highly praised Erdogan as “a diligent Muslim, ardent in God’s religion, who is taking positive steps to reform Turkey away from its secular orientation and support the oppressed Muslims in the world.” Notably, Muhaysini is a U.S.-designated terrorist with multiple ties to al Qaeda.
But unlike the pro-al-Qaeda wing of the Jihadi scholars, the Islamic State’s Sharia figures are always sharply critical of Erdogan-led Turkey. In the eyes of ISIS, Turkey is a Taghut state, and its leader, Recep Erdogan, is considered an apostate. Over the past seven years, the Islamic State propaganda machine has repeatedly targeted Erdogan personally, threatening him with death, and issuing Takfir (excommunication).
In conclusion, it should be noted that today Turkey is at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism. Therefore, it is not surprising that ISIS and al-Qaeda are trying to exploit the powerful earthquake in Turkey to mobilize their support within the country. The saddest thing is that in these tragic days on a national scale, Turkey is threatened from two sides: predicted natural disasters and possible attacks by global terrorist organizations on the eve of the fateful presidential elections.