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Bin Laden’s commitment to the covenant

Among the more interesting revelations from the documents recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was bin Laden’s angry reaction to Faysal Shahzad’s effort to detonate a bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010, based on the notion that Shahzad had violated the oath of allegiance he swore to the United ...


Among the more interesting revelations from the documents recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was bin Laden’s angry reaction to Faysal Shahzad’s effort to detonate a bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010, based on the notion that Shahzad had violated the oath of allegiance he swore to the United States in a naturalization ceremony.  The critique was included in an October 2010 letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyatullah ‘abd al-Rahman, a veteran Libyan fighter who would go on to become al-Qaeda’s second-in-command after bin Laden’s death.  The dispatch is part of a larger selection of documents that the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released on May 3, 2012.

In the letter, Bin Laden criticizes both Shahzad and Hakimullah Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader who offered him training and advice:

Perhaps you monitored the trial of brother Faysal Shahzad. In it he was asked about the oath that he took when he got American citizenship. And he responded by saying that he lied. You should know that it is not permissible in Islam to betray trust and break a covenant. Perhaps the brother was not aware of this. Please ask the brothers in Taliban Pakistan to explain this point to their members. In one of the pictures, brother Faysal Shahzad was with commander Mahsud; please find out if Mahsud knows that getting the American citizenship requires talking an oath to not harm America. This is a very important matter because we do not want al-Mujahidn[sic] to be accused of breaking a covenant.

The concern reappeared in another letter, likely from bin Laden or ‘Atiyatullah to Nassir al-Wuhayshi, emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The author counseled the emir:

If the government does not agree on a truce, concentrate on the Yemeni emigrants who come back to visit Yemen and have American visas or citizenship and would be able to conduct operations inside America as long as they have not given their promises not to harm America.

Bin Laden’s (and ‘Atiyatullah’s) sensitivity towards this issue reflects a sustained debate in the jihadist universe.  Although the idea of covenants have a long pedigree in Islamic theology, stretching back to the Prophet Muhammad’s arrangements with the various non-Muslim tribes throughout the region, the issue gained relevance for jihadists only recently.  In 1998 Bin Laden formally articulated his strategy to abandon the jihad against "near enemy" Arab regimes and redirect the war towards the west.  But making the West (as opposed to the Islamic world) the battleground posed a series of theological challenges, including identifying the rules that governed the conduct of jihadists already living in or travelling to the West.

Probably not coincidentally, around this time a community of predominantly London-based sheikhs and commentators began discussing the obligations of jihadis residing in the West.  Abu Baseer al-Tartusi, an exiled Syrian scholar known for his radical, if often dissenting views on the conduct of jihad, lectured publicly about the importance of maintaining what he saw as a "covenant of security": Muslims in the West were not allowed to attack the countries in which they lived or had taken refuge in.  Al-Tartusi also spent a portion of his 1999 treatise al-Istihlal on the issue, and his followers later translated this section and issued it as a pamphlet (these works are available on Tartusi’s website).  Tartusi explained that he was motivated to comment on the covenant because:

[A] great number of Muslims -both those living in the West as ‘citizens’ and others- who enter the lands of non-Muslims in a covenant, do not really know what rights Sharia Law gives them and what responsibilities it assigns to them… And what makes this matter worse is that those wrongdoers’ ignorance about the teachings, rulings and "purposes and intentions" of Islam makes them commit such acts in the name of Islam and under the impression of holding fast to Islam, while Islam has nothing to do with such irresponsible acts! 

While some prominent jihadis criticized Abu Baseer’s view, other London-based jihadist figures expressed their adherence to the idea of the covenant.  In fact, after the 7/7 bombings in Britain (carried out by British Muslims) Tartusi issued a strongly-worded refutation of the attacks, arguing that tactics and strategy must always be grounded in theology, not vice versa.  Tartusi’s ruling and subsequent controversy that erupted in militant circles was one example of the sensitivity around the issue.  The recent decision of the British government to re-launch their anti-radicalization "Prevent" strategy has revitalized the discussion among British extremists. 

The implications of bin Laden’s far enemy strategy also ignited criticism from Middle Eastern-based jihadist figures.  Most prominently, in 2007 Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, a former leader of the Egyptian group al-Jihad, leveled a series of theological, strategic, and personal attacks on Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda.  Al-Sharif opened with an interview for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat in which he castigated al-Qaeda for violating this covenant.  In the most colorful portion, Sayyid Imam warned that "the followers of Bin Ladin entered the United States with his knowledge, on his orders, double-crossed its population, and killed and destroyed. The Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, said: "On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner at his anus proportionate to his treachery." Shortly thereafter, Imam released a book which expanded on many of these criticisms. As he wrote in Guiding Jihad Work in Egypt and the World:  "Whoever receives permission to enter the unbelievers’ countries, even if they do so with a forged visa, they must respect this as a religiously-approved security contract, and any Muslim must honor it…(pg. 20)"

For their part, al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri tried to brush off the criticism. Zawahiri countered with a book of his own a short while later, The Exoneration, in which he defended the decision to reject the covenant.  As he argued:

If we assume for argument’s sake that a visa from America or from any other crusader country allied with America in its more than 50-year-long aggression against Muslims is an aman (grant of safe passage), this aman is void for two reasons. First, no aman protects the life of someone who wages war against God and His prophet, harms Muslims, and insults their prophet and religion. Second, America and its allies violate the aman every day. (pg. 154)

At the time there was little evidence that the exchange caused a reassessment.  In the following years, public statements from al-Qaeda-affiliated figures showed little interest in revisiting the issue.  For instance, in late 2010 Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric, wrote in the fourth issue of Inspire, AQAP’s magazine, that "Muslims are not bound by the covenants of citizenship and visa that exist between them and nations of dar al-harb." (pg. 56).   It is worth noting that in another Abbottabad document, bin Laden was skeptical of al-Awlaki, politely but firmly rejecting al-Wuhayshi’s suggestion that al-Awlaki be designated the leader of AQAP.

A complete judgment will have to await additional information, including the release of more than 17 carefully selected documents.  But these two passages point to a tension between those who, like bin Laden and ‘Attiyatullah ‘abd al-Rahman, remained concerned over the theological foundations of al-Qaeda’s war against the west, and those who apparently subsumed the theological questions to the urgency of carrying out high-profile attacks.  These same types of tensions and conflicts have historically riven the jihadist movement, and al-Qaeda itself.  Now, with bin Laden, ‘Attiyatullah, and al-Awlaki dead, it remains to be seen if Ayman al-Zawahiri will overcome or exacerbate these divisions. 

Steven Brooke is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin.

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