CTC Sentinel: What to Make of the Bay`a in North Africa
Originally published in the Combating Terrorism Center's CTC Sentinel
Because of its formal structure and its contractual character, assessing who has pledged the bay`a to the Islamic State and whose bay`a the Islamic State has accepted appears at first blush to be a handy means to assess the Islamic State’s popularity, strength, and reach. However, the bay`a in North Africa has a different historical context and contemporary frame of reference than it does elsewhere in the Muslim world and particularly in the Levant and Iraq where the Islamic State has its origins. As a result, the topology of North African jihadi groups resists easy mapping and the convenience of the bay`a. The bay`a as a metric for gauging the expansion of the Islamic State and the threat of jihadi terrorism in North Africa is useful, but not exclusively so. The tragic attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis is ample evidence of this.
The Historical Context of the Bay`a in North Africa
For multiple reasons, both historical and contemporary, the bay`a resonates differently in North Africa than it does in the Middle East or Levant and Iraq. North Africa is nearly uniformly Sunni Muslim. There are pockets of Jews and a handful of Christians, but unlike the Middle East, there are no Shi`a. Although there is no concept of the bay`a among the Shi`a, the very emergence of the Shi’a as distinct from the Sunni is predicated in large part on the refusal of Husayn, the son of ‘Ali, to grant the bay`a to the Umayyad claimant to the caliphate, Yazid, at Karbala in 680 C.E. Yazid’s soldiers then killed Husayn, or from the Shi`a perspective, Husayn was martyred. This was a foundational moment in the Shi`a tradition, commemorated annually during Ashura. Granting or refusing to grant the bay`a has no such pivotal historical equivalent in North Africa. Rather than being a foundational sectarian event, the bay`a in North Africa is political, and as with all things political, it flirts with the profane, and it is ultimately mutable. After all, the bay`a is a contract and contracts are rarely for perpetuity.
In addition to being almost entirely Sunni Muslim, North African Muslims are almost entirely followers of the Maliki madhhab (pl. madhâhib), or school of Islamic jurisprudence (`usûl al-fiqh). Maliki interpretation of the bay`a is notably flexible. The school’s 8th century founder Malik ibn Anas argued that it was permissible (masmûḥ) for members of a given community to pledge allegiance to the lesser of two qualified individuals if it was deemed to be in the public’s interest (maslaḥa) even though “the normal rule requires that allegiance only be given to the most qualified candidate.” To be sure, being a jihadi usually entails being a Salafi, and one of the fundamental distinctions of Salafi Islam is the rejection of the uncontested authority of the four Sunni madhâhib and blind adherence to them, thus, groups offering the bay`a to the Islamic State are not constrained by Maliki interpretations of sharî’a. Nevertheless, regional precedent and ongoing regional influence likely factor into the ways in which North Africa groups think about pledging or not pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
The Bay`a in Modern North Africa
In fact, what began as a term applied to several specific historical instances during the life of the Prophet Muhammad and shortly thereafter became increasingly elastic in the contemporary period as different political leaders have tried to apply it to different circumstances. This has especially been the case with efforts to adapt the practice to modern nation states – or to groups who put themselves forward as alternatives to the modern nation state, like the Islamic State.
The bay`a has been regularly used in North Africa in instances that are only tangentially religious since at least the 19th century. For example, with the French invasion of Algeria in 1830, Moulay ‘Abd al-Rahmân, the Sultan of Morocco, accepted the bay`a of the elite of the Algerian city of Tlemcen, and sent soldiers to counter the French invasion. Moulay ‘Abd al-Rahmân occupied Tlemcen until 1832, but ultimately withdrew his forces. A year later, western Algerian “tribal leaders, ‘ulamâ` (scholars) and urban notables” granted the bay`a to the populist resistance leader ‘Abd al-Qâdir. Moroccan sultans continued the practice of the bay`a until the French colonial occupation in 1912 whereupon it was suspended. It was revived after independence by King Hassan II in 1961 when he ascended the throne. During Hassan II’s reign, the bay`a was renewed (tajdîd al-wala’) annually. This practice has continued to this day with Hassan II’s son, Mohamed VI. In contemporary Morocco, though, granting the bay`a is as much about the ‘ulamâ` legitimizing the monarchy as it is about the monarchy recognizing the elite among the ‘ulamâ`.
In Libya, Muammar Qadhafi also used the bay`a in a secular manner over the course of his rule. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Qadhafi received the bay`a or a “parallel to the traditional bay`a” from different tribal leaders to ensure their loyalty. He maintained the practice until the very end of his regime, having accepted the bay`a of tribal leaders as late as the winter of 2010 just prior to the beginning of the February 17 Revolution that led to his downfall.
Political leadership in Algeria and Tunisia do not solicit or accept the bay`a as such, but the notion is present nonetheless. In Algeria, the term bay`a has cynical overtones and connotations of blind adherence to political leaders. It is ridiculed as an antiquated practice that is in direct contradistinction to democracy and accountability. More often than not it is used as political satire to deride supporters of political leadership.
Jihadi Groups and the Bay`a in Contemporary North Africa
The granting of the bay`a in North Africa to the Islamic State then does not happen in a vacuum, sealed off from the term’s historic or contemporary usage. In fact, many of the regimes that jihadi groups have deemed to be illegitimate and that they have attacked used the bay`a themselves, which may have sullied the term’s use. All of this begs the question of what to make of pledges of allegiance or the lack thereof from jihadi groups in North Africa. Some North African jihadi groups have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and have carried out attacks in its name. Other groups have pledged allegiance and done nothing. Still others have stopped short of pledging full allegiance to the Islamic State, but have declared support for the group and have undertaken attacks in its name. And there are still other groups that are openly hostile to the Islamic State, refusing to support it or grant it the bay`a. What use, then, is the bay`a in gauging Islamic State’s expansion or the broader jihadi terrorist threat in North Africa?
For example, a group of jihadis in Libya who had joined together under the Islamic Youth Shura Council in Derna pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. They have subsequently carried out attacks such as the February 20, 2015 attack in Qubbah, Libya that killed almost four dozen people. Earlier, individuals affiliated with the Islamic State in Libya had targeted the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. The Islamic State in Libya was also responsible for the murder of 21 Egyptians. More recently, the Islamic State has taken control of additional territory in Libya, including Sirte and it has appointed commanders for its three main regions, the Fezzan, Tarabulus, and Barqa. The initial pledge of allegiance and its acceptance by the Islamic State leadership, however, only served to formally establish the group’s presence in Libya. The bay`a has not accounted for the group’s growth, the pace of its operations, or its spread throughout the country.
In Algeria, a small group of members of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) core battalion in the Tizi Ouzou region split off from AQIM and declared allegiance with the Islamic State in September 2014, simultaneous to their capture of a French tourist whom they subsequently beheaded. Like their Libyan counterparts, their pledge was also accepted by the Islamic State. Following the Algerian government’s rapid unrelenting response to the tourist’s murder, the group, Jund al-Khilâfa fî Arḍ al-Jazâ’ir, went silent. For six months, from September 2014 until March 2015, it was neither heard from nor did it carry out any attacks. It has only recently reemerged, but only in the form of a statement praising Boko Haram for pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
Elsewhere in Libya, there are groups that have expressed support for the Islamic State and have gone as far as carrying out attacks in its name but have thus far refrained from swearing allegiance to it. For example, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Brigade attacked the Mabrouk oil field on February 3, 2015 and killed at least nine individuals and took a further seven hostage, claiming all the while to have done so in the name of the Islamic State. The Tarek ibn Ziyad Brigade, however, has historically been associated with AQIM and it stopped short of granting the Islamic State the bay`a.
At the other end of the spectrum are declarations of allegiance to the Islamic State that do not appear to be associated with any group whatsoever. For example, in a 97 second audio recording posted on YouTube, a shaky lone voice declared the existence of a group named Jund al-Khilâfa fî Tûnis, a name clumsily resonant of Jund al-Khilâfa fî Arḍ al-Jazâ’ir. There has been no other mention of Jund al-Khilâfa fî Tûnis in any of the other conventional jihadi channels nor have otherwise accurate analysts of Tunisian jihadi activity identified the group. Importantly, Islamic State leadership has not acknowledged this pledge. Likewise a group called Shabâb al-Tawḥîd, which is potentially linked to the Tunisian Anṣâr al-Sharî’a, endorsed an initiative that it called Imarat al-Qayrawan: Tûnis al-islâmîya, or the Emirate of Qayrawan (the historical name of the area in which Tunisia is now located). The name of the group would suggest an affiliation or an attempt to forge a relationship with the Islamic State, but not only has it not officially offered the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, like Jund al-Khilâfa fî Tûnis it has not done anything that would suggest that the group actually exists beyond the internet. Although the Islamic State has allegedly claimed credit for the March 18 attack in Tunis, Tunisia, there is no indication as this issue was going to press of the extent of the Islamic State’s involvement.
Somewhere in the middle are groups that have expressed their support for the Islamic State, but have neither offered it their allegiance nor carried out attacks in its name, but are nonetheless active and dangerous jihadi terrorist entities. For example, the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade in Tunisia, founded by AQIM in Algeria, pledged support for – but not allegiance to – the Islamic State on 14 September 2014. It has subsequently carried out numerous attacks and operations in Tunisia, particularly in the Djebal Chaambi region, but it has never done so in the Islamic State’s name.
Further along this continuum are jihadi groups that have not expressed support for nor pledged allegiance to Islamic State. In particular, AQIM in northern Algeria, under the leadership of Abdelmalek Droukdel, continues to be allied with al-Qa’ida. Al-Mourabitoun, the group responsible for the single most-deadly terrorist attack in North Africa in recent years and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has likewise not acknowledged Islamic State. A third North African group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has also not pledged support.
Finally, there are jihadi groups in North Africa, and particularly in Libya, that are openly opposed to the Islamic State and its regional allies. For example, the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade that is allied with the Derna Shura Council is overtly hostile to the Islamic State. The Islamic State has even gone so far as to claim that members of the Derna Shura Council and the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade have killed members of the Islamic State.
In short, while the offering of the bay`a may appear at first glance to be a rough and ready means of gauging the Islamic State’s popularity and growth, the case of North Africa shows that it is anything but. First, there is no decisive explanation why some groups offer the bay`a and others do not – it is thus far impossible to predict which groups offer the bay`a and which do not. Second, offering the bay`a may artificially enhance the perceived stature or standing of a group that would otherwise barely register as a threat (most likely because the group probably does not exist beyond the digital realm where the oath took place). Third, offering or not offering the bay`a does not seem to be an exclusive factor that determines whether groups support the Islamic State or carry out attacks in its name. And finally, there remain other, active jihadi groups in North Africa who continue to pose a significant threat that are unrelated to the Islamic State.
As the case of North Africa shows, the bay`a is a political and a politicized term. It is grounded in the day-to-day rather than floating in heavenly perpetuity. The Islamic State may try to make use of the bay`a, but in doing so, it is competing for primacy over a term that has been successfully used in North Africa by political leaders from Morocco to Libya. In fact, North African groups that are entertaining pledging allegiance to the Islamic State may sooner associate the likes of Qadhafi and Hassan II with the practice than the caliphs of yore. But, this does not mean that groups cannot act in support of the Islamic State without the bay`a, and it does mean that there is an inherent risk in focusing too closely on the bay`a and allowing dangerous jihadi groups to go unnoticed simply because they have not pledged allegiance. This was precisely the case with the Bardo attack on 17 March 2015 and will continue to be the case in the future.
Dr. Geoff D. Porter is an assistant professor with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In addition, he is the founder and president of North Africa Risk Consulting. He specializes in political stability, violent non-state actors, and the extractives industry in North Africa.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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 For example, see “3è mandate : la course à la bay`a” Le Matin.dz, February 5, 2009.
 Benoît Faucon & Georgi Kantchev, “Oil Companies in the Cross Hairs of Libyan Violence,” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2015
 “Audio Recording: the Caliphate’s Army in Tunis swears allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi, December 5, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYD6voadVB0
 “Da’ash yukhatat l-i`ilan ‘Imara fi al-qayrawan’” al-Akhbariya al-Tunisiya, November 21, 2014
 Tafjirat al-Quba al-Juma’a, February 20, 2015