The Iraqi coalition’s battle against al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (ISIS) fighters in Mosul, Iraq appears to be coming to a close. Reuters reported:
“Seven months into the U.S.-backed campaign, the militants now control only a few districts in the western half of Mosul including the Old City, where Islamic State is expected to make its last stand. The Iraqi government is pushing to declare victory by the holy month of Ramadan, expected to begin on May 27, even if pockets of resistance remain in the Old City, according to military commanders.
As the battle intensifies in its final stages the civilian death toll rages on. Indeed, as TIME reported, “civilian deaths in the battle surged to an all-time high in March.”
The same TIME article made note of how ISIS is using residents of Mosul as “human shields.” Throughout the battle in Mosul there have been numerous reports — from intelligence agencies and news outlets — about innocent civilians being used as “shields” by ISIS fighters. It appears that these civilian deaths are caused by a mix of Iraqi forces’ and U.S. coalition’s tactics and the sheer audacity of ISIS’s practices.
How is it that ISIS can justify the use of human shields? Is it pure barbarism or have they come to see this as a morally reasonable act? Is this practice acceptable according to Muslim law? Is it even shared amongst jihadis?
Any truly productive explanation and examination of the current situation must begin with ISIS’s ideological justification for the use of human shields in war. We must also be aware that this ideological justification is almost universally condemned by Muslims across the globe and even garners significant critique from other neo-jihadists such as Al Qa’eda.
ISIS’s ideological justifications for the use of human shields stem from the little-known concept of al tatarrus: An infinitive verb meaning “to shield” and derived from the Arabic root t-r-s transliterated into words such as turs (shield) the term means little to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.
If individuals are aware of it, they may be familiar with its origins as an idea in the works of jurists and scholars such as Abu Hanifa (699-767), Ibn Hanbal (780-855), or Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). While the major founders of each legal school of Sunni Islam touched on the idea it was Ibn Taymiyya who issued a fatwa — a generally non-binding ruling on a point of law — on the permissibility of attacking the Mongol armies threatening the caliphate’s sovereignty in the Middle East even when they were using fellow Muslims as shields. While at first the Islamic armies would not counterattack, this fatwa gave them legal recourse to fight back against the Mongols even if that meant the death of innocent Muslims.
While numerous scholars would advocate that Muslims engaging in battle are admonished to protect the sanctity of Muslim life to the utmost, al-tatarrus allows for circumstances in which the obligation of jihad — imagined as a struggle, whether internal or external, to strive on behalf of Islam — overshadows the enjoinder to not kill Muslims.
“We must also be aware that this ideological justification is almost universally condemned by Muslims across the globe...”
In his work Understanding Islamic Fundamentalism, Sayed Khatab wrote that even so, the concept was limited to precise conditions and only to be used in specific circumstances of particular duress and absolute necessity in a time of truly defensive jihad (jihad al-daf).
Today, various jihadist groups — from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to al-Shabaab in Somalia — have referred to this concept to justify the killing of Muslims and innocent civilians with an injurious misappropriation that applies it to a completely different sociopolitical context than within which it first appeared.
In the hands of Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qa’eda, it has been emphasized and expanded on. For Al Qa’eda, Khatab wrote:
“[T]his concept legitimizes the killing of innocent civilians if they are the shield (turs) of the enemy’s army or if they provide the enemy’s army with a child (turs) of any type or form, either willingly or unwillingly — that is, only if there is no other option to engage with the enemy’s offensive army.”
Thus, al-Zawahiri inflated Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa to justify taking the lives of innocent civilians and, at times, to permit Al Qa’eda’s operatives to use civilians as human shields and to disperse themselves among civilians for the purpose of attacks or flimsy ideas of defense (this justified acts such as the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon or attacks on mosques, hotels, trains, etc. where Muslims were killed).
However, even fellow jihadists such as Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl) decry al-Zawahiri’s use of the term, condemn it as a gross perversion of Islamic law, and accuse Al Qa’eda and others who utilize this concept as guilty of murdering Muslims.
ISIS & The Human Shield
Despite these protestations and neo-jihadi debates, the concept has now made its way into the ideological apparatus of ISIS. ISIS’s propagandists and ideologues regularly site the idea of “shielding” or using “human shields” in Dabiq and Rumiyah — the organizations online propaganda and publicity publications — to justify the murder and destruction of innocent Muslim and non-Muslim civilians who, in ISIS’s eyes, threaten their caliphate and thus are considered unbelievers.
Therefore, within ISIS’s understanding — predicated as it is on Al Qa’eda’s vicious re-interpretation of al-tatarrus — civilians in places like Mosul, Muslim or not, are justifiably used as human “shields.” Within this view, using civilians as shields may even come to be thought of, or at least emphasized as, morally necessary for the sake of the survival of the caliphate.
It is to be expected, perhaps, that ISIS would then rely on such a tactic at every turn in Mosul. Furthermore, it might well be a feature of future battles as well. By understanding this as a morally acceptable act on the part of ISIS, policy makers and pundits may better be able to consider ways to adjust their approach — militarily and ideologically — in their attempts to rid the Levant of ISIS.