‘Just Terror’: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Boundaries of Legitimate Warfare

by Donald Holbrook[1]


The Islamic State organisation (IS) has emerged as the most potent Islamist extremist militant force in recent memory, surpassing the Al-Qaeda organisation both in material strength and prominence. With his authority weakened, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda, has resorted to issuing online statements seeking to undermine IS and regain the initiative among the cheerleaders of jihad. The thrust of his rhetorical assault rests on the accusation that IS has breached the laws of legitimate combat. IS, in turn, has counterattacked with similarly-flavoured allegations of legal impropriety that present Zawahiri as a weak leader who has failed to recognise and implement religious law. This paper explores the way in which legalistic references in public communications are used by these terrorist actors in their efforts to sway audiences in their favour. The purpose is to highlight how debates that are essentially socio-legal at the core form part of these militants’ broader public relations efforts whereby they seek to garner support from perceived constituents, securing their recognition of the organisation’s legitimacy.

I. Introduction

Al-Qaeda and the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) organisation—the world’s most prominent transnational terrorist entities—have emerged as bitter rivals vying for support for their respective forms of Islamist militancy. Each group has articulated a specific agenda seeking to attract and mobilise supporters in pursuit of their objectives. The Islamic State organisation controls territory where it has declared a ‘caliphate’ and implemented its interpretation of God’s law –, sharia, and now focuses both on defending and expanding its ‘state’ in pursuit of a ruthlessly sectarian policy of Sunni Islamist domination. Its claim to authority rests on its creation of an apparent religious state and its methods are legitimised with reference to scripture and communicated—via the internet—as broadly as possible to potential supporters. Al-Qaeda’s claim to authority, in turn, rests on the allegiance it pledged to the erstwhile Islamic government in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Taliban and the network of militant organisations that operated under Al-Qaeda’s banner, including IS’s predecessor in Iraq. These sub-organisations made pledges of loyalty to Al-Qaeda’s leadership which the latter claims are still valid. Like IS, Al-Qaeda’s methods are also legitimised with reference to scripture and communicated online, but these offer alternative interpretations to those of IS regarding the appropriate ways in which to organise, direct and target militancy.

Whilst both IS and Al-Qaeda are transnational Islamist terrorist entities, therefore, they offer radically different perspectives on how best to orchestrate legitimate political protest and rebellion based on alternative visions of authority and alternative ways in which to pursue stated objectives through legally accepted and ‘just’ forms of violence. Whilst both organisations are seen, globally, as illegitimate and proscribed terrorist actors, they, in turn, present their own distinct legal cases seeking to present alternative legal narratives that appeal to perceived constituents. They are deeply preoccupied with notions of legality and the ways these notions can be communicated to a perceived social base. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to present the IS – Al-Qaeda rift – which has emerged as one of the most prominent debates within international security studies and a major preoccupation of both regional and global powers—as a topic that is eminently relevant to socio-legal discussions and the socio-legal discipline more broadly.

I divide my discussion according to four main perspectives. First, I trace, very briefly, the origins of the split between the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda to set the scene for the subsequent rivalry between the two organisations. In the second part I look at the origins of the differing perspectives on violence that developed between the two groups. Third, I explore the way in which legalistic rhetoric forms part of terrorist public discourse before, in the fourth section, dissecting the substance of the legalistic war of words between Al-Qaeda and IS, which I divide into arguments relating to legitimate authority on the one hand and legitimate combat on the other. I conclude by suggesting that this IS – Al-Qaeda case study presents ways in which interdisciplinary discussions involving socio-legal studies alongside perspectives from international relations and security studies can enrich our understanding of the way in which ‘alternative’ political actors like terrorist organisations perceive and employ divergent interpretations of legalistic notions in order to communicate with their perceived social base.

II. The ‘Islamic State’ group

Out of the plethora of Islamist militant groups vying for power and influence across the Muslim world and beyond, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group has emerged as the most potent, violent and dangerous. It has surpassed the Al-Qaeda organisation as the world’s most prominent terrorist outfit with global reach and ambitions, by virtue of both its material strength and ability to appeal to sympathisers across the globe. The group’s founder, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006 CE), attached his nascent Islamist militant cohort to Al-Qaeda after the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, exploiting the turmoil in that country following the dismantling of the Ba’ath party regime of Saddam Hussain. Emulating Zarqawi’s ability to take advantage of political upheaval, the group’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi expanded the reach of his ‘Islamic State’ across Iraq’s Anbar province into neighbouring Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Contrary to the edicts of Al-Qaeda’s commander-in-chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the ‘Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant’ [ISIL], following a supposed merger of his group with forces loyal to Al-Qaeda. When al-Zawahiri condemned and annulled this alliance, al-Baghdadi—whose network and predecessors had pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s leadership—split from Al-Qaeda and declared an independent – and rival – organisation with a presence both in Iraq and Syria.

With al-Baghdadi at its helm, the Islamic State group made substantial territorial gains in both countries, seizing Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014. After this triumph, the IS announced the creation of a new ‘caliphate’ in the areas it controlled in Iraq and Syria. It has since spread its influence further through a network of alliances with other terrorist organisations in the Middle East and North Africa, incorporated as ‘provinces’ under the IS fold, and through sponsorship and inspiration of sympathisers across the globe, including in Australia, the United States, France and Belgium, who have carried out brutal acts of violence. One of the most ferocious of these ‘external’ attacks was a coordinated gun and bomb attack in Paris on 13th November 2015, the deadliest act of violence in the country since WWII, when a group of mostly French and Belgian nationals who had pledged allegiance to IS killed 130 people and injured almost 400.

III. The ‘just terror’ of the Islamic State

Shortly after the Paris attacks, IS’s slick propaganda machine published the 12th issue of its principal English language magazine called Dabiq[2], which featured a photograph of victims from one of the attacks with the caption ‘Just Terror’. In an obvious play on the concept and theory of ‘Just War’[3], the Dabiq editors introduced the issue with a celebration of the Paris attacks, the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sinai a few weeks earlier and a spate of other attacks perpetrated or purportedly inspired by IS. All this violence, they insisted, was right and just retribution not just for military campaigns targeting IS activities but also for ‘moral offences’ such as slandering the Prophet. The ‘caliphate’, the editors promised, would ‘take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later’.[4]

Yet the scope and limits of IS’s ‘Just Terror’ have been the focus of immense and bitter infighting within the Islamist extremist camp that spawned IS in the first place. In particular, whilst IS has poured its energy into fighting a physical war to spread and consolidate its authority over the areas it controls, a war of words has ensued with former allies in Al-Qaeda.

What is now a very public brawl between two international terrorist entities, however, had been brewing for a while. Al-Qaeda’s current chief, the aging Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, clashed with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ideological forefather of IS, back in 2005 over the latter’s leadership of Al-Qaeda’s erstwhile affiliate in Iraq. Zawahiri was particularly concerned about Zarqawi’s obsession with sectarian targeting and the scores of Shia civilians that had been killed by his cohort, which Zawahiri feared would alienate potential supporters in Iraq and beyond. In his letter, which was intercepted by US intelligence agencies and made public, Zawahiri raised key questions about the appropriate rules of engagement that should be adopted in order to serve both the political objectives of the movement and the legal constraints that it purported to apply. He wrote:

Indeed, questions will circulate among mujahedeen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the mujahid movement in Iraq gets stronger? And if some of the operations were necessary for self-defence, were all of the operations necessary? Or, were there some operations that weren’t called for? And is the opening of another front now in addition to the front against the Americans and the government a wise decision? Or, does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won’t this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth? And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia? And do the brothers forget that we have more than one hundred prisoners – many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries – in the custody of the Iranians? And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?[5]

In challenging Zarqawi’s strategy of sectarian slaughter, Zawahiri’s concerns evoked notions of political expediency, legitimacy and the mobilisation of support. He raised questions about the appropriate way in which to ensure political protest and rebellion is both effective—in terms of resonating with and mobilising the perceived constituency—and correct—in terms of recognising and operating within the boundaries of the established rules. With the emergence of IS as a separate force, moreover, these questions have burst onto the public stage and come to define two major and differing perspectives regarding organised Islamised political violence.

As IS grew ever more prominent, Zawahiri resorted to issuing online statements seeking to undermine the group and regain the initiative among the cheerleaders of jihad. IS, in turn, has used its internet mouthpieces to lash out against Al-Qaeda – both its regional affiliates in Syria, Yemen and beyond and the central leadership represented by Zawahiri. Whilst these groupings and their actions were far removed from traditional socio-legal debates, the perspectives of the discipline offer an appropriate framework to shed light on the way in which these two Islamist militant entities have sought to differentiate themselves from each other and appeal to perceived constituents for support and recognition. Their disputes centre on questions of what is ‘right’ – understood both as morally right but also ‘legal’ according to scripture – and how that understanding should be implemented ‘on the ground’. They concern questions as to how this understanding should be communicated to perceived constituents and how these ‘legal’ and ‘rule-related’ interpretations provide—or refute—justifications for legitimate political protest and rebellion and define its scope and boundaries.

This IS – Al-Qaeda dispute, therefore, can offer a valid case study with which to analyse the emergence, construction and use of legalistic rhetoric within the context of Islamist terrorist propaganda that is designed to appeal to a broader social base.

IV. Legalistic rhetoric and Islamist terrorist propaganda

Contemporary Islamist-inspired militants are faced with the task of justifying modern tactics of violence, such as the targeting of civilians through suicide bombings, on the basis of a religious legal tradition developed for a completely different epoch. They need to engage in what Wiktorowicz terms ‘the inherently subjective process of religious interpretation whereby immutable religious texts and principles are applied to new circumstances and issues’. Or in the words of a former senior member of an Egyptian Islamist terrorist group: ‘Shari’ah [the straight path of Islam, Islamic law] cannot be separated from reality. You must read both the reality and the relevant text before applying the right verses to the appropriate reality. Mistakes stem from the fact that the right text is sometimes applied on irrelevant reality.’[6]

But such a process is fraught with difficulty, provoking protracted and ultimately unsolvable disagreements between advocates of different interpretations for particular realities. Yet framing the use of violence through sharia references becomes essential to legitimise the movement and present the tactics that are advocated as legally just. Here, the terrorists’ weapon of choice is the public statement or media publication, usually aired online, where the contemporary ‘struggle’ or ‘battle’ is presented with references to scripture and the legacy of the Prophet Mohammed.

As Kelsay posited in his book Arguing the Just War in Islam:

Statements by al-Qa’ida leaders are best understood as attempts to legitimate or justify a course of action in the terms associated with Islamic jurisprudence, or what I shall call Shari’a reasoning. Invocations of the Shari’a speak to notions that are very basic in Islam. Ultimately, al-shari’a signifies the faith that there is a right way to live, a way that leads to happiness in this world and the next. According to Islamic tradition, not all ways of ordering life are morally equivalent. As creatures who come from, and ultimately will return to, God, human beings must live within divinely ordered limits.[7]

Defining these limits and how they set boundaries for legitimate warfare, therefore, is central to the public relations initiatives of both IS and Al-Qaeda. Both use sharia references to justify their violence but both do so in ways that reflect their particular organisational realities, outlook and objectives. The following section unfolds the divergent perspectives offered by IS and Al-Qaeda in this regard and how each side has sought to refute the arguments offered by the other in what amounts to a bitter war of words between the two rival organisations.

V. The substance of the IS – Al-Qaeda war of words

The Islamic State ‘group’ has gone to great lengths to convince its followers that it exists as a cohesive and functioning state ‘which rules by that which Allah revealed’. Much of its propaganda output displays not only the infrastructure and services that are maintained within its provinces but also the efforts of IS to implement sharia law within the areas it controls covering all aspects of daily life and societal construction. [8]

Concepts of statehood, therefore, are predictably prominent for readers of Dabiq. Figure 1 represents a word-cloud collating the most popular nouns found in the thirteen issues of the magazine to date. Words like ‘State’, usually with references to its apparently Islamic character, obviously stand out. Other common words include ‘Khilafah’ (Caliphate), with 532 hits and sharia with 260 references in Dabiq articles.[9]


Figure 1: Word-cloud of 13 issues of IS’s Dabiq magazine

The supposed sanctity of this state, in turn, is central to IS’s justification for violence, in particular the targeting of other Muslims. Since, according to IS, ‘there is no place on the face of the Earth where the Sharī’ah of Allah is implemented and the rule is entirely for Allah except for the lands of the Islamic State’, standing in its way amounts to apostasy.[10]

Those who murder on behalf of IS are presented as soldiers of the Caliphate, operating both within its provinces and, in places like Paris, beyond its borders.

For Al-Qaeda, by contrast, the idea of state-building has existed purely as a theoretical construct vaguely alluded to in copious publications authored by its leadership, especially Zawahiri. This colours the group’s approach to justifying violence, where the leadership is presented as a vanguard seeking to establish, through properly sanctioned methods, an Islamic society in the distant future.

The thrust of the clash between IS and Zawahiri thus centres on two legalistic arguments about just warfare. There are two principal components to this argument: the first concerns the essence of legitimate authority over combatants and the second relates to the legitimate scope and direction of combat operations.

a) Legitimate authority

According to Zawahiri, IS never legitimately left the Al-Qaeda fold and thus continues to exist as a group, albeit an unruly one, that is ultimately under its command. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s predecessors, who presided over Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, had pledged allegiance to bin Ladin as leader of Al-Qaeda and that pledge, Zawahiri argued, shifted to him after bin Ladin’s death in a raid on his compound in Pakistan in May 2011. In his statements, Zawahiri has even quoted directly from documentation recovered by the US military from bin Ladin’s compound and made public by the Pentagon that shows Baghdadi and his predecessors recognising the authority of Al-Qaeda’s leadership to spearhead jihad.[11]

The legitimacy of Al-Qaeda’s authority, in turn, rested on the fealty its leadership had pledged to Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Afghan Taliban whom Al-Qaeda had presented as the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ since the 1990s. Breaching this chain of command, therefore, constituted a serious violation of the rules on conducting legitimate warfare, since a group was allegedly waging combat without appropriate authority or leadership. As Zawahiri warned in one segment of his multipart audio-series called ‘The Islamic Spring’, which became available in late 2015:

All or most of the jihadi groups either pledged allegiance to or supported Mullah Muhammad Omar (may Allah protect him) and the Al Qaeda organisation, until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers came and escaped from being judged by independent Sharia courts and left the door wide open to the Fitnah [chaos/infighting].

Once the death of Mullah Omar was announced, moreover, the ultimate authority would rest with his successor Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, to whom Zawahiri pledged fealty in summer 2015.

The only religiously sanctioned way to choose a leader, Zawahiri observed, was through either selection or succession. In a thinly-veiled reference to IS, he warned: ‘The appropriation of the emirate by sword, war and conquest is a religious crime […] an emirate based on intimidation does not deserve support.’[12] Zawahiri called on those ‘truthful’ in their religion to ‘make it clear to the Ummah [religious community] that the rule they must have is the rule of Sharia which commands us of consultation and gives the Ummah the right to choose their rulers and questioning them’.[13]

According to Zawahiri, ‘al-Baghdadi broke his pledge [of allegiance] to gain power’.[14] His ‘Caliphate’, Zawahiri insisted, was not based on ‘the Prophetic method’ and constituted an ‘illegitimate takeover without proper consultation’.[15] Zawahiri’s advice to the leader of IS, therefore, was that he ought to have ‘emulated his ancestor’ Hasan ibn Ali (d. 670 CE), son of Ali and Fatima (daughter and son-in-law of Mohammed), who was Caliph for a very short period following the death of his father, but agreed to retire in favour of Caliph Muawiyah I (d. 680 CE). Suggesting that al-Baghdadi is in breach of the tradition set by Muawiyah, of course, will be seen as a grave affront by IS supporters who present Baghdadi as the true successor of the Sunni legacy of the Prophet.

Unsurprisingly, the response from IS, in turn, has been equally acerbic.

‘Al-Zawahiri’, invariably with reference to the non-Egyptian transliteration of his name (adh-Dhawāhirī), is cited in seven of the thirteen Dabiq issues published to date, and never favourably.

Zawahiri, its authors and contributors warned, was ‘senile and deviant’[16] and he had led his Al-Qaeda organisation to ‘the bottom of the pit’[17] because of mismanagement and inconsistent leadership. In the sixth issue of Dabiq one purported former member of Al-Qaeda described how he and his associates came to the conclusion that the group under Zawahiri had lost all credibility, accusing the latter of violating sharia through his tolerance for tribal laws and acceptance of different sects of Islam. The author of the article writes:

We disassociated ourselves from Tandhīm al-Qā’idah [Al-Qaeda organisation] and from the shar’ī lapses of adh- Dhawāhirī, and gave bay’ah [fealty] to the Islamic State and its amīr, Amīrul-Mu’minīn [Commander of the Believers] Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī. This was due to what we saw of consolidation for Tawhīd [monotheism] and Sharī’ah, which was what we had been searching for and what a person’s soul yearns for and what delights the heart and puts the mind at ease, announcing from within the end of the journey in search for the truth, the correct path of jihād, the path of the jamā’ah [cohort] that would take one to al-Firdaws [paradise].[18]

IS has also sought to refute Zawahiri’s specific claims regarding a legitimate chain of command reaching from lower echelons of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates, via the Al-Qaeda leaders themselves and ultimately to the Taliban high command. The quote above illustrates the way in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is elevated to the position of Commander of the Believers, not Mullah Omar, whom Dabiq’s authors accused of ‘dangerous shar’ī violations’.[19] Radical Salafi puritans have long been dismissive of the Taliban’s religious credentials and IS has sought to emphasise this point, suggesting the Taliban are in cahoots with the regimes of Pakistan, Iran and even India.[20]

With the death of Mullah Omar, as noted, fealty was supposed to transfer, in Zawahiri’s view, to the new leader of the Taliban, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. IS was predictably dismissive of this pledge and likely saw an opportunity to undermine Zawahiri’s claim to legitimate authority over its (former) affiliates even further. An article in the 11th Issue of Dabiq described this process as follows:

Then suddenly Dhawāhirī – who disappeared for almost a year, since “3 September 2014” [in commas since IS uses the Islamic calendar] – came out and pledged allegiance to the liar Akhtar Mansūr! This was despite Akhtar’s authority being heavily disputed by large divisions of the Taliban, including those headed by Mullā ‘Umar’s son and brother, as well as those parties opposing Akhtar’s plans for national reconciliation and international normalization. Several Taliban leaders left the “Quetta Shura” [consultative council] in which Akhtar was “elected,” in objection to Akhtar’s authority and the legitimacy of his “shūrā”.[21]

As IS would have it, therefore, Zawahiri was not only an ineffectual leader who disregarded sharia.  His claim to legitimate authority over IS and—for that matter—other jihadists fighting in Syria or beyond through Al-Qaeda’s affiliate also rested on false claims and illegitimate foundations.

The clash between Zawahiri and IS over the level and nature of targeting in acts of violence has been equally profound. This rests predominantly on notions of takfir – the essence of excommunication where believers are declared non-Muslim. As the next section unfolds, the perceived boundaries of legitimate combat have become defining features separating Zawahiri’s approach to jihad versus the methods that IS adopts.

b) Legitimate combat

Zawahiri’s condemnation of IS’s excessive and sectarian violence dates back to the early days of the insurgency in Iraq when, as mentioned above, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi headed Al-Qaeda’s franchise in the country. Whilst Zawahiri has celebrated many attacks on innocent civilians, he has urged restraint when it comes to targeting different sects of Muslims and in particular the Shia. Zarqawi chose a different path, orchestrating large-scale attacks against Shia Muslims, Christians, and scores of Sunni Muslims too. This approach has been passed down by successive leaderships of Al-Qaeda’s former Iraqi affiliate and now defines IS’s approach to religiously sanctioned violence.

Zawahiri, in turn, has revisited ideas he has addressed in the past regarding legitimate combat and emphasised the need to target violence against those who directly harm the interests of the jihadi fighters. This cohort, of course, includes most non-Muslims, whose targeting is rationalised with references to ‘indirect’ support like paying taxes and participating in elections. It is a sign of IS’s excess, however, that Zawahiri’s approach to violence is comparatively much more restrained.

His most important and prominent publication on the matter was a short document titled ‘General Guidelines for the Work of a Jihādī’, published online in September 2013. The purpose of the General Guidelines was to spread awareness among fighters and the general public about what Zawahiri saw as both the proper and most effective way to organise Islamist militancy. The focus of violence, he argued, ought to be on the US and its Western allies as well as Israel and local corrupt regimes in the Muslim world. Combatants were urged to avoid fighting so-called ‘deviant sects’, including the Shia, except in self-defence. “Those from amongst them who do not participate in the fight against us and their families,” Zawahiri cautioned, ‘should not be targeted in their homes, places of worship, their religious festivals and religious gatherings. However, this should not stop us from continuously revealing their falsehood and the deviation in their creed and conduct’. The same would apply to Christian (including Coptic), Sikh and Hindu minorities living in Muslim lands: they could not be targeted en masse, only in response to specific acts that harmed the community of believers and then only through targeted operations against those who posed a threat. Non-Muslims living in the West, however, would—as before—be legitimate targets.[22]

After setting out his own preferred guidelines, Zawahiri lashed out at what he saw as the excessive, extra-legal and counterproductive violence of IS.

In a clear reference to the level of violence displayed by the followers of Baghdadi, Zawahiri posed the rhetorical question: ‘Are we not entitled to ask about the motive and incentive of those who want to inflame the mujahedeen to commit this crime with perverse fatwas that are thirsty for the blood of their rivals including their mujahedeen and Muslim notables?’[23]

IS and its ‘caliphate’, in Zawahiri’s depiction, was held together by the sword where dissenters and doubters of all stripes were butchered or coerced into obedience. This was a far cry, Al-Qaeda’s leader argued, from the proper way in which to establish, consolidate and spread an Islamic state.[24]

Addressing ‘mujahidin’ fighters directly, in one part of his ‘Islamic Spring’ series, Zawahiri urged them to be ‘careful to not get involved in any impermissible blood’. The fighter had to know that his leader’s orders would not exempt him from sin, for which he would be punished by God. No leader of any group, Zawahiri cautioned, with clear implicit allusion to Baghdadi, could defend a fighter against such accusations. The fighter’s duty was to combat the enemies of Islam and he must not stray from that cause or be swayed by his ‘amir’s [leader’s] political greed’. Even if this amir, Zawahiri continued, were to order the fighter to kill a Muslim or a disbeliever who had submitted to Islam that would not render such actions sanctioned. Furthermore, if an amir called for the death of those accused of collaborating with the enemy or supporting the apostates—justifications that Al-Qaeda would accept for murder—the fighter ought still to ascertain that the accusations were just before deciding to strike. Rumours were not sufficient grounding for acts of violence. The fighter ‘must ask for the decisive proof that is clear of doubt’. Failure to respect these boundaries would lead to carnage and chaos, the likes of which had spread from Iraq into Syria under the auspices of IS. Zawahiri’s message to the fighters of jihad was clear: ‘you shouldn’t go ahead shedding blood unless its religious permissibility is ascertained.’[25]

Members of IS, and followers of Zarqawi before them, have, by contrast, celebrated their indiscriminate slaughter and sectarian executions in countless videos and magazine articles, urging others to support their methods. Zarqawi’s notoriety and media celebrity is often blamed on the beheading videos that he orchestrated and planned during the initial Iraq insurgency, where his victims were paraded in front of the camera in orange jumpsuits—a deliberate reference to the uniforms given to inmates in America’s detention centre in Guantanamo Bay—before being executed. IS, including several sub-organisations in its ‘provinces’, has emulated this practice.

More directly, however, the group and its Dabiq propagandists have sought to dismiss, ridicule and condemn Zawahiri’s accusations that its members are excessive in their violence or that the legitimate way in which to steer its combat operations means avoiding wanton slaughter of Shia, Christians and other perceived ‘undesirables’.

The fundamental problem with Zawahiri’s approach to legitimate violence, according to these IS mouthpieces, was that he limited his excommunication of people to specific acts, not their essential characteristics or essence of being. For instance, and as elaborated above, Zawahiri would condemn Shia Muslims as apostates only with reference to the fact that some Shia Iraqis, for example, had joined the state security services, not because their creed was fundamentally unsound. Fundamentally, he would not, Dabiq’s authors decried, declare all so-called ‘transgressors’ (taghut) non-Muslims due to their sins. He was even prepared to support some of them, such as the democracy-embracing Muslim Brotherhood and their deposed president Mohammed Morsi of Egypt. This, for IS, was a clear violation of doctrine.[26]

Referencing Zawahiri’s works such as his ‘General Guidelines’ referred to above, and earlier media initiatives, IS used Dabiq to illustrate his leniency towards groups that it sees as grotesque, inherently expendable, even sub-human. The worst example of this leniency, for IS, was his tolerance of the Shia, which he would only condemn with specific reference to action, such as support for or collaboration with the regimes of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Zarqawi’s plan, in turn, had been to ‘cleanse Iraq of the Rāfidah [derogatory term referring to Shia Muslims]’.[27] With glee, a contributor to the 13th issue of Dabiq, reflected upon the way in which IS had continued on this path:

Every day, the Rāfidī cities and neighbourhoods of Iraq were targeted with car bombs and truck bombs. In contrast, adh-Dhawāhirī [Zawahiri] considers that the filthy blood of the Rāfidah is harām [forbidden] to spill, and so he censures any attempt at reviving jihād against these pagan apostates![28]

IS was similarly keen to celebrate its targeting of Christians, including the kidnapping and execution of Copts, which—it argued—continued on from the legacy of its predecessors in Iraq, who attacked churches with suicide bombers.[29]

By contrast, the weak and irresolute Zawahiri, IS charged, sought to reconcile differences with Egyptian Copts, thus betraying those who suffered from what it saw as a modern ‘Crusade’ against Muslims.

Zawahiri’s ideas, therefore, ‘contradicted jihad’, and endorsed ‘pacifist methodologies’ such as popular protest, which posed no threat to the ruling order. Contrasting Zawahiri’s cautionary message to the ‘mujahidin’ fighter, the writers of Dabiq, in turn, urged them to ‘fight, massacre, and terrorize the kuffār while not differentiating between them under the influence of irjā’ [falsehood] or on the grounds of nationalism’.[30]

VI. The ‘just’ limits of terror

The clash between Al-Qaeda and IS and the substance of the feud has conjured up historical analogies that revisit similar debates about the limits of ‘just’ acts of violence among sub-state combatants. Al-Qaeda and its supporters, as well as external observers, have been keen to draw comparisons between the rise of IS and the early Khaarijites, who rebelled against the authority of Caliph Ali ibn Talib and have since become a euphemism for extremism and excessive and improper excommunication of co-religionists. Evoking comparisons with the Khaarijites, therefore, has become a staple form of de-legitimisation to be directed against any radical group purporting to represent the interests of Islam.[31] IS, in turn, has dedicated considerable effort to refuting such accusations.

More contemporary analogies have also been applied in the interest of delegitimising IS, based less on the principles of religious pedigree and more on political expediency. Parallels to the current situation in Syria where turmoil, fitna, and infighting have sapped the energy of jihadists and played into the hands of their enemies have featured in rhetorical efforts to undermine IS. The inability of Islamist militants to exploit the vacuum left by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989 due to bickering and power-struggles is offered as a case in point.

More prominent examples include references to the ‘Armed Islamic Group’ (GIA) which participated in the bitter civil war in Algeria (1991-2002) and became widely discredited within the jihadi community due to its record of brutal, indiscriminate and unnecessary violence.[32]

These debates concern not only arguments about what approach to jihad is ‘effective’, in the sense of achieving immediate military objectives without alienating target populations, but also how they recognise, reflect and apply the set of prescriptions and proscriptions revealed in the Quran and delineated by the Prophet Mohammed. This is the legacy that all jihadi groups seek to convince others is being adhered to. Their rationalisations are based on interpretations of scripture and the application of the realities and examples presented in these religious sources to new realities that they face today.

These arguments, as this paper has shown, consist both of rhetorical efforts to convince followers or perceived constituents that the adopted means of political protest and rebellion are within the boundaries of legally permitted activism and that the ends justify those means. These arguments, in turn, rest on notions of legitimacy that are at the heart of the interplay between law, the interpretation and implementation of law, and the wider society to which it applies.

IS’s proponents are adamant that the level of barbarity on display simply reflects the way in which nonbelievers and enemies of the Caliphate should be treated in the interest of establishing their religion. Sharia infringement, meanwhile, has emerged as the most prominent aspect of Zawahiri’s public discourse of late as he seeks to convince audiences that IS has erred and that Al-Qaeda offers the correct interpretation of scripture, applying sharia and the legacy of the Prophet today.

Operating within the limits of ‘just’ terror, therefore—or more accurately seeking to convince others that the boundaries defined are correct, effective and respected—has become a central preoccupation of the two predominant transnational terrorist organisations, IS and Al-Qaeda. These are inherently socio-legal dilemmas whereby conceptualisations of law, legitimate authority, the implementation of law and its impact on a wider community interact and where divergent interpretations regarding these dimensions shape political discourse. Whilst IS and Al-Qaeda may not be conventional political operators, they nonetheless constitute actors that have an impact—in some cases a substantial and vastly disproportionate impact—on debates and developments that are socio-legal at the core. The purpose of this paper has been to illustrate, by means of one case study, the way in which topics that are traditionally the realm of international relations or security studies discourses can be relevant to the perspectives offered by socio-legal studies too, enriching analytical efforts to understand the challenges that these forces present.

[1] Donald Holbrook is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster.

[2] 14 issues of Dabiq have been published at the time of writing. The first edition, published in early summer 2014, was the shortest at 26 pages whilst more recent issues have been over 80 pages in length.

[3] Defined in The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science as a ‘war with a just cause that is conducted without committing atrocities. The concept originates with the natural law philosopher, Aquinas (1225–74), who separated just and unjust war. There were two features of a just war that were not to be found in an unjust war. Ius ad bellum related to justice of the cause and ius in bello to justice in the conduct’. Frank Bealey, The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science (Blackwell 1999).

[4] ‘Foreword’ (2015) 12 Dabiq 3.

[5] Combating Terrorism Center West Point, ‘Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi (English Translation)’ (Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) <https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/zawahiris-letter-to-zarqawi-english-translation-2&gt; accessed 12 March 2016.

[6] Quintan Wiktorowicz, ‘A Genealogy of Radical Islam’ (2005) 28 Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 76.

[7] John Kelsay, Arguing the just war in Islam (Harvard University Press 2007) 3.

[8] See e.g. ‘The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men’ (2015) 10 Dabiq 50-64.

[9] Aaron Y. Zelin ‘Picture Or It Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Official Media Output’ [2015] Perspectives on Terrorism < http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/445 > accessed 24 August 2016.

[10] See e.g. ‘The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men’ (2015) 10 Dabiq 50-51.

[11] Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Testimony to Preserve the Blood of the Mujahidin in al-Sham’ (2014) <https://archive.org/details/shehadaemam&gt; accessed 3 April 2016.

[12] Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Islamic Spring no 4’ (2015) <https://justpaste.it/all-rabi3islami&gt; accessed 1 June 2016.

[13] Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘Islamic Spring no 2’ (2015) <https://justpaste.it/all-rabi3islami&gt; accessed 1 June 2016.

[14] Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘Islamic Spring no 1’ (2015) <https://justpaste.it/all-rabi3islami&gt; accessed 1 June 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] ‘Amongst the believers are men: Abu Junaydah al-Almani’ (2015) 12 Dabiq 55.

[17] Abu Jarir ash-Shamali, ‘Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan: A Testimony from Within’ (2015) 6 Dabiq 53.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] ‘Foreword’ (2015) 11 Dabiq 5.

[22] Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘General Guidelines for the Work of a Jihadi’ (2013) <https://archive.org/stream/JihadGuidelines/guidelines_djvu.txt&gt; accessed 13 March 2016.

[23] Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘Islamic Spring no 4’ (2015) <https://justpaste.it/all-rabi3islami&gt; accessed 1 June 2016.

[24] Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘Islamic Spring no 2’ (2015) <https://justpaste.it/all-rabi3islami&gt; accessed 1 June 2016.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Abu Jarir ash-Shamali, ‘Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan: A Testimony from Within’ (2015) 6 Dabiq 53.

[27] ‘The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal’ (2016) 13 Dabiq 41.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Revenge for the Muslimat Persecuted by the Coptic Crusaders of Egypt’ (2015) 7 Dabiq 30-32.

[30] ‘Soldiers of Terror’ (2015) 8 Dabiq 19.

[31] Donald Holbrook ‘Al-Qa’ida and the Rise of ISIS’ (2015) 57 Survival 2, 93.

[32] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “‘Just Terror’: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Boundaries of Legitimate Warfare”

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