Al-Qaeda’s attack against the United States on 9/11 affirmed political scientist Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against the US accelerated the rise of radical and militant Islam worldwide. Islamic jurists historically interpreted jihad as the doctrine of just war where violence was used as a last resort against aggressors of Islam. However throughout history, the legal doctrine of jihad has evolved to address the social context of the time that also serves to determine the justification, scope, and methods of war. Understanding al-Qaeda’s radical interpretation of jihad is important to make sense of its extreme and excessive use of violence.
Throughout Islamic history, reinterpreting the grounds of jihad for Muslims has been contextual, meaning different social and political affairs shapes the magnitude of jihad. Early jihadist thought, Qutbism and al-Qaeda all rose from different contexts, and consequently have varying justifications for engaging in jihad. In classical Islam, the legal doctrine of jihad revolved around the Muslim Conquests in the 10th century. Jihad took the shape of an offensive war against non-Muslims in order to expand Islamic territory. Jurists during this period emphasized that killing the enemy should come as a last resort. Unbelievers should be asked to either convert to Islam or pay poll-taxes, which meant accepting Islamic sovereignty (Peters 40). The aim of warfare during the Muslim Conquests was to spread Islamic territory. Justification for war in more modern context reflected in Qutbism and al-Qaeda however has been reactionary to what radical jihadists would consider western hegemony. For Sayyid Qutb, jihad was a form of liberation from jahililiya, or a state of ignorance caused by the spread of western influence in Egypt. British colonialism and encroaching American culture created a social context mired in immorality in Egypt that threatened Islam. Jihad against the state was necessary in order to remove authority and install an Islamic government that would guide Muslims back on the straight path to God.
While Qutb rejects jihad as a “defensive” movement, al-Qaeda bases its justification for jihad on the premise that it is defensive because it is responding to American oppression of Muslims. There is a general consensus among jurists that defensive war is justified whenever “hostile forces threaten the human rights of Muslims”. In a letter written by Osama bin Laden directed to the American people, he cites a Qur’anic verse that states “[p]ermission to fight is given to those who are attacked, for they have been wronged and surely Allah is able to give them victory” (22:39). In his reasons for attacking the US, bin Laden writes that Washington’s complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestine, its military bases in Islam’s holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and support for attacks on Muslim populations shows that the US is at war with the Muslim world. Even though al-Qaeda and most other contemporary radical Islamist movements seek to expand Shar’iah law, the main purpose of its jihad is to end American presence in Muslim territory, and ultimately alter its hegemonic foreign policy. Bin Laden portrays al-Qaeda’s jihad against the US as defensive, although earlier jihadist movements, such as the Muslim Conquests and Qutbism are offensive. While Al-Qaeda’s justification for jihad may resonate among many, its broad definition of who constitutes as an enemy does not.
Osama bin Laden’s purview of the enemy illustrates the extent of radicalism in al-Qaeda’s interpretation of jihad. In early jihadist thought, jurists emphasized the importance in protecting life. The majority agreed that there is a distinction between combatants and noncombatants in jihad. According to these jurists, women, children, and those not engaged in fighting should not be killed. The Qur’an confirms this sentiment, and states that “killing believers is a sin, as is killing a peaceful nonbeliever” (4:94). Qutb’s justification of violence in jihad represents a slight radical shift compared to early jihadist thought by defining the entire state as the enemy. For Qutb, the liberation of society from western influence that is corrosive to Islam will come once the state is reformed and adopts Islamic law. Violence against the state is justifiable because the existing authority needed to be eliminated in order to create a moral, Qur’an-centered Muslim society.
Al-Qaeda however believes that the definition of the enemy under jihad includes not only the state, but the nation as well. Unlike conventional jihadist thought, there are virtually no rules of war for al-Qaeda because everyone is considered the enemy. In his letter addressed to the American people, Osama bin Laden argues that no Americans are innocent of the injustices committed by Washington on the Muslim people. By voting for public officials, and paying taxes to the government, American civilians are complicit in the actions of their government. Al-Qaeda’s war is not solely directed toward western targets in Muslim lands, or toward the American government. Al-Qaeda’s mission is to “kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military”. Al-Qaeda’s definition of the enemy under their interpretation of jihad is far more radical than not only early jihadist thought, but also Qutbism. Although it is the only major jihadist movement to define its struggle as defensive, it ironically advocates for the most violence. The scope of who constitutes as al-Qaeda’s enemy illustrates the magnitude of its radicalization of jihad. However what is even more alarming is not only al-Qaeda’s ideology, but its vast appeal among many Muslims.
Al-Qaeda’s ability to compel Muslims worldwide to engage in jihad against the West is rooted in its ability to portray itself as the defenders of Islam against an oppressive hegemony. Unlike the Muslim Conquests and Qutbism that call for collective action against the enemy, al-Qaeda claims that jihad is an individual obligation for all able Muslims to help the oppressed against the oppressors. This allows al-Qaeda to expand its terror network to Muslims throughout the world. Anyone can fulfill their duty as a Muslim by engaging in jihad in their own home territory, whether it is the US, Bulgaria, Nigeria, and other countries with instances of home-grown terrorism. It is this emphasis on jihad as an individual duty that posits al-Qaeda as the most dangerous jihadist group in history. Although followers of Qutb may engage in martyrdom—the highest demonstration of faith—through suicide bombing against government targets in Egypt, their impact is limited in scope. The only possible maximum outcome these Qutbism adherents may accomplish is razing the current tyrannical government and replacing it with an Islamic one. Al-Qaeda on the other hand is a global terror network that appeals to the masses by framing jihad as a duty to protect the oppressed. Its conviction is strong, which explains its immense influence.
Al-Qaeda’s radicalization of jihad by globalizing its scope of war posits it as one of the most violent radical Islamist movements in history. Muslim leaders typically only waged jihad as a last resort against its aggressors. Even if jihad was used offensively by early jihadists and modern radical Islamists in Egypt today there were distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. Al-Qaeda has no such distinctions. It defines its enemy as all Americans and their allies, which includes pro-West Muslims. Al-Qaeda’s conviction among those disgruntled by US foreign policy and western influence in the Muslim world is significant. However, many Islamic scholars would argue its interpretation of jihad is not justified. The Qur’an clearly prohibits the killing of peaceful unbelievers. Many may actually agree with the reasons why al-Qaeda issued a decree against the US. Washington does have a history of either oppressing or being complicit in the oppression of Muslim populations worldwide. Waging a violent war against Americans however has only exacerbated—and for some—justified oppression toward Muslims. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda may be the largest, and most violent jihadist movement in the world and Islamic history, but it is the least likely to achieve its desired outcome.