A recent U.S. District Court indictment accused members of a shadowy Islamist gang, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam As-Saheeh (“Assembly of Authentic Islam,” JIS), of conspiring to strike U.S. military facilities, Israeli national interests and synagogues around Los Angeles sometime during the autumn 2005 Jewish holidays. Most of the defendants are converts to Islam, allegedly loyal to imprisoned JIS leader Kevin James, a self-styled imam to whom at least one defendant allegedly swore bayat (an oath of allegiance) “until death by martyrdom” .
If the allegations stick, this case represents a milestone in American Islamic militancy: it would be the only known large-scale plot directed against U.S. targets to have been planned from within the United States and potentially executed by a predominantly American Radical Islamic Convert (ARIC) cell. Beyond the California modalities of the alleged plot, it raises broader questions about the activities of ARICs in the plan of global jihad and potentially sheds light on broader post-9/11 ideological trends and tactical shifts in jihadi warfare in the West.
ARIC Emigration and Combat—the Role of Ideas
The small minority of ARICs—a disparate collection of converts, including many linked to criminality, that adopt an often self-styled form of Salafism—internalize an obligation to physical jihad traditionally opt to fight in conflicts overseas . Their rationale for doing so includes: 1) their understanding of the Islamic “covenant of security,” ‘Aqd Amaan, dissuades them from levying war against the government of their homeland with which they maintain a “contract,” thus forcing them to emigrate and fight ; 2) as converts, they feel a keen obligation to defend Muslim lands like Afghanistan or Chechnya from foreign armies ; and 3) because attacks within the United States (especially against non-combatants) might violate the Salafi tenet that all actions should contribute “more good than harm” to the advancement of Islamic rule.
While ARIC emigration for jihad cannot be reduced to a single factor, ‘Aqd Amaan—a concept seldom discussed by analysts but generally understood in Western Muslim communities—may best explain why the bulk of ARICs like those in the so-called “Virginia Jihad Network” traditionally fought non-Muslim armies overseas, plotted against the United States from abroad—as Jose Padilla allegedly did—or provided logistical assistance to foreign jihadis operating domestically, as ARICs did for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing cell.
The Covenant of Security Explained
Omar Bakri Muhammad (OBM), while leader of the currently defunct neo-Salafist al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants) group based in the United Kingdom, explained the significance of ‘Aqd Amaan and its relationship to Islamic militancy in the West in several publications and interviews . Drawing from Islamic history, he rationalized that all Muslims living in the West who: 1) explicitly identify themselves as Muslims; 2) maintain official Western forms of identification; 3) take government benefits; or 4) who enter with a work or study visa engage in a “customary covenant” with a Western government. According to OBM, this covenant means that they expect to live without fear of arrest or violence and will be able to freely practice the (Salafi) deen (religion). In turn, these Muslims are not permitted to wage violent jihad against their hosts unless the covenant of security is broken by the government with which they maintain a contract. If a mujahid wishes to wage jihad against the Western kuffar (disbelievers) in their own homelands, then he must enter from abroad clandestinely without entering into a contract, hide his intentions from non-Muslims, even conceal his Islamic identity, and ensure that his violence benefits the global Muslim community. Bakri Muhammad maintains that the 9/11 cell fulfilled these stipulations.
Is the Covenant Broken?
According to some British-based Islamists (including OBM who now lives in Lebanon), the covenant of security has been abrogated by the British government, or is becoming an increasingly irrelevant concept altogether . In early 2005, al-Muhajiroun’s statements claimed that “true” British Muslims were left with two choices: to leave the country or wage jihad. This rationale is based on the view that the situation of British Muslims had devolved from one under Dar al-Amaan (the abode of security) to Dar al-Fitnah (the abode of strife) largely because of increasingly stringent domestic anti-terrorism measures, including those permitting the indefinite detention of terror suspects such as Abu Hamza al-Masri—in addition to the “persecution” of Muslims by British forces abroad . It is conceivable that the interpreted abrogation of this treaty, announced by OBM at a 2005 conference, might have influenced the thinking of the July 7, 2005 London bombers. Indeed, the ringleader of the July 7 bombings, Mohammad Siddique Khan, was linked in press reports to current and former al-Muhajiroun affiliates, including Muhammad Junaid Babar, also a confessed al-Qaeda logistician now imprisoned in the U.S. The covenant’s perceived abrogation might be one reason why they opted to strike London instead of emigrating to fight.
One question for analysts in light of the Los Angeles plot is whether ARICs who generally share OBM’s worldview also consider their treaty with the U.S. government (USG) nullified, or whether this particular conspiracy represents an outlier in a trajectory of ARIC activities that still prioritizes combat overseas. While the answer is inherently elusive, some ARICs view the covenant of security with the USG as severely frayed given the provisions of the Patriot Act and the behavior of domestic law enforcement agencies—juxtaposed against the backdrop of perceived global American aggression against Muslims. Thus, some ARICs are contemplating emigration . It is possible that the interpreted abrogation of this covenant by the USG explains why the Los Angeles plot defendants allegedly sought to strike in California and not Iraq. Should more ARICs determine that: 1) the USG has declared war against Muslims within the U.S.; 2) the USG is detaining or killing Muslims without reason domestically; or 3) that it has banned da’wa (appeal to Islam, here signifying the militant Salafi brand)—and thus entered Dar al-Fitnah—OBM’s logic would suggest that future domestically-conceived and executed ARIC plots are probable .
The Los Angeles Case: A Microcosm of Global Jihadi Trends
Implications of the covenant of security aside, the alleged Los Angeles plot highlights key trends in the warfare of both ARICs and the wider global Salafi Jihad movement. First, the alleged plot calls attention to the continued and burgeoning importance of criminality to militant Islamic networks. Like many North African jihadis in Europe, such as those connected to the 2004 Madrid attack, the defendants apparently sought to convert their criminal behavior into a form of service to Islam: they robbed banks—allegedly ten in California—in furtherance of “the duty of JIS members to target for violent attack any enemies of Islam.” Moreover, these individuals were allegedly connected to a wider militant culture—JIS—operating within and without California prisons, according to officials.
Second, although defendant Hamad Samana has not been publicly linked to jihadi networks in his native Pakistan, his alleged involvement might signify the willingness of ARICs to reach out to foreign-born jihadis to facilitate attacks inside the continental United States. Although the involvement of foreign operatives and ideologues has been witnessed in most ARIC cases, they typically drove the conspiracies, not ARICs. The reverse pattern, perhaps starting in Los Angeles (also seen in the failed attempts of former U.S. National Guardsman Ryan Andersen to reach out to al-Qaeda), might herald an era of increased ARIC cooperation with like-minded foreign militants. The linchpin of any such relationship beyond potential social connectivity and logistical convenience would be a common understanding of the necessity to wage “defensive jihad” in protection of the ummah, a staple of Salafi Jihadi just war theory .
Finally, the interconnected global and local characteristics of the alleged plot suggest key trends likely to mark future ARIC activities, simultaneously reflecting the general evolution of jihadi warfare in the West. First, the nature of the alleged targets, which also included specific Israeli officials, is similar to those chosen by Salafi Jihadis worldwide. For the Salafi Jihadis, these venues symbolize global Muslim oppression, thus representing legitimate targets of symbolic value. This resonates with reports that jihadi literature was found in Levar Haney Washington’s apartment.
The evidence suggests that the alleged militants were planning to attack these targets with firearms—a far cry tactically from the martyrdom operations involving IEDs traditionally associated with Salafi Jihadis. While James’ alleged statements suggest intent to acquire explosives, the indictment also indicates resignation to the difficulties involved with their procurement. This calls attention to the alternative local dimensions of the plot and recalls other low-level jihadi operations in Europe, such as the 2004 murder of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, leading some analysts to point to the involvement of increasingly younger and more amateurish militants as an important emerging trend in Western jihadism.
For the alleged Los Angeles cell, firearms were relatively easy to obtain and did not require the same operational expertise as IEDs; their potential use suggests that the Los Angeles defendants desired to fight another day, even if martyrdom was regarded as an eventuality and IED use a possibility. The alleged purchase of a .223 rifle, interest in silencers and stand-off detonators also point this way. In sum, ARICs with high intent and low capabilities could gravitate toward sieges, kidnappings and assassinations, particularly in cities they know well—even while maintaining an interest in IEDs—reminiscent of both early al-Qaeda training manuals emphasizing urban operations and recent jihadi tactics in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
1. See US v. Kevin James (et al), Grand Jury Indictment, United States District Court for the Central District of California, October 2005.
2. For instance, Kevin James allegedly insisted that every member of JIS swear bayat to him and report to him every 90 days—not a traditional Salafi arrangement.
3. Interview with a Salafi imam in Scandinavia (2005).
4. Interview with an American Islamic convert and veteran of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union (2005).
5. See Omar Bakri Muhammad, The World is Divided into Two Camps (London: Ad-D’awah Publications, 2004), pp 67-70. Also see his interview with Anthony McRoy, “There can be no end to jihad,” Christianity Today, February 1, 2005, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/105/22.0.html.
6. See Omar Bakri Muhammad’s comments at the conference, “The role of Muslims nowadays,” reported by Hannah K. Strange, “British Muslims Called to Take Up Jihad,” United Press International, January 10, 2005. Also see Aatish Taseer’s interview with Hassan Butt, a former member of al-Muhajiroun (Aatish Taseer, “A British Jihadist,” Prospect, August 2005, pp 18-24).
7. Omar Bakri Muhammad, The World is Divided into Two Camps, pp. 67-70.
8. Interview with American Islamic convert (2005).
9. See OBM’s The World is Divided into Two Camps, pp. 67-70.
10. See ‘Esa al-Hindi, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir (Birmingham: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 1999), p. 116.