social-media social-media login options options

In Essay, ISIS Supporter Legitimizes Killing Of Women And Children


By: R. Green and C. Holzgruber*


The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

The question of the legitimacy of killing noncombatants among non-Muslims, especially women, children, and the elderly, comes up often in the discourse of Islamist circles, particularly following large-scale and high-profile attacks in major cities. In the wake of such attacks, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have been condemned by Muslim religious leaders and institutions for their indiscriminate targeting of civilians and noncombatants, which the latter say runs counter to Islamic law.[1] Senior ISIS leader Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani's recent call to the group's loyalists in the West to carry out attacks in their countries has again raised this issue among ISIS supporters and detractors in the Islamist camp.[2]

Al-'Adnani's Call To Attack Civilians

In an audio message released May 21, 2016, in advance of Ramadan, Al-'Adnani called particularly for attacks on non-military targets. He addressed potential attackers in the West who may have qualms about attacking civilians, and reassured them that there is no religious constraint on these operations: "We have been informed that some of you cannot carry out attacks because they are unable to attack military targets and they find it difficult to attack the so-called civilians. [A potential attacker] would then abort [his plan], since he would be unsure of the permissibility and legitimacy [of attacking civilian targets]. Let it be known to you that [spilling] the blood [of people living] in the country of the crusaders and combatants is not forbidden. There is no such thing as innocents [there]."

The following report will look at two essays by ISIS supporters aimed at rebutting the arguments against the targeting of civilians, and at providing potential attackers with authoritative religious justification for their actions. One essay was written after the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks, and was rereleased in May 2016 to support and justify Al-'Adnani's call. The second was written in response to criticism of Al-'Adnani's appeal to ISIS supporters in Europe and the U.S. by prominent Salafi-jihadi cleric Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi. 

Essay By ISIS Supporter: Three Cases In Which Killing Women And Children Is Permissible

The first essay, dated November 21, 2015, is titled "The Clarification on the Situations in which it is Permissible to Target the Women and Children of the Infidels, Even if They Are Not Carrying Weapons." 

The essay, by Abu 'Azzam Al-Tamami, was published by Al-Wafa' Foundation, a media group that releases articles and essays in support of ISIS. It was reposted on Al-Wafa's Telegram channel on May 22, 2016,[3] following Al-'Adnani's call.

Arguing from an Islamic jurisprudential point of view, Al-Tamami bases his claim on the differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the division of these latter into the sub-groups of ahl 'ahd – "people of contract" who are not to be targeted – and ahl al-harb – "people of war," who are at war with the Muslims. Regarding the latter, he states: "The blood of the people of war can be shed with impunity." Though he acknowledges that Islamic law prohibits intentional targeting of women, children and the elderly, he argues that this is permitted in three cases: First, when it comes as reprisal against the non-Muslims for their killing of the Muslims' women and children;[4] second, when it is not possible to distinguish the enemy women and children from combatants and to target only the latter; and third, when the Muslim fighters are using indiscriminate tactics, such as car bombs, heavy weapons, and so on. This last is based on the precedent of the Muslim army in the era of the Prophet Muhammad, which used catapults and similar weapons.

Following are excerpts from Al-Tamami's essay:

The essay opens by stating: "It should be noted that with regard to Islam all those who are on this planet are divided into three categories: First, the people of Islam who belong to it. Second, those who have made peace with Islam, whether by a dhimma, hudna [temporary ceasefire], or aman [temporary treaty of protection]. These people have rulings that pertain to them. Third, those who are not Muslims nor are they at peace [with Islam]. Every infidel who is capable of carrying a weapon is a combatant infidel who has no immunity at all.

"Ibn Al-Qayyim said: 'Infidels are either people of war, or people of contract.' The people of contract are divided into three types: First, people of dhimma. Second, people of hudna. Third, people of aman. Whoever is not one of the people of contract is of the people of war, and the blood of the people of war can be shed with impunity. As it is said in Bada'i al-Sana'i fi Tartib al-Shara'i, 'the principle in this matter is that it is permissible to kill anyone who is of the people of war, whether he fought or not. Whoever is not from the people of war – it is not permissible to kill him unless he actually fought, or was involved in [providing] counsel [if he was a figure of] authority or agitation."

Al-Tamami stresses that Islamic law does not recognize the distinction between civilians and non-civilians. He states: "Important point: The term 'civilians' has become widespread in our times, meaning non-soldiers, those who do not belong to the military or to the security forces. According to this claim, it is forbidden to target civilians for killing, and their blood is immune. This is a modern concept. There is no proof for it [in Islamic sources]; rather it stems from the trash heap of their rotten ideas, seeing that our shari'a does not differentiate between civilians and military men. Instead, it differentiates between Muslim and infidel. He who is an infidel – so long as he is not of the people of contract – his blood can be shed with impunity, whether he is military or civilian according to their terminology...

"What is the pretext for fighting [someone]?

"Whoever reviews Allah's book and his Messenger's Sunnah knows that the foundation for fighting is their involvement in unbelief. Ibn Al-'Arabi said of the verse 'And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah' [Koran 8:39]: 'The reason for killing in this verse is unbelief, since Allah said 'until there is no fitnah,' thereby setting, in the text, the goal as the elimination of unbelief. He clarified that the permissible reason for killing is unbelief'...

"Allah also said: 'Kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them' [Koran 9:5]. The reason for fighting here is unbelief.

"Allah also said: 'O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers' [Koran 9:123]. The reason for fighting here is unbelief.

"With this, it is clarified to us that the reason for fighting them is their involvement in unbelief. This is clear beyond any doubt, for whoever contemplates the words of Allah and the Sunnah of his prophet Muhammad."

Here, Al-Tamami brings up the main argument brought up against terror attacks on non-combatants – namely, that "there is proof [from the Koran and Sunnah] that stipulates the prohibition to kill women, children and the elderly."

Quoting three sayings from the Hadith which indicate the prohibition, such as"Allah's Messenger prohibited the killing of women and children," he then qualifies this prohibition: "However, these Hadith apply when they [i.e. the women and children] do not fight. Whereas if they fight or assist the fighting in any manner of assistance – then their blood can be shed with impunity..." He then quotes from several historic Islamic scholars, including Al-Nawawi, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Al-Kassani, to the effect that the injunction not to kill women, children and the elderly does not apply when they are involved in combat in any form, whether by reconnaissance, incitement, moral support, or by being in a position of authority.

The First Case: Killing Women And Children As Reprisal

Al-Tamami continues: "The question here is, if they are not fighting or assisting, is targeting them permissible?

We say here: If they are not fighting or assisting, it is permissible to kill them in certain cases. We shall mention three cases briefly, but before explaining the proofs we will inform you, with a summary of what the infidels did to the Muslims... "

Here Al-Tamami strays from the legal argumentation and embarks on a rant against the Western powers, accusing them of repeated mass killings of Muslims and saying: "Were we to examine the [numbers] of the Muslims' elderly, women, and children who have been killed, we would not have enough space. [This happened] in Kosovo, Sudan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Africa and other countries where the infidels – Allah's curse be upon them – let the Muslims' elderly, women and children taste the harshest punishment, in the form of killing, cutting of limbs, raping of women..."

Returning to the question at hand, he states: "After mentioning what the infidels did to the Muslims, we shall clarify the shari'a law ruling on punishing them in reprisal. It is forbidden to deliberately kill women, children, and the elderly, so long as they do not fight or assist the infidels against the Muslims in any form. [However,] it is permissible to deliberately target them in the following cases that we shall mention. First case: Reprisal, as Allah said: 'If you punish, let your punishment fit the wrong that has been done to you. But it shall be best to for you to endure your wrongs with patience' [Koran 16:126]. Although this verse was said with respect to the infidels of Quraish [the members of the Quraish clan in Mecca who fought Muhammad], the crux of the matter is in the generality of the phrase, not in the specific circumstances [to which the verse relates]..."

Al-Tamami quotes numerous Islamic scholars approving and justifying reprisal attacks against targets and using methods which are normally prohibited. To justify such attacks in current times, he writes: "How many members of the Islamic peoples have America, France, and their allies in the Crusader coalition killed? ... The Crusader alliance killed our women, children, and elderly, and frightened the Muslims and drove them from their lands; therefore, we must punish them in the same way of killing, expulsion and fear. It would be unjust for the Muslims' women, elderly and children to be killed by these Crusaders and then [we allow the latter to] go unpunished by the same methods by which they punished us.

"Why do America and France rage, why does their Crusader alliance rage, and why do the tawaghit of the Arabs and other nations rage? Why are flags brought [in mourning] over those who were killed in London and elsewhere, while this [killing] is but a small thing and part and parcel of what the Crusader coalition does to the Islamic nations? Is only their blood considered blood, whereas our blood is water? Let everyone know that killing the women and elderly of the Crusader coalition is permitted by the Legislator [God], when He, praise Him, said: 'Whoever then commits aggression [by fighting] against you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you' [Koran 2:194] and 'If you punish, let your punishment fit the wrong that has been done to you' [Koran 16:126]."

The Second Case: When Women And Children Cannot Be Distinguished From Combatants

Al-Tamami continues: "The second case in which targeting the infidels' women, children and elderly is permitted is when their killing is unintentional, not deliberate. This refers to cases wherein they are not distinguished from the combatants. The proof for this is the [Hadith]: 'When the Prophet was asked about the children of the polytheists – when they [the Muslim fighters] attack them [the polytheists] at night, they will hit their women and children. So he said: They are of them.' Ibn Hajr said: 'When he said they are of them, that means that is the ruling in that case. This is not intended to permit intentional killing of them, but rather the intention is that if it is impossible to reach the fathers by any other means besides crushing the children, then if they are hit because they are intermingled, their killing is permissible..."

The Third Case: Use Of Indiscriminate Tactics

"The third case in which it is permissible to target the infidels' women, children, and elderly is when firing on them with heavy weapons, or [targeted with] explosive devices or car bombs and the like – when it is difficult to distinguish those who have immunity from others. The proof of this is that the Prophet aimed a catapult at the people of Ta'if and shot at them with it. Ibn Qudamah said: 'Aiming the catapult against them was permissible. The literal meaning of the words of Ahmad [Ibn Hanbal] is that it is permissible, whether necessary or not, because the Prophet aimed a catapult at the people of Ta'if...'

"It is known that when launching a catapult, it is impossible to differentiate between those who are immune and others. In our time, this is similar to firing on them with heavy weapons, setting off car bombs and explosive devices, and so on."

ISIS Supporter Refutes Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi's Criticism Of Targeting Civilians With His Defense Of 9/11 Attacks

The second essay, by one Abu Al-Ma'Ali 'Uqail bin 'Ali Al-Ahmad, was titled "Al-Maqdisi Responds to Al-Maqdisi!" and published by the pro-ISIS media group Al-Sumoud Foundation. In it, Al-Ahmad responds to criticism by Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, an influential jihadi cleric who opposes ISIS and is a religious authority revered by Al-Qaeda, who had tweeted, in response to Al-'Adnani's call to ISIS supporters to carry out attacks against civilians in their own countries, that this was "destructive" and had written:[5] "Al-'Adnani called upon the Muslims in Europe to kill the civilians there without distinction and without differentiation, and without taking into account the harms, the justifications, or the consequences. This is the cause of fanaticism, and this is the evil of hooligans, for it is destructive. Al-Adnani is entangling the Muslims and Muslim women in Europe [by ordering them to] execute his demands, but when they are imprisoned he does not care for them, nor does he take any notice of them. Releasing a film is more important to him than releasing the captives. Is this how leadership is supposed to be?"[6]

In his essay, Al-Ahmad quotes Al-Maqdisi's own words in defense of the 9/11 attacks back at him, to counter his criticism of Al-'Adnani's statements[7]: "Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi said in response to those who criticized the targeting of the Americans in the very heart of their own country, saying they [the victims of the 9/11 attacks] were civilians:... 'The ignoramuses spoke and rushed into the matter, and so I heard many condemnations from here and there from groups who are affiliated with Islam and are claiming to call to Islam and wage Jihad in the path of Allah. They have hurried to condemn and renounce such behavior describing it as a gruesome and criminal action that is contradictory to Islam and its teachings. Most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have done so, as well as others like them from the groups of failure and irja'.[8] And the leaders of their fighting groups in Palestine [i.e. Hamas] have permitted this [kind of attacks], in which they authorized to kill Jewish civilians, and [to commit] further explosive operations in Israel which are focused on targeting civilians. Very, very few of these operations affect soldiers, as everyone has witnessed and heard...'

"Regarding the necessity of the death of those called civilians in every war [Al-Maqdisi] said: 'This is a truth which the unbelievers themselves know, even if they ignore it in order to lead the monks of the governments[9] away from jihad. Even the American army leader said in the beginning of their air campaign against Afghanistan, when he was confronted with the death of many children and women in the ranks of the Afghan fighters: This is what war is like. Losses among the civilians are unavoidable during war. So to hell with every soothsayer[10] who this crusader is smarter than!'

"After all this, Al-Maqdisi comes out against us, condemning the killing of the so-called civilians, openly and without any shame, in response to our jihad-fighting sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani (may Allah protect him)... This is an astonishing, strange, remarkable, and bizarre contradiction. Because how is it possible for him to permit a thing for the Al-Qaeda organization yesterday yet prohibit the same thing for the Islamic State today?!"


* R. Green is Director of the MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor; C. Holzgruber is an intern at the JTTM.

[1] For an in-depth review of the arguments against ISIS made by Muslim scholars see: Ella Landau-Tasseron, MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1205, Delegitimizing ISIS On Islamic Grounds: Criticism Of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi By Muslim Scholars, November 19, 2015. An example of condemnation of the targeting of civilians within Islamist circles can be found in the book "Islam and the Laws of War" written by one of the leaders of the Egyptian Al-Gama'ah Al-Islamiyyah, 'Issam Darbalah, as part of that group's ideological revisions and renouncement of violence. For excerpts from the book see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1301, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya vs. Al-Qaeda, September 27, 2006; and see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 309, The Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya Cessation of Violence: An Ideological Reversal, December 22, 2006.

[3], May 22, 2016.

[4] For another essay by a jihadi cleric justifying the killing of women and children, see MEMRI JTTM report Jihadi Book Justifies Killing of Non-Muslim Women and Children in Retaliation for Killing of Muslim Women and Children, September 22, 2011.

[5], May 22, 2016.

[6] Al-Maqdisi's criticism of ISIS's tactics goes back to the time when the group was led by its founder, Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi. For background on this topic, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 239,
Dispute in Islamist Circles over the Legitimacy of Attacking Muslims, Shi'ites, and Non-combatant Non-Muslims in Jihad Operations in Iraq: Al-Maqdisi vs. His Disciple Al-Zarqawi, September 11, 2005.

[7] Al-Ahmad quotes from Al-Maqdisi's essay "Wujub Nusrat Al-Muslimeen Fi Afghanistan" [The Duty to Support the Muslims in Afghanistan], which was published in 2001. The essay can be accessed here:

[8] The term irja', is a negative name used by radical Salafis to denote mainstream Salafis.

[9] "The monks of the governments" – Al-Maqdisi uses the term "monks" as a pejorative term for the establishment clerics who support the governments of the Arab and Muslim world.

[10] Another pejorative term for establishment clerics.