The US government on Wednesday released a tranche of declassified documents revealing some of Osama bin Laden’s inner thoughts, including on climate change and aid.
His views on humanitarianism have attracted a fair degree of mockery; few will look for advice on compassion from a man who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that killed more than 3,000 people in New York.
Yet for humanitarian organisations seeking to deliver aid to needy people in areas where Islamist militants hold sway, there are lessons to learn.
1. Even militant Islam acknowledges aid
Humanitarianism is an inherent part of Islamic laws and traditions. Annual alms-giving is a religious obligation, and the Muslim Holy book, the Koran, gives the needy a right to aid.
Bin Laden’s writings reflect this understanding. In an undated document, possibly drafted after the 2010 Pakistan floods, the former al-Qaeda leader was not inherently hostile to aid; in fact, he stressed its importance. While he deemed the “secularist” belief that disasters could be prevented arrogant (because, in his view, disasters are the will of God), he described relief efforts as insufficient, and said that aid “will always be crucial” and that its quality, method and timing needed improvement.
Some scholars of Islam see the centrality of the poor’s right to assistance under Islamic law as imposing a requirement on Muslim fighters in conflict situations to either provide aid themselves or allow others to do so – presumably paving the way for acceptable international aid work. The Islamic tradition of safe passage or aman allows aid workers to negotiate pledges of security in territory controlled by Muslim groups.
Bin Laden called for the establishment of a relief organisation that would go beyond temporary assistance to deal with the “frequent, diverse and massive consequences of climate change” – what the aid industry might call building “resilience”. But while he did not explicitly say so, the tone throughout his text suggested this organisation would not only have to be Muslim but meet further criteria to be legitimate in his eyes.
2. Aid delivered by Muslims is not immune
Aware of the need for local legitimacy and acceptance, many aid agencies working in contexts where Islamist militants are present have hired Muslim staff who speak the language and understand local culture and dynamics. But bin Laden’s text suggests that even Muslims can be treated with disdain and suspicion.
He cited a charity headquartered in London and “calling itself ‘Islamic’,” whose female staff in Pakistan worked side by side with men in tight pants and full make-up, and which was forced by UN standards to distribute aid to non-Muslims.
“Neither could the principles of the relief organization possibly be Islamic nor could the services it provides possibly be good for Muslims,” he concluded.
This singling out challenges assumptions about which NGOs have better access to areas controlled by Islamist militants, according to Ashley Jackson, research associate at the Overseas Development Institute.
“There’s a common argument that Islamic organisations are more likely to be accepted,” Jackson, author of numerous studies on humanitarian engagement with Islamist militants, told IRIN. "Actually, we don’t see too much evidence of that in Somalia or Afghanistan anyway - a little but not much. And they may actually be subject to more scrutiny or different expectations, which [bin Laden’s] comments fall into line with.”
3. Aid agencies are seen as partial
Part of bin Laden’s frustration with the unnamed Muslim British charity was its alignment with standards and principles he saw as partial. He claimed NGOs were too close to the United Nations and failed to stand by their own stated objective of neutrality.
He recounted asking the charity to provide aid to injured Islamist fighters or mujahidin in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. He was told by a senior employee that it would be “next to impossible, as they are watched by the intelligence and governments, and without recognition and facilitation they could not even breathe.”
For bin Laden, this was clear support for one side of the conflict – “the Mujahidin are also victims and they have both sick and wounded families” – and in this case, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) would concur.
“This is ingrained in IHL – that once a person is wounded, or a prisoner, then he ceases to be a combatant and is deserving of humanitarian assistance,” said John Butt, a scholar of Islam and the convenor of a humanitarian access group in Afghanistan, a consortium of around 30 international humanitarian organisations. “We need to remain neutral at all times. Once a person is wounded they are not anything. They don’t belong to any party. They are just war wounded, so you treat them.”
Bin Laden’s comments chimed with some criticism Butt has heard from other armed groups. The Taliban, for example, wrote an open letter to the UN in 2012 arguing that Afghan government bureaucrats – with whom the UN works closely – could not be considered innocent civilians, but rather participants in the conflict.
The perception that NGOs are in favour of one side often hinders their ability to reach hundreds of thousands of Afghans in need, Butt said. As just one example, hospitals in Afghanistan’s Helmand province faced protests a number of years ago after they allegedly treated wounded Taliban fighters.
4. It’s a question of terminology
In a rather frank assessment of international NGOs, Bin Laden accused them of “outside” speech.
“The expressions used – such as… field studies, the development projects, the food-security and the establishment of pipes' networks… – in their entirety are expressions used by the West, and bear certain or special understandings.”
This is a common criticism of traditional NGOs: as Jackson put it, the “professionalized” terms used by the sector make it seem a Western import. But in some cases, it’s just a matter of using the right terminology.
Butt, who has developed a humanitarian principles curriculum taught to graduates of Islamic schools or madrassas in Afghanistan, said he aims to show students that many of the basic tenets of humanitarianism are already to be found within Islam.
“That is the main thing that we have been doing: developing Islamic terminology that people really relate to. So instead of saying ‘we are independent’, we say that when we give humanitarian aid we don't have any other motive…The Western terminology puts people off… For example, humanitarian is a Western term; people relate to the word charity better…
“So you're just talking in the language that people talk, but it is the same concept.”
Aid agencies are increasingly trying to position their arguments for access and the protection of civilians within an Islamic context, sometimes using religious figures as liaison with Islamist armed groups. But the trend has been slow to develop because resorting to religious justifications can be seen as a slippery slope – somehow indicating that the purportedly universal principles of IHL are not enough.
5. Militants may be radical; they’re not necessarily irrational
While bin Laden’s positions may not be popular, they reflect a very meticulous rationalisation process, in keeping with the traditions of Islamic theology. The credibility of a Muslim leader’s position on any given question is determined by the Muslim community or ummah based on the reasoning provided to justify the answer. Even within jihadist groups, fierce, detailed debate takes place about acceptable behaviour in war.
Bin Laden’s interpretation appears out of step with mainstream Islamist thought when he implies, for example, that non-Muslims should not receive aid. But his theological interpretations may well be moderate compared to positions adopted by the so-called Islamic State, which just this week, for example, has kicked international NGOs out of areas it controls, according to unconfirmed reports.
This is relevant for aid agencies because it opens up room for negotiation. And aid agencies are increasingly investing in understanding Islamic law in order to be able to influence the decision-making of militants, including bringing theological expertise onto their staff.
For more, see our four-part series on the intersection between Islamic law, jihadists and humanitarian norms.