Revisiting Shaykh Atiyyatullah’s Works on Takfir and Mass Violence

Apr 23, 2012

In the eighth installment of his series of messages on post-Mubarak Egypt, al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri finally confirmed the killing of one of the organization’s senior ideologues and reputed operations chief in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan on August 22, 2011.[1] Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati, better known by his nom-de-guerre “Shaykh Atiyyatullah,” was one of al-Qa`ida central’s most versatile leaders and a longtime veteran of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).[2] Among his most significant contributions to Sunni jihadist thought was his participation in intra-jihadist debates on the issue of takfir (excommunication), the practice of declaring another Muslim an apostate. These debates have proven to be both bitter and long-lasting, pitting those Sunni jihadists who argue for a broad use of takfir on any perceived enemy against those who argue for a more restrictive and cautious implementation.

Atiyyatullah argued for the latter, even intervening in a debate with the late founder and leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, over the mass targeting of Iraqi Shi`a Muslims and even Sunni Muslims who did not support AQI. Atiyyatullah’s caution about the use of takfir was likely tied to his experiences in Algeria during the 1990s, when he was an LIFG emissary to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

This article examines Atiyyatullah’s position on takfir and how it fits into the broader intra-jihadist debate on excommunicating and using violence against other Muslims. Atiyyatullah’s efforts to regulate the use of takfir and violence, particularly after the Iraq debacle, were one of the most pragmatic attempts at intervention in this debate. His continued cautioning of jihadists to not misuse or misapply takfir and violence serves as an unintended confirmation that these were continuing problems among them, belying his attempts to deflect the allegations. Even in death, Atiyyatullah continues to serve as a charismatic voice for al-Qa`ida central and its allies, with the posthumous publication of writings and audio messages and citation of his previous work by al-Qa`ida central, its allies such as al-Shabab in Somalia, and “cyber” jihadists.

Encountering Extreme Takfir in Algeria
Atiyyatullah began his career in the 1980s as a member of a large contingent of Libyans, many of whom would later form the LIFG, a group that was for much of its existence dedicated to the overthrow of the regime of Libyan dictator Mu`ammar Qadhafi. Few details are known about his early days in the LIFG, although he traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s with a contingent of other Libyans for military training.[3] In 1992, following the Soviet withdrawal from the country and the beginning of a brutal civil war between Afghan mujahidin factions, the hundreds of LIFG members began to return to Libya to start the fight against Qadhafi.[4] During the 1990s, the period when it had a major presence in Afghanistan, the LIFG had close relations with al-Qa`ida before the core organization became affiliated with other groups in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia. Atiyyatullah was an early al-Qa`ida recruit.[5]

Following its return to Libya, the LIFG attempted to aid the GIA in its insurgency against the Algerian government. The GIA’s ideology, however, became increasingly extreme throughout the 1990s and it began to commit massacres of both its enemies in the Algerian government and security forces, as well as Algerian civilians who it deemed as “apostates” because they, the group’s leadership determined, failed to actively support the GIA.[6] The GIA’s brutal violence was eventually condemned by even its staunchest supporters, including Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who provided legal opinions (fatawa) from the United Kingdom that legitimized the GIA’s violence throughout much of the 1990s.[7] In the mid-1990s, Atiyyatullah and other Libyan jihadists traveled as part of a delegation of LIFG and al-Qa`ida members to the GIA to inquire about the status of missing LIFG fighters who had earlier traveled to Algeria.[8] Atiyyatullah’s experiences in Algeria, including a period when he was held captive by the GIA, likely influenced his views on takfir and the employment of mass violence against other Muslims, two issues on which he later addressed repeatedly in his writings and audio and video statements.

Intra-Jihadist Debates on Takfir
The related issues of takfir and the use of mass violence by jihadists against other Muslims has been the subject of intense debate among Sunni jihadists for decades.[9] Can large groups of people, even entire societies, be classified as apostates for either their support of the irreligious “tyrants” of the Muslim world or their acquiescence to their rule and failure to support jihadists fighting them? Which groups can be the legitimate target of takfir? What makes an individual who claims to be a Muslim abandon their faith and become an apostate? These questions are at the forefront of this debate.

In 2004-2006, the takfir discussion returned to the fore with the beginning of Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi’s campaign of mass violence against Iraqi Shi`a and others who he deemed to be apostates because of either their support or participation in the new Iraqi government or their failure, in his view, of adequately supporting AQI. This led to an exchange between al-Zarqawi and al-Qa`ida central’s leaders, including second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Atiyyatullah. Al-Zarqawi was also criticized by his former teacher, the prominent jihadist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, which led to the late AQI leader’s supporters to turn on the latter. Atiyyatullah entered the back-and-forth debate between al-Zarqawi and his critics with a December 11, 2005, letter addressed to the AQI leader.[10] He warned al-Zarqawi against casting a negative light on the Iraqi insurgency through his actions and noted that jihadists’ military decisions must be subservient to the “judicious Shari`a,” which lays out specific guidelines for behavior that even the mujahidin must follow. Reminding al-Zarqawi of the catastrophic missteps of the GIA in Algeria, Atiyyatullah urged the AQI leader to be cautious in his use of takfir, warned him against severe criticism of Iraqi Sunnis and those religious scholars (`ulama) who are righteous, even if they make errors, and instructed him to send emissaries to al-Qa`ida central’s bases in Pakistan to enter into consultation with the core organization.[11]

Atiyyatullah on Takfir, its Restrictions, and Mass Violence against Muslims
The debate over the legitimate use of violence remained a key interest of Atiyyatullah’s until his death, and he continually urged jihadists to exercise caution with regard to the use of takfir and mass violence against Muslims. Specifically, he sought to delineate the boundaries and limitations of what he considered legitimate violence in light of his interpretation of Islamic law. He also used his public position on takfir and violence to defend al-Qa`ida central and its allies from allegations that it carries out attacks targeting Muslim civilians. Thus, his seemingly principled stances on takfir and against mass violence had a key strategic goal: defending the transnational Sunni jihadist current, with al-Qa`ida central at its helm, from damaging charges that it perpetrates lethal attacks on Muslims.

Atiyyatullah further elucidated his views on takfir following an October 2009 car bombing that ripped through the Mina Bazaar in Peshawar, killing 137 people. The Pakistani and U.S. governments blamed Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qa`ida central for being behind the attack, but both groups issued quick denials and condemnations.[12] The TTP and al-Qa`ida central launched a coordinated media blitz to both deny responsibility for the Mina Bazaar attack and other bombings in civilian areas carried out in late 2009.

In the midst of this media campaign, an 18-page question-and-answer booklet was issued to jihadist internet forums by the al-Fajr Media Center, the shadowy online distributor of al-Qa`ida media materials. Entitled “Advice and Compassion Regarding the Bombings in the Markets: Question and Answer concerning the Bombings of the Peshawar Markets,” the booklet was composed of Atiyyatullah’s responses to a number of questions regarding bombings, takfir, and the use of mass violence against Muslims.[13] Asked about whether it was permissible to “rejoice and celebrate” the bombings because they had killed many people who had “serious shortcoming in religious affairs, thought only of their worldly life, refrained from jihad, deserted the mujahidin, and lived contentedly under the authority of an apostate government,” he responded strongly in the negative, saying: “Rather, the religious obligation is that one objects to them [these types of attacks on Muslims] and believes that they are a forum of spreading corruption, falsehood, oppression, and transgression and are contrary to the pure religion of Islam.” Furthermore, the bombings could not have been carried out by jihadists because Islamic fighters follow Shari`a, which prohibits such attacks. Using hadith to illustrate his point, Atiyyatullah said that those who disregard the prohibition of spilling Muslim blood “without regard” are akin to the tyrannical rulers of disbelief (kufr), degenerate and unrepentant sinners, and the Khawarij, an extremist sect that emerged in the seventh century in opposition to both the Umayyads and the caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Talib.[14]

Atiyyatullah reiterated his caution against the incorrect implementation of takfir and discussed its restrictions in a second question-and-answer booklet called, “Responses to the Ruling on Leaving for Battle and the Precondition of Takfir,” which was released on August 1, 2010. The judgment of takfir against a specific individual, he stated, is restricted to those knowledgeable in religion, such as `ulama, and is prohibited to all Muslims who do not have “access to [religious] knowledge (‘ilm).” Muslim laity are required to ask a qualified religious scholar if asked about whether a specific individual has become an apostate. Both `ulama and the laity, however, are sometimes capable of recognizing the unbelief of some groups such as those who are not Muslim or those who openly declare their apostasy. Overt signs of apostasy, he said, include cursing God, the Prophet Muhammad, or Islam as a religion, and those who express disbelief and ridicule of them. It is the `ulama, however, who should determine what is classified as serious cursing or mockery.[15] In his response, Atiyyatullah sought to place clear restrictions as to who was qualified to determine whether an individual Muslim had become an apostate and thus lessen the chances of a repeat of the GIA’s bloodletting in Algeria.

Jihadists must “abide by the guidelines of God’s law,” which forbids the unlawful killing of people regardless of “the extent of the enemy’s transgression and despotism.” They must seek “the success of earning God’s approval” because this is the loftiest goal. For this reason, jihadists do not engage in violence against Muslims or the innocent, Atiyyatullah argued again in March 2011. “Our legal (shar’i) and blessed jihad is one that has lofty and noble goals, which have the qualities of justice, mercy, goodness, nobility, honor, respect, reform, and success,” he concluded. “We remind our brothers, the mujahidin, everywhere of the importance of emphasizing and spreading knowledge about the importance of the sanctity of the Muslims’ blood and the obligation to take great precautions to protect and preserve it.”[16] Atiyyatullah even cautioned against wanton, retaliatory bloodletting against those who worked for the Qadhafi regime, instead urging Libyan rebels to “keep forgiveness and tolerance at the forefront when dealing with those people who erred and committed the evil of following certain [political] trends and making incorrect decisions previously [of backing tyrannical Arab regimes],” and call on them to “make true repentance.”[17] His pragmatism in embracing and attempting to “advise” the popular uprisings in his home country, Tunisia, and Egypt was also marked by prioritizing grassroots missionary work (da`wa) over the forcible implementation of Shari`a, as interpreted by jihadists.[18]

Conclusion
Atiyyatullah’s career as a major al-Qa`ida ideologue was marked by pragmatism, particularly with regard to the legitimate use of takfir. He cautioned jihadists, including the renowned battlefield commander Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi at the height of his popularity in transnational jihadist circles, against the use of mass violence and wanton takfir. As he wrote to the AQI leader, military decisions must be subordinate to jihadists’ strategic and political goals.  Atiyyatullah used his opposition to the overly broad, careless use of takfir to defend jihadists against charges that they engaged in illegitimate violence against innocent Muslims, arguing that because they were fighting “for Shari`a” they could not logically contravene it by perpetrating such attacks. His pragmatic approach toward takfir further manifested itself in his response to the outbreak of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the winter of 2011-2012 and spring of 2012. Rather than sternly lecturing the people of these countries about their duty to immediately implement religious legal codes, as al-Zawahiri has done, Atiyyatullah congratulated the people while gently but firmly advising them to work toward the implementation of an “Islamic state.” The key to doing this, he wrote, was through da`wa rather than force, an argument mirroring that of the late Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-`Awlaqi.[19]

The posthumous publication of new material by Atiyyatullah and the citation of his works by al-Qa`ida central and its regional affiliates as well as online jihadists show that this dynamic Libyan battlefield scholar-ideologue remains influential even after death and further highlights the ideological blow inflicted by his killing. In addition to his important role in al-Qa`ida central’s media messaging campaign and operational aspects, he was also one of the group’s last remaining members of the “old guard.” This fact, coupled with the unusual way in which he was built up as a top-tier ideologue, means that he is likely irreplaceable.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements including transnational jihadi groups, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture.

[1] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings for our People in Egypt: Part 8,” December 2, 2011, available on various jihadist web forums.

[2] Atiyyatullah was also known as Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyatullah al-Libi and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. It is believed he was also the writer of a December 2005 letter from a senior al-Qa`ida central ideologue to Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi. That letter was signed simply as “Atiyah.”

[3] Camille Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi Books, 2011), p. 51.

[4] Ibid., p. 64.

[5] Ian Black, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—From Al-Qaida to the Arab Spring,” Guardian, September 5, 2011; “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” in “Al-Qaida Sanctions List: Narrative Summaries,” United Nations, undated.

[6] For an overview of the development of the GIA and the group’s increasingly broad use of takfir against even Algerian civilians who did not support the group, see Mohammed M. Hafez, “Armed Islamist Movements and Political Violence in Algeria,” Middle East Journal 54:4 (2000): pp. 572-591.

[7] Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 188-189; Brynjar Lia, “Destructive Doctrinarians: Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri’s Critique of the Salafis in the Jihadi Current,” in Roel Meijer ed., Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 292-293.

[8] Tawil, p. 87.

[9] Mohammed M. Hafez, “From Marginalization to Massacres: A Political Process Explanation of GIA Violence in Algeria,” in Quintan Wiktorowicz ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 52.

[10] The letter was signed simply “Atiyah,” but it is believed that Atiyyatullah was its author. See “Letter Exposes New Leader in Al-Qa’ida High Command,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, September 25, 2006; Karen DeYoung, “Letter Gives Glimpse of Al-Qaeda’s Leadership,” Washington Post, October 2, 2006.

[11] Atiyyatullah, “Letter to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi,” December 11, 2005.

[12]  “Taliban Denies Peshawar Blast Role,” al-Jazira, October 29, 2009.

[13] Atiyyatullah, “Advice and Compassion Regarding the Bombings in the Markets: Question and Answer concerning the Bombings of the Peshawar Markets,” January 21, 2010.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Atiyyatullah, “Responses to the Ruling on Leaving for Battle and the Precondition of Takfir,” August 1, 2010.

[16] Atiyyatullah, “Maximizing the Sanctity of the Muslims’ Blood,” March 13, 2011.

[17] Atiyyatullah, “Tribute to Our People in Libya,” March 17, 2011.

[18] Atiyyatullah, “The People’s Revolution and the Fall of the Corrupt Arab Regime: The Demolishment of the Idol of Stability and the New Beginning,” February 23, 2011.

[19] Anwar al-`Awlaqi, “The Tsunami of Change,” Inspire, March 30, 2011; Christopher Anzalone and Bruno-Olivier Bureau, “Death of an Ideologue,” The AfPak Channel, October 21, 2011.