Al-Qaeda’s Shari’a Crisis

Strategists propose competing methods for countering radicalization and recruitment to Al-Qaeda-based (AQ) and inspired terrorism. In this article I illustrate the value of a ‘jihad-realist’ method. What is meant by jihad realism? That the military jihad is neither an incidental, accidental, or erroneous religious encumbrance, nor a myth perpetrated by Islamophobia or Orientialism. That in classical orthodox sunni religious and Islamic legal (shari’a) terms—despite general neglect in mainstream popular piety–the military jihad is in fact an undeniable and inarguable religious duty that is a binding religious prescription until the Day of Judgment.

Yet, or so I argue, it is precisely on these very grounds of the classical sharia of lawful jihad that AQ stands accused of committing major sins and perpetrating forbidden acts. How is this so? AQ claims to faithfully uphold the classical shari’a of lawful jihad and strictly adhere to al salaf al salih (the pure, righteous path followed by the earliest companions of and successors to Prophet Muhammad). Moreover, AQ claims to strictly abide by an established body of law (fiqh) transmitted by classical religious scholar-jurists prescribing and regulating jihad fi sabil Allah (jihad in the path of Allah). The most damaging case against AQ arises then, when these shari’a sources are marshaled to persuasively demonstrate that forbidden (haram) acts have been conducted. Should AQ’s terroristic modus operandi evidence discontinuity, innovation, and haram acts—though marketed in AQ apologetics as the ‘salafi-jihadi’ path— its violation of the classical jihad would be proven, and its legitimacy impaled. In essence, by using orthodox precedents to justify its acts, AQ has itself laid a shari’a noose around its neck.

It is not just the credibility of this message but the credibility of the messenger, however, that is key to delegitimizing AQ terror in the minds and hearts of potential recruits. Regime-associated, orthodox salafi, mainstream, and liberal scholars have authored numerous works condemning AQ’s violations of the shari’a. Most damaging to AQ’s legitimacy, however, are those rare critiques produced by militant Islamists whose active participation in jihad is undeniable; who have enormous stature within ‘jihadist’ circles as genuine shari’a scholars; yet also authoritatively repudiate and condemn AQ’s modus operandi. Enter Sayyid Imam, (Dr. Sayyid Imam Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al-Sharif; b. 1950) –presently serving a life sentence in Al-Turrah Prison in Cairo, Egypt, based on his alleged association with terrorist activities. An unimpeachable insider whose scholarly acumen and bona fides are virtually unassailable, research on ideological influence confirms Sayyid Imam’s status as one of the most influential living AQ-linked authors.

In 2007-2008, Sayyid Imam authored two key ‘revisionist’ works whose potential utility for delegitimizing AQ’s alleged shari’a case justifying mass casualty terrorism has been largely neglected by counterterrorist messaging. Directed against AQ’s present emir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, this comprehensive, shari’a-based case argues that AQ has innovated a ‘killing in masse’ doctrine, is guilty of many violations of Islamic law and principle, and has severely damaged the Islamist movement and Islamic cause. It is my belief that his shari’a-based case against AQ can and should be leveraged to religiously delegitimize AQ’s unlawful murderous jihadism and the bulk of my article offers a faithful exposition of his case.

What strategic implications follow for scholars and policy makers? I recommend in the article’s conclusion that far greater emphasis be placed in counterterrorist messaging strategy on the critical role the shari’a may play: especially its unique utility for delegitimizing AQ among that sliver of recruits for whom shari’a compliance is essential. These ‘high value recruits’ are essential if AQ is to forestall implosion, replenish its leadership, defend its legitimacy and religious bona fides in relation to other Islamist competitors, and sustain whatever connection may still exist between itself and a scholarly, shari’a-based salafist universe. In strategic terms, the orthodox shari’a of lawful military jihad may be viewed as an Islamist variant of the legal instrument compatible with key aspects of international humanitarian law, and supplies messaging contents to be carefully wielded by personnel associated with diplomatic and informational activities.

Is this a practicable strategy? Is it acceptable? Is it too risky relative to perceived benefits? Strategic validity (see, Yarger 2006) requires that strategy accomplish its desired strategic effect (suitability), be backed by sufficient resources (sustainablility), and be deemed legitimate among relevant publics (acceptability). Supposing suitability and sustainability exist, a key question remains: Would leveraging the writings of a militant Islamist luminary whose ultimate aims and values diverge considerably from mainstream western views of liberty, equality, and the political community, be deemed illegitimate and unpalatable enough by sufficiently vocal or powerful constituencies as to jeopardize its prospects? Second, the question of risk. How might leveraging jihad-realism alter or challenge the existing equilibrium among key actors in the present religious, sociopolitical, and sociocultural environment? What other actions or reactions are likely to result, or intended and unintended consequences arise, of amplifying jihad-realist critiques of AQ?

These questions of validity and risk are genuine. Yet it is not a western liberal but a learned, committed militant Islamist (Sayyid Imam) who states: “Jihad is a duty, but if it shirks Shari’a guidelines it becomes unethical warfare.”; “Those who fear Allah do not scale walls like thieves to reach their objectives [9/11], betraying their Emir [Taliban emir Mullah Omar], taking their enemy in cold blood [Americans], and bringing calamities to the Muslims.”; “In Islam, there is no such thing as ‘the end justifies the means,’ even if the end is noble and legitimate to begin with. On the contrary, A Muslim worships Allah through the means used just as he worships Him through the ends sought.” ; “The 9/11 attacks were wrong and contradicted the Islamic Shari’a”. Prudence demands at least that careful consideration be given to the potential utility of leveraging a jihad-realist approach to countering radicalization and recruitment to AQ terror.

For a fuller discussion see: Paul Kamolnick, “Al-Qaeda’s Shari’a Crisis: Sayyid Imam and the Jurisprudence of Lawful Military Jihad.” (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, May 2013, 36(5): 394-418.

This entry was posted in Analysis and tagged , , . : . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Navigate to regional portals

    North America Middle East South Asia Europe
  • Latest analysis from our experts

    Paul Kamolnick
    Paul Kamolnick · United States
  • Get our Extremism Tracker Email

    * indicates required