Can al-Qaeda Use Islam to Justify Jihad in the United States? A Debate in Progress

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 26

U.S. National and al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahyeh Gadahn (Adam Pearlman)

Having committed itself to the battle against the “far enemy,” al-Qaeda’s leadership issued in March its most explicit call yet to Muslims living in the United States to independently plan and execute terrorist attacks on American soil. In a video entitled “A Call to Arms,” al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahyeh Gadahn claimed such attacks are a religious obligation on all able-bodied Muslims living in the “Zionist-Crusader countries, and the United States in particular” (As-Sahab Media Productions, March 7). Adam Yahyeh Gadahn (real name Adam Pearlman) is a U.S. national who is thought by U.S. government and media sources to be an important personality in al-Qaeda’s propaganda operations. He is believed to be in hiding somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Gadahn seized upon the example of Major Nidal Malik Hassan, the Muslim U.S. Army officer who last November shot dead 13 fellow service personnel at Fort Hood, Texas, as a “role model” to be emulated by Muslims in the United States:

Nidal Malik Hassan is a pioneer – a trailblazer and role model who has opened the door…and showed the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself amongst the unbelievers and yearns to discharge his duty to Allah and play a part in the defense of Islam and Muslims.

However, ignoring the practical operational challenges facing those with a potential interest in emulating Nidal Hassan, the theological basis for such attacks remains contentious even among Salafi-Jihadist supporters and is thus an issue worthy of greater appreciation by counterterrorism officials. In light of the 9/11 attacks and several subsequent foiled terrorist conspiracies in the United States, it may seem surprising that such debates have not already been concluded within militant Islamist circles. However, these continued doctrinal fissures offer an opportunity for authorities if they can be harnessed as part of strategic communication initiatives contributing to a wider strategy of domestic terrorism risk mitigation.

Gadahn’s Sales-Pitch

Speaking in English, Gadahn reminded Muslims in the United States that it was their individual obligation to wage jihad against the United States and that lack of connections to jihadist groups should not deter them from action. He reminded his viewers; “Jihad is not the personal property, nor the exclusive responsibility of any single group, organization or individual. Instead it is the personal duty of every able-bodied Muslim on the face of the earth.”

He encouraged Muslims to use whatever means were at their immediate disposal to carry out terrorist attacks synchronous with al-Qaeda’s aims and objectives, stressing that prior instruction at foreign training camps was not necessary. He reminded viewers that individuals such as Major Hassan carried out their attacks with the weapons they had at hand and the knowledge and expertise they developed through self-study. He also praised Mir Imal Khasi, who shot dead two CIA employees and wounded three others in Virginia in 1993, and Mohammed Bouyeri, who murdered controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in a knife and gun attack in 2004, as further examples of individuals who had recognized their duty as Muslims and independently decided to take direct action in accordance with these obligations.

Perhaps in an attempt to reduce the perceived threshold for an operational “success” and overcome a would-be jihadist’s fear that their limited, lone-wolf actions might have little strategic consequence, Gadahn said; “We must keep in mind that even apparently unsuccessful attacks on western mass transport systems can bring many cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his companies into bankruptcy.” Gadahn also states:

He [Nidal Hassan] has reminded us of how much pride and joy a single act of resistance and courage can instill in the hearts of Muslims everywhere. That’s why I am calling on every honest and repentant Muslim in the countries of the Zionist-Crusader alliance and the United States in particular to prepare to play his duty and role in responding to and repelling the aggression against the enemies of Islam. Unsheathe your sharpened sword and rush to take your place among the defiant champions of Islam.

Loyalty and Disavowal

While Gadahn does not address in detail the theological imperative for domestic “individualized jihad,” he certainly alludes to some of the important doctrinal concepts involved, concepts discussed more fully elsewhere by his al-Qaeda associates and Salafi-Jihadist supporters.

At the heart of the Salafi-Jihadi movement’s doctrinal justification for such attacks, and indeed much of the violence it advocates in the name of defending Islam and Muslims, is their interpretation of the concept of Tawhid, or the oneness of Allah. At the outset, it should be emphasized that Tawhid is a core element of Islam as a monotheistic religion and one intrinsically accepted by virtually all Muslims. It does not explicitly advocate or encourage violence.

However, it is the manner in which Tawhid is not just believed but practiced which is where Muslims of various sects disagree, and it is here that Salafi-Jihadists believe that violence is often obligatory in order to defend Tawhid’s supremacy. For many Salafi Muslims it is impossible to be a true Muslim unless one’s belief in Tawhid is turned into action. However, adherents of more militant interpretations of Salafism contend that the concept requires them to oppose both by word and deed (with violence if necessary) any attempts by Muslims or non-Muslims to establish “partners with God” or systems of governance other than that decreed in the Shari’a. This means that followers of the Salafi-Jihadi manhaj (methodology) are fundamentally opposed to any and all non-Muslim political and legal systems including liberal democracy.

However, to more fully understand the doctrinal basis for Nidal Hassan’s actions, appreciation of a further important Islamic concept is necessary. One of the concepts which gives life to Tawhid in a Muslim’s everyday affairs is “Loyalty and Disavowal” (al-wala w’al-bara – loyalty [towards the believers] and disavowal [of the disbelievers]). This is given particular emphasis in Salafism and a unique interpretation by Salafi-Jihadists. Loyalty and Disavowal teaches a Muslim to show obedience to Allah’s word and disobedience to, and separation from, anything that deviates from it or challenges it. In Major Nidal Hassan’s case, this is likely to have included the U.S. military hierarchy of which he was a part as well as the many non-Muslim service personnel with whom he would have worked.

The Loyalty and Disavowal concept is emphasized indirectly by Gadahn in his video when he says, “This is why I believe that defiant Brother Nidal is the ideal role-model for every repentant Muslim in the armies of the unbelievers and apostate regimes who, like him, has come to the correct conclusion that true Islam isn’t in a name or a set of rituals but in fact is in total submission and obedience to Allah and total disobedience to and disassociation from the unbelievers [author’s emphasis].”

The importance of Loyalty and Disavowal in guiding Nidal Hassan’s actions was also alluded to in statements and discourse by supporters of the Salafi-Jihadi movement in the West. One noteworthy statement to emerge from this constituency was issued on November 24, 2009 by members of the Salafi-Jihadi web forum Ansar al-Mujahideen ( [2] In addition to praising Major Nidal Hassan’s attack, the statement argues that the Quran makes it clear that Muslims should disassociate themselves from “unbelievers” and that in most cases they should leave the United States if they are unable to fully and freely practice their religion. They emphasize that this must include being able to fulfill an obligation to Loyalty and Disavowal.  Yemeni-American Salafi-Jihadi ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with Salafi-Jihadi media organization al-Malahim that one of the reasons he left the United States was that the post-9/11 security environment had made it more difficult for Muslims scholars there to preach practices such as Loyalty and Disavowal (, May 23).

Essentially, Salafi-Jihadists argue that Nidal Malik Hassan’s attack was not only a declaration of his devotion to Tawhid but also a practical demonstration of Loyalty and Disavowal, in that he decided to abandon allegiance to all others except Allah, fulfilling in the process what Gadahn and others maintain was his obligation to wage jihad at home as long as his co-religionists were under attack abroad.

A Covenant of Security?

An issue not explored by Gadahn in his video, but which is relevant to the permissibility of domestic jihad in the United States, is the applicability of the Islamic “Covenant of Security” (aqd aman). Many Salafi-Jihadists argue that acts of domestic terrorism by U.S. Muslims are permissible because U.S. policy toward Muslims at home and abroad negates the mutual non-aggression enshrined within that Covenant. However it is here that evidence of some theological disagreement exists.

In this context, the non-aggression pact enshrined in a Covenant of Security relates to the agreement between Muslims living in non-Muslim countries and the governments of those countries. There are rules concerning a Muslim’s behavior under a Covenant of Security but Islamist scholars differ on the specific details, in particular the conditions under which a Covenant should be considered void.

It is most commonly agreed that a Covenant of Security between Muslims living in the West and their non-Muslim hosts applies when:

•    A Muslim identifies himself as such in his host country.

•    The Muslim maintains Western forms of identification.

•    The Muslim receives government benefits.

•    A Muslim has entered the country officially, for example on a work or study visa.

In return, the Muslim is forbidden to fight his host or take his host’s money or goods as booty.

However, some Salafi-Jihadi scholars contend that the Covenant is voided when one or more of the following occurs:

•    A Muslim in that country is prevented from freely and fully practicing his religion, including the practice of Loyalty and Disavowal.

•    A Muslim in that country is subject to harassment, imprisonment, torture, degrading treatment, or unfair levels of intrusive surveillance.

•    The Muslim Ummah is threatened by the foreign policies of that country.

The Ansar al-Mujahideen statement specifically mentions this:
No covenant exists between Muslims in the United States and the U.S. government and army. If there was initially some covenant, that covenant is now void due to the various crimes the United States has committed to break it, from engaging in war with the Muslims, imprisoning Muslims and by the rape and abuse of Muslim men and women, to name but a few.

While many Salafi-Jihadist supporters in the United States and other countries such as the UK would doubtlessly agree that any such Covenant of Security had been voided years ago, there remain significant opposing voices. One point of contention is that, in the view of some scholars, even if an attack is permissible it can only be carried out by an expeditionary group of mujahideen from abroad arriving in the country for such a purpose. In doing so, they would have to act in a clandestine manner which does not require them to adhere to any Covenant – in other words those Muslims already resident in the country are not permitted to participate directly. Some highly respected Salafi-Jihadist scholars such as the UK-based Syrian Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi have issued important judgments stating this point.

Some radical scholars disagree with al-Tartusi’s position, arguing that under present conditions where Muslims are under attack worldwide and when Muslims living in the West are now subject to perceived persecution, it is now obligatory for all Muslims to fight regardless of where they are. Shaykh Omar Bakri Muhammad, former spiritual leader of the UK-based group al-Muhajiroun (The Émigrés) said in early 2005 that new anti-terrorism legislation which he claimed was designed to restrict Muslims’ right to freedom of expression was among the reasons why the Covenant of Security between the UK and the Muslims living there should be considered void (See Times Online, July 24, 2005; Asia Times, June 12, 2008).

However, this widely-held opinion within Salafi-Jihadist circles regarding obligatory jihad is contradicted by scholars such as al-Tartusi. In his book On the Covenant of Security in Islam, al-Tartusi lists extensive proofs from the Quran and Hadith to underscore what in this context is a critical ruling – namely that it is possible for Muslims to live under a Covenant of Security in a non-Muslim country even if the government of that country is engaged in transgressions against other Muslims abroad. [3]

Significance for Counterterrorism

While the depth of such doctrinal disagreements may appear slight in some cases, they nevertheless represent a potential wedge issue that might be exploited by strategic messaging to cast doubt on the religious permissibility of the types of attacks al-Qaeda is now directly encouraging. For groups motivated primarily by a radical religious imperative, doctrinal legitimacy of a proposed action is critical.

Gadahn spends a notable amount of time attempting to persuade viewers to shun the opinions of U.S. Muslim scholars who argue that jihad in present circumstances is illegitimate. He warns; “No fatwa in this world can possibly justify breaking the clear and unambiguous and agreed upon laws of the Shari’a like the law forbidding the killing of Muslims or the law ordering loyalty to the believers and disloyalty to the unbelievers.”

Both Gadahn and Western Salafi-Jihadist supporters appear to acknowledge in their statements that Muslims considering waging a domestic jihad are likely to encounter resistance from their co-religionists and rulings against such actions by Muslim scholars. They claim that carrying out such attacks is a religious obligation that no amount of fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) can overturn – perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that competing religious rulings still have enormous potential to damage al-Qaeda’s theological justification for such attacks and frustrate their attempts to galvanize considerable numbers of U.S. Muslims to raise arms against their government.


1. For Gadahn, see U.S. Department of State;
2. A copy of the statement regarding the Fort Hood shootings can be found at
3. A copy of translated excerpts of this book can be found at the web site