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Key bin Laden para raises translation and other questions

[ by Charles Cameron — bin Laden on oath breaking, translation issues, failure of secular viewpoint to comprehend importance of Islam to jihadists, mild countering violent extremism issues, etc etc ]


This para from bin Laden writing as “Your brother, Zamray” to “Shaykh Mahmud, may God protect him” (ie Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyat Allah) on 21 October 2010 looks to me like an astounding windfall:

Perhaps you monitored the trial of brother Faysal Shahzad. In it he was asked about the oath that he took when he got American citizenship. And he responded by saying that he lied. You should know that it is not permissible in Islam to betray trust and break a covenant. Perhaps the brother was not aware of this. Please ask the brothers in Taliban Pakistan to explain this point to their members. In one of the pictures, brother Faysal Shahzad was with commander Mahsud; please find out if Mahsud knows that getting the American citizenship requires talking an oath to not harm America. This is a very important matter because we do not want al-Mujahidn to be accused of breaking a covenant.


This raises a whole number of issues for me. But first, let’s read another translation:

You have perhaps followed the media trial of brother Faisal Shahzad, may God release him, during which the brother was asked to explain his attack [against the United States] in view of having taken an oath [not to harm it] when he was awarded his American citizenship. He responded that he lied [when he took the oath]. It does not escape you [Shaykh `Atiyya] that [Shahzad’s lie] amounts to betrayal (ghadr) and does not fall under permissible lying to [evade] the enemy [during times of war]…please request from our Pakistani Taliban brothers to redress this matter…also draw their attention to the fact that brother Faisal Shahzad appeared in a photograph alongside Commander Mahsud. I would like to verify whether Mahsud knew that when a person acquires an American citizenship, this involves taking an oath, swearing not to harm America. If he is unaware of this matter, he should be informed of it. Unless this matter is addressed, its negative consequences are known to you. [We must therefore act swiftly] to remove the suspicion that jihadis violate their oath and engage in

That one is almost half as long again as the first, at 182 vs 122 words — and even with the bracketed words removed, runs to 156.

Both versions come from West Point’s CTC, the first from page 7 of SOCOM-2012-0000015 [link to single letter] in the folder of documents released [link opens .zip file], and the second, longer version from p. 36 of CTC’s accompanying report titled Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? [link opens .pdf]

It seems to me that the second is far more informative than the first — essentially the first is a stepped down, pop version of the second, more easily reader-digested. All of which makes me wish I had ten additional years orthogonal to the time-stream in which to immerse myself in Arabic, but no dice.

Here’s the explanation, from page 10, footnote 3 of the CTC commentary:

The quality of the English translation provided to the CTC is not adequate throughout. When the translation was deemed inadequate, quotations cited in this report have either been amended or translated anew by Nelly Lahoud.

which leaves me wondering what a Nelly Lahoud translation of the entire batch would look like? — indeed, very much wishing I could read it — and who depends on the pop versions for their understanding of documents such as these? — myself all too often sadly included.

When in any case, as AP’s Matt Apuzzo tweeted (h/t Daveed G-R):

Drawing conclusions about Al Qaeda from these docs is like letting your ex-girlfriend go thru all your emails and choose 17 to release.

No complaints about the CTC from me, incidentally — their entire Harmony Program is nonpareil.

Okay, onward to the content (& contextual) issues.


The first has to do with the significance of religion to bin Laden, Al-Qaida, and the jihadist current more generally.

Leah Farrall gets succinctly to two readings that can be taken from this paragraph by western analysts:

It is very clear [that bin Laden was] trying to control acts of violence that fall outside of what he views as morally acceptable, but also that are counterproductive to Al Qaeda’s strategic agenda

There’s a public relations issue here for bin Ladin, in other words — but there’s also a moral issue from the standpoint of Islamic theology. Theology — not just any old ideology borrowed from Marx or whoever, but theology<, the logos pertaining to theos, and thus in Islamic terms transmitted and revealed Word of God, “an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand” (Q 12.2).

Note that the CTC analysis, unlike Leah’s, is focused entirely on the secular, PR side of things and fails to address the religious. Immediately before quoting the paragraph in question (the second version above) in their commentary, the authors write:

Bin Ladin was following Shahzad’s trial in the news and was disappointed by his performance, which he thought distorted the image of jihadis.

Immediately following it, we find:

This is not the only instance that Bin Ladin worried about jihadis violating their oaths. The letter addressed to Abu Basir in which he is asked to focus on operations inside the United States (instead of Yemen) alerted him to focus on Yemenis “who hold either visas or U.S. citizenships to carry out operations inside America as long as they did not take an oath not to harm America.” Underlying Bin Ladin’s thinking is a distinction between a visa (ishara), acquired citizenship — which involves taking an oath (`ahd) — and citizenship by birth — which does not entail taking an oath. From an Islamic law perspective, it is not lawful to violate one’s oath (naqd al-`ahd or naqd al-mithaq).

Bin Ladin wanted to promote the image that jihadis are disciplined and conform to Islamic Law. Faisal Shahzad’s boasting that he lied during his oath not to harm the United States, therefore, is antithetical to the image of jihadis that Bin Ladin wanted the world to see.

Bin Laden wants “to promote the image that jihadis are disciplined and conform to Islamic Law” — but doesn’t he also perhaps want them to “conform to Islamic Law” for the sake of Allah, who commanded that law, and in whose path they are fighting?

What is the Caliphate, if it makes Islamic law the law of the Islamic world, or of the world entire, and obedience to that law is a matter purely of appearances?


The second issue that this paragraph beings up for me is that of taqiyya or religiously sanctioned dissembling.

Shariah: The Threat to America (An Exercise in Competitive Analysis—Report of Team ‘B’ II) [link to .pdf], which I take to be the closest thing yet to an indepth, scholarly presentation of the Boykin-Gaffney-Woolsey-Yerushalmi view of Islam, makes a big deal of taqiyya, the Islamic doctrine that permits dissembling under certain circumstances, quoting the Qur’an (3:28):

Let not the believers take the disbelievers as friends instead of the believers, and whoever does that, will never be helped by Allah in any way, unless you indeed fear a danger from them. And Allah warns you against Himself, and to Allah is the final return.

and commenting:

it is imperative that those whose duty it is to protect the United States. from shariah grasp the centrality of taqiyya in the arsenal of its adherents. This is critical because the consequences of taqiyya extend to real world issues related, for example, to Muslim overtures for interfaith dialogue, peace and mutual tolerance – all of which must be viewed in the light of Islamic doctrine on lying.

Bin Laden, in his letter to Mahmud / ‘Atiyya, is not writing to a an audience of non-Muslims to deceive them, he is writing to a comrade in faith and in arms. And he clearly does not believe that either taqiyya or the necessities of war (which often involves deceit) give jihadists the option to lie under oath — even for purposes of jihad, even within the enemy camp. Taqiyya, in bin Laden’s mind, appears to be a far more restricted doctrine than Gaffney and cohort take it for…

As Juan Cole puts it, taqiyya is “not a license to just lie about anything at all, or to commit perfidy. It is just a permission to avoid dying uselessly because of sectarian prejudice.” Corrie ten Boom lying to the Gestapo to protect the Jews hiding in her house might be a somewhat similar situation — as an analogy worth considering, though, not an equation.


Then there’s the question of oaths. CTC not surprisingly is interested in exactly what oaths, pledges, promises or words of honor exactly are covered by this sort of restriction, noting:

Bin Ladin may also have had in mind the debate between Ayman al-Zawahiri and his former mentor, Dr. Fadl. The latter reneged on his jihadi views and among the accusations he made was that the 9/11 hijackers violated the terms of their visa, interpreting it as a form of aman (safe passage) from an Islamic law of war perspective. Thus, from Bin Ladin’s perspective, it is only when a Muslim takes an oath that he must be bound by it; a visa and citizenship by birth do not qualify as an oath.

It’s an intriguing question. Murad Batal Shishani @muradbatal tweeted yesterday:

#OBL against using ppl 2 attack US if they paid oath of allegiances 2 it. (what would some “experts” & “intel” say if u said that earlier?)

And what, I wonder, would Anwar al-Awlaki have said to Nidal Hasan if he’d read that particular paragraph?

Thinking about Nidal Hasan puts me in mind of at least two oaths that Hasan, an officer and a physician, presumably took — the US Army Oath of Commissioned Officers, which interestingly enough contains the phrasing:

I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion … So help me God

— and the Hippocratic Oath required of all physicians.

What would their status be, I wonder? And would al-Balawi, the Jordanian physician and triple agent, have taken the Hippocratic Oath?

Come to that, would the Pledge of Allegiance bind those who — “under God” and with their hands on their hearts — recite it to refrain from attacking the United Sates?

I don’t know, but these are questions whose answers have significance in terms of what can and cannot be considered permitted or even obligatory within Islam — which is surely why both bin Laden and Dr. Fadl take the time to address the issue of visas. Such things are important to them.

They are what I’d call “mild” or “light touch” CVE issues — meaning issues to be aware of, not challenges to be shouted from rooftops or forced down anyone’s throat.

And I too would appreciate some answers, pointers, appropriate corrections, clarifications and further insight…

6 Responses to “Key bin Laden para raises translation and other questions”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    To what extent would OBL’s opinions on this be considered authoritative by jihadis?  There is no magisterium in Islam, and there is no Caliph anymore, so there is no single source to go to for religious direction.  Are there persons considered to possess authority who take a more expansive view of what is permitted as taqiyya?  I speculate that you could find someone who would do so.  There are, after all, over a billion Muslims, and many thousands of teachers and scholars, and most can probably get onto the Internet and publish their pronouncements.  Further, we have the trial testimony of one actual, captured jihadi who thought nothing of making and breaking his oath citizenship oath.  Is there any reason to think this conduct is not typical?  Violent revolutionaries tend to have, or to drift into, a purely instrumental morality, with the revolutionary goal as the only standard.  To see an earlier version of this same instrumental revolutionary morality, see e.g. Frank Meyer, The Moulding of Communists: The Training of the Communist cadre (1961).  Meyer was a former communist.  It would be interesting to study the recruitment, training and indoctrination of senior jihadis in comparison with senior communists cadres, such as Meyer depicts, and which he was himself.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:
    There is no magisterium in Islam, and there is no Caliph anymore, so there is no single source to go to for religious direction.
    It is true that Islam has no single Authority other than the Qur’an as word of revelation, even the hadith being considered in some cases “strong” and in others “weak” – and that accordingly, there is no one authoritative interpretation of Shariah – but there are certainly authorities with a little “a” in Islam: the Sheikh of al-Azhar among the Sunnis, for example, and other qualified mujtahidin, scholars qualified to issue fatwas (bin Laden was not among them), and there are varying shades of consensus or ijma’; in Shi’ite Islam there remains the testimony of the infallible Imams, and more recently the rulings of one’s own marja or “source of emulation” are to be followed; and within Sufism, the murid’s obedience is to the pir.
    Having said that…
    To what extent would OBL’s opinions on this be considered authoritative by jihadis?
    It seems to me that two groups of people would consider OBL authoritative on this kind of issue: those who have sworn allegiance (bay’at) to him, and those whose respect he has earned because in their view he resisted the influence of the princes of this world when others buckled under. It is in this second sense that he would be a role model for many wannabe jihadists, and it is on them that the potential influence of this kind of statement might have its greatest impact.
    Are there persons considered to possess authority who take a more expansive view of what is permitted as taqiyya? I speculate that you could find someone who would do so. There are, after all, over a billion Muslims, and many thousands of teachers and scholars, and most can probably get onto the Internet and publish their pronouncements.
    It is my understanding that what is permitted as taqiyya would correspond pretty closely to how immediate a threat is perceived to one’s own or one’s family’s life, one’s property, or to Islam. Since OBL clearly perceived Islam to be under direct and immediate threat and indeed was intent on waging war to defend it, it is likely that he would see taqiyya as more necessary than the many Muslims who see no such threat either to their persons or to their religion. Among the Shi’ites, taqiyya is clearly understood to be appropriate when used to avoid slaughter by Sunnis during sectarian warfare.
    Further, we have the trial testimony of one actual, captured jihadi who thought nothing of making and breaking his oath citizenship oath. Is there any reason to think this conduct is not typical?
    Bin Laden was clearly worried that others might do the same, which is why he wanted a directive issued warning against the practice. So yes, others may have been liable to make the same error – but if bin Laden’s views on the matter become more widely known, those who are prone to take his word as guidance, and who have become naturalized US citizens will be much less likely to take violent action against a state with which they have a covenantal obligation.
    That’s the possibility here as I see it…

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    This creates the strange situation of the US Government having an incentive to circulate OBL’s statement, and to promote his statement as authoritative — not something we want to do with most of the things he has said, obviously.  Of course it could not do so directly, which would at best be counter-productive.  Best case, some respected Islamic scholar would publish something (a fatwa?  i don’t know the correct usage for Islamic religious pronouncements) which would say to the jihadis, “look, even your fallen leader recognize that you may not break oaths when you wage jihad, so don’t do it.”  Otherwise, how many people will even hear about this?  

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    I have my own ideas about how one might stir this sort of material into the pot, but the main point would be for the process to work indirectly and by osmosis.

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    “Indirectly and by osmosis” is nice when you can get it, and I hope your ideas come to fruition. It cannot be seen to have had any fingerprints on it from the jihadis’ targets.    

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    The Navajo mythology explored by Joseph Campbell in his first publication, Where the Two Came to their Father — which was also the first volume in the Bollingen series, sumptuous and now exceedingly rare in its first edition with a portfolio of 18 silk-screens of sandpaintings — focuses on the twin heroes, Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water. Elsewhere, Campbell remarks that the Twins provide the essential myth of the Americas.
    Monster Slayer, as you might expect, tackles obstacles directly and powerfully. Child Born of Water, as you might suspect, handles things more in the spirit of water — as the Tao Te Ching puts it:

    Nothing in the world
    is as soft and yielding as water.
    Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
    nothing can surpass it.

    My predilections lean towards the Child Born of Water approach…

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