I Pledge Allegiance Against the Flag of the United States of America

How do terrorists pledge allegiance?

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, Annie Lowrey asks who might get the $25 million reward, and Jack Shafer says to follow the news skeptically. Dahlia Lithwick says it’s time to end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, and Dave Weigel looks at Congress’ reaction. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage is rounded up here.  

Men chant anti-U.S. slogans and hold up a photograph of Osama Bin Laden

A Guantanamo detainee named Maad al Qathani helped identify the courier who inadvertently led the CIA to Osama Bin Laden’s compound, according to a report by CNN. Al Qathani was a close associate of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, having sworn a personal oath to him. How do terrorists pledge allegiance?

With a vow and a firm handshake. According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who detailed the oath-taking process to U.S. interrogators, pledging allegiance to Bin Laden or his top lieutenants involved very little pomp and circumstance. (KSM claimed only Bin Laden and the late al-Qaida military chief Abu Hafs received such oaths, but other detainees claim to have pledged allegiance to lesser officials as well.) The subordinates didn’t drop to one knee, and Bin Laden didn’t lay hands on their heads or touch their shoulders with a ceremonial sword. Rather, the disciple simply shook B in Laden’s hand and uttered one of several promises. It could be the matrimonial-sounding, “I swear allegiance to you, to listen and obey, in good times and bad, and to accept the consequences myself,” or “I swear allegiance to you, for jihad, and to listen and obey.” Those more focused on martyrdom might choose, “I swear allegiance to you and to die in the cause of God.”

While Bin Laden was among the first Islamic extremists to collect pledges of allegiance, the Muslim practice of swearing an oath to an authority or cause—known as bay’a, bay’ah, or baya’t—goes back to the Prophet Muhammad. After one of the prophet’s envoys was presumed killed by the Meccans, Muhammad asked his followers to make a pledge to avenge the death. According to certain accounts, participants in the so-called “Pledge of the Tree” placed their hands on Muhammad’s as they took their oath. It may be that this story of Muslims vowing to fight on behalf of their own appealed to Bin Laden.

There are other kinds of bay’a that have nothing to do with vengeance or violence. During the first few centuries after Muhammad’s passing, elders gathered upon the death of the caliph to recognize a successor. (Sometimes the recently deceased caliph had already identified his successor. Other times the elders had to make a choice on their own.) In this case, bay’a referred to their recognition of the new caliph’s political authority.

Few peaceful modern Muslims will ever have occasion to pledge bay’a. The exception is in Sufism, where new adherents to a particular order can pledge bay’a to the doctrines and practices espoused by the head of that movement.

Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, can hardly avoid bay’a. Following Bin Laden’s lead, many other Islamic terror groups adopted the practice. For example, members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida affiliate in Southeast Asia, are expected to pledge allegiance to the emir of the organization. (Authorities have captured the group’s last two emirs, and the current head is unknown.) When the FBI publicizes terrorism charges, they frequently point out that the defendant took an oath to an extremist group.

Intelligence officials also track who pledges bay’a to whom to establish hierarchical relationships within an organization. But this can get tricky. There have been reports that Bin Laden himself pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar in 1998, largely to prevent the Taliban head from handing him over to Saudi authorities. But some Bin Laden associates have contradicted those claims. To this day the relationship between the two men remains murky.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Brannon Wheeler of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. (The views in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Naval Academy or the U.S. government.)