Al-Tatarrus: al-Qaeda’s Justification for Killing Muslim Civilians

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 34

Salafi-Jihadist ideologue and al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi, champion of Hukm al-Tatarrus reinterpretation

One of the global Salafi-Jihadist movement’s most persistent strategic vulnerabilities is its association with terrorist attacks that result in large numbers of Muslim civilian casualties. In jihadist conflict zones from Chechnya to Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, armed assaults and suicide bombings have been responsible for thousands of Muslim civilian deaths. [1] In many cases, attacks on foreign military forces or indigenous security force personnel in population centers have led to Muslim civilians being caught in the crossfire. [2]

In some cases these incidences of civilian death have been the result of operational blunders; in other instances attacks appear to have been carried out with little regard for the proximity of Muslim civilians. For example, in October 2009 a wave of suicide bombings in Peshawar killed almost 200 civilians and invoked widespread condemnation both in Pakistan and abroad. On the occasions where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, they claimed the targets had been security force facilities and personnel, not civilians. However the locations of the attacks in busy city center markets made it highly likely from the outset that civilians would be among those killed.

In the wake of such attacks, the jihadists have frequently denied responsibility or have sought to blame security forces, either for situating their personnel in civilian areas or for failing to evacuate civilians from around the target after warnings were given. At other times, the jihadists have used conspiracy theories to shift blame; the TTP and al-Qaeda attempted to blame many of the October 2009 Peshawar attacks on a shadowy cabal of government intelligence personnel and U.S. military contractors.

In instances when jihadists have claimed responsibility for attacks killing Muslims, they have typically attempted to justify them on the basis of strategic and operational necessity as well as theological legitimacy. One of the theological concepts most frequently deployed by al-Qaeda spokesmen and ideologues to support such violence is “Hukm al-Tatarrus.” This relatively obscure piece of doctrine has its roots in classical Islamic jurisprudence and was traditionally used to establish the permissibility of a Muslim army attacking a non-Muslim enemy in situations where one or more of the following has occurred:

• A non-Muslim enemy preparing to resist attack in its fortress is holding other Muslims against their will as human shields.

• The Muslims are attacking the fortress of the enemy, inside which are Muslims who are not being held against their will but who are engaged in legitimate commercial activities with non-Muslims.

• Muslims are attempting to defeat a non-Muslim enemy who has entered Muslim territory and occupied positions around or behind them, and where the Muslims must recapture that territory or fight their way through that territory to defeat the enemy.

• Muslims are attacking a non-Muslim enemy’s ship on which Muslims are being used as human shields.

While Muslims engaging in jihad are enjoined to protect the sanctity of Muslim life wherever possible, al-Tatarrus describes circumstances in which the obligation to fight Islam’s enemies – and in so doing protect the wider Muslim populace – outweighs the threat to those Muslim civilians unfortunate enough to be caught between the two sides.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Salafi-Jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda have sought to deploy this concept to legitimize terrorist attacks that risk large numbers of Muslim civilian casualties. In 2008, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to al-Tatarrus while discussing the Salafi-Jihadist movement’s stance on Muslim civilian casualties. Responding to questions on the issue posed by jihad supporters via web forums, al-Zawahiri said, “We haven’t killed the innocents – not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, nor in Algeria, nor anywhere else,” adding, “If there is any innocent who was killed in the mujahidin’s operations, then it was either an unintentional error or out of necessity, as in cases of al-Tatarrus.” [3]

Al-Qaeda’s use of al-Tatarrus

One of the most important contemporary works on al-Tatarrus by a Salafi-Jihadist ideologue is by al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi. In his 2008 book Human Shields and Modern Jihad, al-Libi attempts to reinterpret al-Tatarrus for application in terrorist or insurgent campaigns. [4]

Al-Libi contextualises the issue by stressing that the nature of modern warfare is qualitatively different to that experienced by the Muslims of early Islamic history, or the classical period in which much of the scholarly research on this issue was produced. He claims that in the so-called “War on Terror” there are few front lines, that combat often occurs away from the conventional battlefield in heavily populated areas and that the jihadist movement’s enemies exercise little restraint in their tactics or their willingness to pursue the Mujahideen everywhere. Al-Libi thus seeks to condition his audience to accept the basic premise that such conflicts by their nature will result in a high civilian casualty toll.

After surveying some of the work of classical scholars on the concept, and establishing the legal proofs for its use, al-Libi seeks to reinforce the importance of al-Tatarrus in modern jihad by reminding readers of the implications for the wider Muslim ummah if the mujahideen are unwilling to apply it, whether for emotional reasons (an intrinsic reluctance to put Muslim civilians in danger) or because they doubt the legal case for its use. Firstly, he says, if abstaining from operations in which Muslims are being used by the enemy as shields would put the wider community in greater danger then it would be the duty of the mujahideen to mount their attack. Secondly, he warns that the alternative, i.e. abstaining from an attack to spare Muslim civilians, constitutes “a dysfunction in the duty of jihad,” which is one of the most important duties a Muslim can perform and an individual imperative if the situation is one in which Muslim land is under occupation. Thirdly, he stresses that if abstaining from an operation under such circumstances leads to a non-Muslim enemy further occupying Muslim land, then the result may be “a spoiling of the religion,” as Muslims are forced or induced to adopt non-Muslim beliefs and practices. Thus, he argues that while potentially harming other Muslims during an attack on the enemy is unpalatable, the mujahideen would be “preventing a general harm by doing a specific harm,” and thus on balance their actions would be praiseworthy.

One of al-Libi’s strengths as an al-Qaeda ideologue is that he is able to take obscure and dense theological concepts such as al-Tatarrus and re-interpret them for a contemporary setting, but does so in a way that makes these concepts more easily accessible to a lay audience. Unless the audience is well-versed in the jurisprudence of jihad and the work of classical scholars on this issue, they will be none the wiser when ideologues such as al-Libi use the concept inappropriately or out of context.

Though al-Libi makes reference to works of classical Islamic jurists on al-Tatarrus, he cleverly seeks to divert his audience from pursuing their detailed study by suggesting that when they were written the nature of warfare was so different that they now offer only partial guidance for the contemporary jihadist movement. Some analysts have argued that this is partially because were the reader to pursue study of these earlier texts and legal rulings, they would be exposed to the many specific conditions and contexts in which al-Tatarrus must be applied.

Implications of al-Tatarrus

Al-Qaeda leaders and ideologues have repeatedly stressed the importance of using information to shape perceptions. In a letter written by Osama bin Laden to Mullah Mohamed Omar in 2002, Bin Laden reminded the Taliban leader that the “media war…may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”

If garnering the support of the wider Muslim world is indeed the objective of al-Qaeda’s “media battle,” al-Tatarrus may prove to be a questionable mass-market justification for its engagement in violence in which fellow Muslims often bear the brunt of the suffering.

In 2008 a leading Moroccan Islamist cleric and member of parliament, Shaykh Abdelbari Zemzemi, spoke out against al-Zawahiri’s reliance on al-Tatarrus to justify al-Qaeda’s attacks: “The Islamic rule of al-Tatarrus is not at all applicable to al-Qaeda operations, whether they are committed in Morocco, New York, London, Spain or Mauritania. All al-Qaeda operations are unjust and cowardly, as they directly target unsuspecting civilians.” Zemzemi explained that al-Tatarrus applies only in cases where not killing Muslims would result in occupation of Muslim land by the enemies of Islam, which would be the greater evil: 

"As you can see, this rule is not applicable to al-Qaeda operations, because al-Qaeda is not on a battlefield. They are hiding behind mountains and only send their men out to strike in cities. Only civilians live in cities, not the military. This is impermissible and unjustifiable. Civilians cannot be attacked for no reason. That would be treacherous. You can only fight an enemy that is confronting you or occupying your land. But to bomb unsuspecting people in their homes, this is unjust and treacherous. It makes no difference whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. Innocent people must never be attacked. When it comes to innocent people who do not invade your land or attack you, how can you take them by surprise and cowardly blow them up when they are unarmed? This is not permitted in Islam" (Magharebia, April 18, 2008).

In spite of attempts by al-Qaeda to use al-Tatarrus to reassure potential supporters that Muslim collateral damage has religious sanction, there can be little doubt that repeated incidents such as those in Peshawar and elsewhere in the Muslim world are highly damaging to the image of the Salafi-Jihadist movement. Attacks such as those in Peshawar drew widespread condemnation from the general public and the media, who questioned whether the jihadists placed any value on Muslim civilian life at all. A 2003 suicide attack by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the al-Muhayah residential compound in Riyadh dealt a serious blow to the group’s domestic credibility when the victims turned out to be Muslims, not the Western expatriates whom the attackers claimed to be targeting. While al-Qaeda supporters attempted to justify the attacks on the basis of al-Tatarrus, the wider Saudi public was successfully convinced by government information campaigns that al-Qaeda now poses a direct threat to Saudi citizens, not just foreign nationals in the Kingdom.

Reality vs. Rhetoric

The Salafi-Jihadist movement’s conduct on the front lines has long been the place where the gap between its rhetoric and the reality of its actions can be most clearly defined. It is therefore a source of some of the most potent material for strategic communication campaigns designed to discredit the image the movement seeks to portray of a pious vanguard fighting in defense of Islam and Muslims.

At the local level, therefore, it can be seen that Muslim civilian deaths frustrate the jihadists’ ability to garner support from the populations among which they operate. In fact, barely a week passes without Muslim civilians suffering at the hands of Salafi-Jihadist operational blunders or excesses in one theater or another. The most ideologically committed supporters of Salafi-Jihadist violence may find al-Tatarrus a sufficient rationale for continuing jihad in virtually any situation where Muslims are in harm’s way. However, the deployment of obscure religious concepts to explain the slaughter of large numbers of their co-religionists is unlikely to convince the wider Muslim public, particularly at the local level where communities are forced to continue their daily lives amid a climate of repeated bloodshed.

There are strong indications that the leaders of al-Qaeda are aware of this vulnerability. Their frequent communications on the issue of Muslim civilian casualties may be indications of an attempt to inoculate the jihadist movement against such criticism – many of al-Qaeda’s more experienced leaders share the bitter personal experience of seeing jihadist campaigns atrophy when high-profile Muslim civilians deaths turned public opinion against them. In the wake of the 2009 Peshawar attacks, al-Qaeda and TTP spokesmen, including Adam Gadahn, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, Shaykh Atiyatallah, Tariq Azzam, and Hakimullah Mahsud, all issued statements specifically addressing the issue of Muslim civilian casualties. This unprecedented propaganda campaign was an illustration of the awkward balance the jihadists must strike in such circumstances; on one hand civilian deaths must be seen as regretful, while on the other they must find a way to legitimize these deaths so as not to constrain their ability to conduct such operations in future.


The natural feeling of revulsion felt by many Muslim audiences for what often appears to be indiscriminate violence by the jihadists may create what psychologists refer to as a “cognitive opening” – a moment in which an individual may be comparatively more susceptible to the influence of fresh ideas than under normal circumstances. Strategic communication (in this context, largely information campaigning whether by word of mouth or via a range of media) focusing on the human cost of Salafi-Jihadist violence – particularly the cost to Muslims – not to mention the questionable strategic wisdom displayed by al-Qaeda for permitting such operations in the first place, may help to challenge the claims of the jihadists to be legitimate political actors. [5] If they move swiftly enough, governments can capitalize on the tactical opportunities generated by the frequent jihadist operational excesses, striking first with one interpretation of events before the jihadists have an opportunity to spin the story their way.

However, as the trajectory of previous jihadist campaigns has shown, the Salafi-Jihadist movement’s doctrinal rigidity, combined with strategic and operational necessity, means that they will likely continue to bear responsibility for a large proportion – if not the majority – of Muslim civilian deaths in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, government organizations are likely to be presented with many more opportunities in the years ahead to develop and refine their communications responses to such events.


1. A revealing study of collateral damage resulting from terrorist and insurgent violence was published in 2009 by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. “Deadly Vanguards – A Study of al-Qaeda’s Violence Against Muslims” claims that only 15% of deaths resulting from al-Qaeda violence were Western nationals – the rest were citizens of various countries of the Muslim world. The study can be found at

2. Recent UN statistics on civilian killings by both insurgent and NATO / ISAF forces state that in the first six months of 2010, the Taliban and allied forces were responsible for 76% of civilian casualties – up from 53% last year. See BBC, August 10;

3. “Open Interview with Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Sahab Media Production Organization/al-Fajr Center for Media, April 2008.

4., April 16, 2006. An English translation of this book can be found at:

5. “Strategic communication” is a means of using words, actions, or a combination of both, to promote and sustain changes in a target audience’s behavior. It is often preceded by a process of target audience analysis, which profiles an audience to determine what type of communication is most likely to promote and sustain that behavioral change. See Strategic Communication: A Primer, Commander S A Tatham, RN, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, December 2008.