Religious Discrimination in Islamist Violence

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Religious Discrimination in Islamist Violence

Posted on: 19th September 2017
Ryan Cummings
Director of Signal Risk

The 14 August attack on the Aziz Istanbul café in Ouagadougou has had significant implications for the security environment in Burkina Faso. After a meeting between state officials, residents, and business owners in the capital’s commercial zone, it was disclosed that the government would enforce heightened security measures on a permanent basis. Burkina Faso’s minister of internal security, Simon Compaoré, was coy about what exactly the tighter measures would entail, but an increased police presence was soon visible along Ouagadougou’s Kwame N’Krumah Avenue, the city’s main artery.

The security measures were as much about mitigating risk as about projecting an image of a proactive government seeking to allay the security concerns of both Burkinabe and foreign citizens. Yet despite the palpable fear and policy shifts instigated by the 14 August attack in Ouagadougou, no group has yet claimed responsibility for it. In fact, one of the assumed perpetrators of the incident and the most active Islamist group on Burkinabe territory, Ansarul Islam, condemned the attack. The group’s stance may be linked to the identities of the some of the victims killed in the raid. Among the fatalities were the grand imam of the Masjid al-Kabir in Kuwait, Sheikh Walid al-Ali, and his assistant, Sheikh Fahad al-Hussaini.

The killing of Muslim civilians, let alone prominent Islamic clerics, has long been a contentious issue for Islamist groups seeking to motivate their actions in Islamic jurisprudence. While such a justification may be relevant in the case of Hukm al-Tatarrus – an Islamic doctrine that condones Muslim casualties in warlike scenarios – attempts to evoke the tenet in acts of asymmetric warfare, particularly urban terrorism, have proved problematic.

On the African continent specifically, leaders of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Somalia-based al-Shabaab have cited the practice of inflicting violence on Muslim civilians as un-Islamic. These movements have enacted this doctrine in many insurgent operations, differentiating between their victims and those spared according to their presumed religious affiliation. This approach was seen in Mali in November 2015, when AQIM insurgents separated Muslims from non-Muslims in the group’s complex attack at the expatriate-popular Radisson Blu Hotel in the country’s capital. Similarly, al-Shabaab sought to limit Muslim casualties in its attacks at the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi in September 2013 and at a university in Garrissa two years later, when people able to recite an Islamic creed were left unharmed.

In the case of Boko Haram, it was the gratuitous and indiscriminate killing of Muslim civilians by the Islamist group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, that first fomented a split in the movement in 2012, when a splinter group known as Ansaru announced its formation in the Nigerian city of Kano. Ansaru’s leadership cited Boko Haram’s wanton violence against Muslims as the motivation behind its factional split. The same justification was used by Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, when he justified his appointment by ISIS as the wali, or governor, of its West African branch, the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP). 

ISIS’ pre-eminence as a transnational ideological rival to al-Qaeda has raised further awareness of the justifiability of victimising Muslims in the waging of jihad. The creation of ISIS is rooted in the use by its antecedent, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), of discriminate violence against Shia Muslims in Iraq, which had pressed both the former al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and his successor, Ayman Zawahari, to excommunicate AQI from the al-Qaeda network. Zawahari did so in February 2014 when he disavowed AQI and inadvertently conceived ISIS. Since the group’s formation, al-Qaeda has been at pains to stress its breakaway faction’s penchant for killing Muslims and the associated impermissibility of such acts.

As for the attack at the Aziz Istanbul café in Ouagadougou, the killing of two prominent Kuwaiti clerics provides important context for why the attack has gone unclaimed – and even prompted Ansarul Islam to vehemently distance itself from the violence. The episode also offers important insights into how incidents of mass violence may play out in al-Qaeda conflict theatres in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Violence in urban locales will likely be directed at areas where the Muslim presence is anticipated to be low and that of non-Muslims high. Public areas frequented by non-Muslims, particularly places deemed forbidden to Muslims, could be increasingly targeted to avoid Muslim casualties deflecting from what would otherwise be powerful propaganda for the region’s jihadi elements.

Find out more