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Terrorist Rules of Engagement Pt. 2

Back in June I wrote a post about how terrorists have rules of engagement. Though they come from a completely different culture, Islamic terrorists still have an extremist ideology that governs their ability to fight war.

In other words, they have rules of engagement.

As if to prove my point, in the Spring issue of The Journal of International and Security Affairs, Mary R. Habeck penned an article called the “Jihadist Laws of War”. Ms. Habeck doesn’t use the same terminology, but she describes the various fatwas that al Qaeda created to regulate its fight against America, detailing how al Qaeda views the issues of combatants versus non-combatants, prisoners of war, and the spoils of war. Not surprisingly, they all radically diverge from the Western Laws of War, but terrorist ROE does exist.

Of course, al Qaeda’s rules of engagement lack any restraint when it comes to Westerners or non-Sunni Muslims. Osama Bin Laden and his followers “established that citizens of the United States were combatants” regardless of whether they wield weapons or not. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi would later twist rulings on combatants versus non-combatants “to declare all Shi’a--men, women and children--worthy of death.”

All of which I find interesting because al Qaeda is concerned with perceived legitimacy from the larger Islamic world. They feel the need to justify their actions in an Islamic context. Even though they twist Islamic law to endorse the murder of innocents, they desire religious approval--probably because deep down al Qaeda knows they are flying in the face of accepted Islamic law.

Mary Habeck makes this point very well, that terrorist (or takfiri or extremist) ideology does not meet the standards imposed by mainstream Islam. She admits that “salafi jihadis number...a tiny minority within the Muslim-majority world.” She also notes that Osama bin Laden specifically “uses violence to undo the interpretations of modern Islam.”  In sum, al Qaeda has rejected “both international legal norms and modern Islamic law.” If all US decision-makers mentioned this discrepancy more--and supposed “Ground Zero Mosques” less--we might actually have a shot at stopping extremists.

Mary Habeck’s article provides amazing insight on how al Qaeda views this conflict, a view many more US diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers need. It also proves a point I have had about ROE for years: insurgents and terrorists have rules of engagement, they just don’t look like ours.

But they have rules of engagement.

twelve comments

Normally I’m on board with what OnV says, but the point of this article (perhaps due to my own ignorance) eludes me.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had rules of engagement as well – kill everyone they saw.

Well it was said more in the earlier post. Basically, Sunni Muslims are off limits with many terrorist organizations. Also terrorist organizations don’t assassinate anyone and everyone, doing so in Iraq caused huge problems for Al Qaeda in Iraq much so that they had to change their name to the Islamic State of Iraq. AQI was even disowned by larger Al Qaeda because of all the bad press from the deaths of Sunni Muslims.

The point is, terrorists and insurgents are not mindless killing machines who wantonly kill any and everything that moves. If they were they would be zombies.

No, terrorists and insurgents are warriors—in their tradition—trying to achieve political endstates and goals. Their goals may include a life and death struggle with the West and Shia Muslims, but they have rules that influence how they fight.


And I’ll be getting more into this theme next week. Rules of Engagement and laws of war issues are very important to me, and this article should really be taken in context with all the other ROE things I have put out.

I was glad to clarify today’s post, and again I’ll get into it more next week.

al Qaeda takes the Takfir view of combatants, as you said, thus they have theologically justified killing anybody… Muslims, non-Muslims, etc… Their ROE are thus whatever they want… which is to say there really are none.

They use a similar justification to get around the taboo of suicide. They use similar logic to shave their beards, go to strip clubs, and drink liquor.

@ Harrison – Then why did the leader of the Taliban issue a Code of Conduct? http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/blog/w..

Interesting link!

The article here seemed to deal mainly with al Qaida (indeed virtually every paragraph mentions the organization) and thus so did my response.

al Qaeda did or perhaps still does have rules for administrative and leadership questions as well as which groups to work with and to not work with but as for ROE them seem pretty non-restrictive.

Regarding your link this part seems to be a joke:

The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties,” the book says.

Well, 1. and this was in the article, al Qaeda has ROE regarding Sunni Muslims. Unless directly fighting them, they avoid killing them. That is a form of restraint. Not a strict one, but it exists.

2. The Taliban and al Qaeda know that in Afghanistan and Waziristan they cannot alienate the local populations that hide, feed and shelter them. Thus they avoid causing them death. This “joke”: ““The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties,” the book says.”“ is the one the American military can’t seem to learn.

Regarding the Taliban and killing those in Waziristan (I guess they do kill locals if they want as they could say anybody was a “spy”):

Monday, 22 Mar, 2010

Sources said the four men were kidnapped from different areas about two weeks ago. They were tried by ‘Taliban courts’ before being killed, the sources said.

The slain men belonged to North Waziristan.

The bullet riddled body of one victim, identified as Zamindar, was found in Spin Wam area while the body of Abdul Hassan was thrown near Machus village. The bodies of Mohammad Jan and Sajjad Khan were found in Spilga and Haiderkhel villages.


@ Harrison: And I’m sure those people they killed alienated the locals. I didn’t say they never kill locals, I said they try to avoid killing locals.

American/NATO forces do them same, but even last week a story broke about troops killing civilians. But if someone used that news story to say all Soldiers are murderers, I’d be pissed.

I’m sure their ROE are more loosey goosey than ours are but generally speaking it’s probably not good to kill the locals who hide you.