The South Asia Channel

NATO in Libya is a challenge to bin Laden's ideology

In the summer of 1990 I was a jihadist fighting alongside other Arab mujahideen, or "holy warriors," in Afghanistan against the country's Communist government. In August 1990, we heard that the Saudi government had invited American troops into the kingdom in order to protect it from then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and to drive his forces out of neighboring Kuwait.

The effect on those around me was instant: They were angry and outraged. According to their particular understanding of Islam, anyone who allies with non-Muslims, the kuffar, to fight against Muslims was an apostate; and according to their takfiri rejectionist ideology, the Saudi rulers were quite simply no longer Muslims.

Over the next few months, I was involved in discussions among the emerging al Qaeda leadership, including with the leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group (EIJ). From these debates emerged the ideology of al Qaeda, which advocated that any Muslim, regardless of his intentions, who allied with the kuffar to fight against Muslims was an apostate who should be killed.

This intellectual framework provided the justification for many of al Qaeda's subsequent actions, from the group's first attack on Saudi Arabia (the 1995 car bombing against the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh) right up to the present day. Bin Laden himself said, in a 2002 statement, that "supporting kuffar against Muslims -- even with just one word -- is absolute apostasy, according to the Muslim scholars."

Last week, I met a group of Libyans jihadists and Islamists in London, including veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan, some of whom had been involved in those discussions in the early 1990s. While I myself had rejected jihadism and Islamism in the intervening years, many of them were still committed to the jihadist cause. Some had recently returned from fighting against Qaddafi in Libya.

I asked them what they thought of the ongoing fighting in Libya, our homeland, and of the rebels who had been seen on the media chanting in support of France, other Western countries, and the United Nations. I was very surprised when these men unanimously said they supported the Libyan uprisings and backed the rebel forces.

"But how you can support the rebels?" I asked them. "According to your ideology they are apostates for accepting the help of NATO -- especially when NATO, as well as a mostly non-Muslim organization under the name of ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] is, in your own words, 'occupying' Afghanistan at present. And why were the Kuwaitis 'apostates' in 1991 for accepting Western help but the Libyan rebels today are not?''

They could not answer this question.

I then raised the issue of a mutual friend, Abu Urwa, a former shura council member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). He had recently been killed in Libya fighting against Qaddafi's soldiers, who are Muslims, while, overhead, NATO warplanes, piloted by the "kuffar," protected him and bombed his enemies.

"Was Abu Urwa a martyr or an apostate?" I asked. "Surely, according to your thinking, if he was fighting alongside the kuffar against Muslims, he was an apostate and a traitor to Islam?"

All the jihadists present said that he was not an apostate but a martyr. However, they could not explain the contradiction in their thinking.

The reason for this confusion is that the issues at stake go to the very heart of jihadi ideology. If a jihadist accepts that it is permissible in Islam for Muslims to support the NATO intervention in Libya and to fight against Qaddafi with NATO assistance, then they are essentially accepting that the rigid ideology of jihadism is imperfect and perhaps even wrong.

By admitting this, they are also potentially accepting that the original decision of bin Laden and others in 1991 to denounce the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments could have been mistaken -- and even that al Qaeda might have been wrong all along on this point.

Indeed, in the last month, Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al Qaeda spokesman, endorsed the Libyan rebels even though they are working in conjunction with NATO. According to bin Laden's categorical 2002 statement, this would make Abu Yahya a defender of apostates and thus an apostate himself. Either bin Laden was wrong, or one of the terrorist group's major public representatives is a traitor to Islam. Al Qaeda and its supporters can't have it both ways.

One byproduct of the West's intervention in Libya is that, together with the events of the Arab Spring, it has helped create a new broader regional narrative in which the West is seen as fighting alongside Muslims in defense of their freedoms, rather than fighting against them.

A less widely anticipated outcome of the West's intervention in Libya is that it is leading even committed jihadists to cautiously question and rethink core aspects of their ideology. This includes not only their understanding of takfir as outlined above, but also their attitude to nationalism and to non-jihadist Muslims. For instance, Abu Urwa, the martyred former LIFG commander, was killed while leading the Omar Mukhtar Brigade, named after a Sufi Libyan nationalist, while fighting under the orders of the secularist rebel council.

How this process develops depends on the progress of the fighting in Libya. A quick victory for Libya's Western-backed democrats over Qaddafi would probably lead toward more positive reassessments of jihadi ideology. A protracted and bloody civil war, however, perhaps fought against a background of declining Western interest in the conflict, could lead to jihadists becoming more entrenched in their old ways. At the same time, such developments show that apparently rigid jihadi ideals and ideologies are potentially malleable and that Western actions in the Muslim world can help undermine the very narratives that have for the past few decades provoked so much violence around the globe.

Noman Benotman is a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank in London. He was previously a senior leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).