NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not represent at all his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East.
Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to Global Jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net. Pieces should be no longer than 2,000 words please.
Past Guest Posts:
Behnam Said, “A Brief Look at the History and Power of Anasheed in Jihadist Culture,” May 31, 2012.
Jonah Ondieki and Jake Zenn, “Gaidi Mtaani,” April 24, 2012.
Joshua Foust, “Jihadi Ideology Is Not As Important As We Think,” January 25, 2011.
Charles Cameron, “Hitting the Blind-Spot- A Review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “Apocalypse in Islam,” January 24, 2011.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Why Jihadi Ideology Matters,” January 21, 2011.
Joshua Foust, “Some Inchoate Thoughts on Ideology,” January 19, 2011.
Marissa Allison, “Militants Seize Mecca: Juhaymān al ‘Utaybī and the Siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca,” June 9, 2010.
By Kévin Jackson
Defining al Qa’ida’s membership has always represented a divise issue among analysts. I’ll approach this topic by focusing on a fundamental practice commonly used by jihadi organizations, namely vowing an oath of allegiance or bay’a.
In a nutshell, the bay’a procedure constitutes the cornerstone defining one’s membership. A longstanding ritual featuring in the early Islamic tradition, giving bay’a (individually or collectively) consists in recognizing the legitimacy of a group/state leader authority. The covenant between the amir (leader) and the one who gives the bay’a lies in listening and obeying, in hard and easy times, as long as the amirship follows the right path. Rendering allegiance to the amir of al Qa’ida, for example, would thus imply not to dispute his and/or al Qa’ida’s commanders’ directives and to fully support the organization’s agenda.
The Bay’a has been institutionalized within the jihadi milieu for the doctrinal foundations it acts upon stress the mandatory aspect of such a practice. Given that joining a jama’ah (group) of mujahidin is seen as an obligation (wajib) upon every Muslim and cannot be done except with a pledge of allegiance, the bay’a is thus considered as such too. From an organizational perspective, these doctrinal regulations secure the loyalty and cohesion within the ranks, while preventing core attrition by tightly binding new recruits through a formal covenant.
It is worthwhile underlining the contractual aspect of this longstanding ritual drawing lines of demarcation between jihadi organizations. If the one giving the oath promises to listen and obey whatever the hardships, the one receiving it is also entitled to fulfill his obligations as the amir. This counterpart from the leader amounts to a continuous commitment to respect the covenant provisos and serve the interests of Islam and Muslims through the policy he implements. The amirship also requires certain characteristics, which, for al Qa’ida, revolve around knowledge, experience, ethical qualities, etc.
On the other hand, a bay’a has to be accepted before one can be considered as a sworn member/organization. This decision falls upon the amir‘s goodwill and depends on the extent to which would-be comers meet the required criteria prescribed by the organization leadership. As a result, groups rendering their allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri cannot be labeled al Qa’ida in the absence of an official recognition from the Pakistan-based leadership. This explains why assertions dubbing some al Qa’ida’s affiliates/franchises on the only basis that an oath has been sworn should be met with skepticism at the very least.
For example, while Harakat al Shabab al Mujahidin had pledged their loyalty to Usama bin Ladin in September 2009, the Somali group couldn’t be portrayed as being part of al Qa’ida without any further confirmation by the mothership in the Pakistan’s tribal areas. This changed only after February 2012, following a joint statement of Ayman al Zawahiri (amir of al Qa’ida) and Mukhtar Abu’l Zubayr (amir of al Shabab), where the Egyptian officially accepted al Shabab under al Qa’ida’s direction. This is the type of acknoweldgement which should be looked at to draw accurate distinctions between jihadi factions.
A cherished autonomy
Well-understood by jihadis, the binding burden of the oath can be sensed through the lens of militants’ own trajectory. The life story of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM) is a case in point. Even after having moved to Kandahar to work directly with al Qa’ida’s leadership in the late 1990’s, the 9/11 mastermind was still reluctant to formally join. Translation: while he had decided to play on al Qa’ida’s team via close work relationships, he was still refusing to swear allegiance to bin Ladin so as to maintain his operational room for manoeuvre. KSM became a core member only after 9/11 attacks were carried out, following pressures from his peers arguing that the persistent refusal of someone with his pedigree would establish a worrisome precedent for others.
Given how the pledge of allegiance undermines one’s autonomy, it should not come as a surprise that others have shared KSM’ sentiments by postponing the bay’a as long as they could or simply rejected it.
Before bin Ladin formally declared Mulla Muhammad Umar as his direct leader, the Saudi and his entourage made their best to avoid this option to ensure a complete freedom to their global jihad. Notwithstanding external pressures and an increased tense context, the late amir of al Qa’ida still kept using pretexts to shelve a proposal put forward by Abu’l Walid al Misri, a respected senior Egyptian mujahid, designed to improve his relationship with the Afghan Taliban leader. Bin Ladin eventually resigned himself to perform the bay’a in late November 1998 but (and this is a big one) only through Abu’l Walid acting as his proxy. The indirect oath would enable bin Ladin to play it both ways according to the circumstances and as a result, despite being virtually tied by his pledge, still retain his independence. And indeed, the following years, bin Ladin continued to by-pass Mulla Umar’s instructions, namely stopping his media campaign and external operations against the US.
Also instructive is Abu Jandal’ story, which outlines another way of keeping one’s room for manoeuvre. The Yemeni, along with some of the group of combatants he came with, vowed allegiance to bin Ladin after a three-day meeting with the al Qa’ida’s leader in Jalalabad in 1997. Except that it was not an integral but a conditional one. Hence, while Abu Jandal had accepted bin Ladin as his leader in Afghanistan, the deal was that he will not take his orders from the Saudi should he be in another battlefield. Later in 1998, the then bin Ladin’s bodyguard decided that the time has come and eventually pledged an unconditional oath, thereby making him a core member of al Qa’ida.
Muhammad al Owhali’s interrogation provides a further insightful glimpse into the meaning of the bay’a in terms of command and control, as well as the wariness it provokes among some. The 1998 East Africa bombing operative told his FBI interrogators that his refusal to formally join al Qa’ida, despite having been urged to do so, was linked to his fear that, once a core member, he might end up working in non-military activities while having a strong desire in armed jihad. His non-membership would thus enable him to accept or refuse a mission assigned to him by al Qa’ida’s leaders/ commanders according to his own will. As put it in his interrogation: « Once you take the bayat you no longer have a choice in what your missions would be. »
Theses various episodes clearly outline the concrete implications of pledging an oath of allegiance and also explain jihadis’ lack of promptness in giving it. Not everyone is so inclined to reduce his freewill to a vestige…
A resilient structural demarcation
While cooperating at various levels on the ground, al Qa’ida and other Pakistan-based militant groups cannot be lumped altogether. Demarcations between these various organizations may be blurred when their public statements stress on unity within their community or when their propaganda material feature joint actions on the ground. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t mean there is no distinction to draw.
There is acutally a red line not to cross lying in command and control issues. In this regard, al Qa’ida gets quite cranky when others try to lure its core member into their fold. Obviously, these internal issues will not come out publicly. Regarding the al Qa’ida/Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) nexus, there is no dispute about the reality of their close links in the Waziristan’s mountains. In the meantime, that doesn’t translate into common membership and organizational command.
In a letter addressed to the amir of the TTP Hakimullah Mahsud in early December 2010, high-ranking al Qa’ida’s figures Abu Yahya al Libi and Atiyyatullah strongly warn the Pakistani leader to stay away from Badr Mansur, a Pakistani al Qa’ida’s commander, arguing that Mansur is « one of the soldiers of the Qa’idat al-Jihad Organization who swore allegiance to Shaykh Usamah ». The two Libyans actually urge Hakimullah not to try this with any of al Qa’ida’s member, stating that if that might happen, it would be with the specific blessing of his leadership. In a nutshell: do not by-pass us when trying to tap one fellow of our ranks. One and the same you said?
As an aside, reading this warning was kind of ironic to me. In French we say « L’hôpital qui se fout de la charité » (translation: « The pot calling the kettle black »). The reason behind my brief digression here is to remind that this is the exact same kind of approach espoused by al Qa’ida.
Throughout its history, the organization has been keen to use and contract out external figures and groups which could serve its interests. As well-put it by former FBI agent Ali Soufan in his book The Back Banners: « At the same time, bin Laden still tried to use non–al-Qaeda groups to further his aims. (…) While bin Laden understood why other groups, wary of al-Qaeda poaching their members, distanced themselves from him, he still wanted to have a connection with them. » Leah Farrall, a former Counter Terrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police, labels this proclivity to push relentlessly others to join under its umbrella, a « predatory approach ».
For instance, Ahmad al Almani, the suicide-bomber of the 1998 Dar-es-Salaam bombing, didn’t come from al Qa’ida’s core ranks but from al Gama’a al Islamiyyah’s, an Egyptian armed group. Bin Ladin’s aides then tapped the Egyptian explosives specialist for its first major external operation against US interests, in spite of al Gama’a’s stance on how al Almani should be used for the forthcoming attack.
Back to the demarcation issue, I would add that the same as in Pakistan’s tribal areas does apply to whatever areas core operatives are involved in. For example, most of the al Qa’ida’s team operating in and around Somalia colluded with al Shabab movement while retaining their organizational independence. In his book Al Harb ala al Islam (War against Islam), Fadil Harun, a top figure of the African team, puts a strong emphasis on his loyalty to al Qa’ida’s core direction, meaning that cooperation with Somali fighters didn’t equal obeying its amirship. The embedding with local insurgents in a distant location would thus not prevent core members to keep seeking guidance and orders from the leadership. This is the reason why even after having being charged with the security matters for al Shabab, Harun made very clear that his new responsibilities should not be taken as a new membership.
Leaving al Qa’ida
Given how binding the bay’a is, leaving the group as a sworn member proves to be more difficult than for a random trainee. Many volunteers schooled at al Qa’ida’s camps in Afghanistan left and did not return after because they were simply not bound to follow the organisation’s orders. This is a whole different story for those who were trained and performed a vow of allegiance. Having done so, leaving would only be allowed if a legitimate reason is given. If not, they would then be considered as sinners, which is a pretty good way of reinforcing stability within the ranks.
Mustafa Abu’l Yazid evoked this point in his 2009 al Jazira interview, in which the late al Qa’ida’s leader for Afghanistan stated that his organization views itself as « a group from the groups of jihad. We are not caliphate group which claim that those who leave us leave fold of islam. » Given the absence of takfir (excommunication) on those wanting to leave, which doesn’t imply the absence of pressures to stay, I’m highly suspicious of allegations about al Qa’ida killing would-be quitters.
Abu Jandal’s account could be once again used as an illustration of al Qa’ida’s attitude towards core attrition. The Yemeni bodyguard returned to Yemen in 2000 after having faced a myriad of issues and disillusions related to his life with al Qa’ida in Afghanistan. Obviously, the organization leadership did not welcome the departure of one of their own and tried to prevent it, notably through Abu Muhammad al Misri who told him: « If you think by leaving Afghanistan they [the Americans] will leave you alone, you are wrong. This is a war. Either we will win or die. There is no place for turning back. » (The Black Banners)
Al Qa’ida dissuasions did not stopped Abu Jandal, who left because of personal considerations (family matters, etc) but also because of some decisions made by his leaders. Among other things, he bemoaned bin Ladin’s bay’a to Mulla Umar which he (inaccurately) viewed as the end of al Qa’ida’s original goals and grew tired of disputes involving the Egyptian entourage of bin Ladin. Abu Jandal eventually felt disappointed by the turn of events with his superiors and decided to get away from al Qa’ida’s path by returning to his home land.
By the way, if one wants a real harsh way of dealing with quitters, Abu’l Walid al Misri’s account on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan provides a good one. In his book Salib fi sama’ Qandahar (Cross over the sky of Kandahar), the Egyptian notices that under Tahir Yuldashev’s (Muhammad Tahir Faruq) leadership, Central Asia volunteers were specifically told that once the oath has been made, marking the formal rallying to the group, leaving was not an option and would translate into a death sentence. « Everyone should take a step back before making his decision », Abu’l Walid writes, evoking how this strict rule has been met with harsh criticism from Arab groups, especially al Qa’ida, which used quite nasty words to depict it. This further supports my skepticism about stories dealing with al Qa’ida allegedly killing its members on the brink of quitting.
It goes without saying that the great variety of issues surrounding the bay’a as conceptualized in al Qa’ida/jihadi literature cannot be examined extensively through a single blogpost. My point here was simply to highlight how this procedure represents the tool used by al Qa’ida (and others) to gain formal control over recruits/groups and hence defines the essence of al Qa’ida’s (and others) membership.
Kévin Jackson is a student at Sciences Po in France. His main research interests deal with global jihadism and al-Qa’ida.