Cracks in the Foundation

Cracks in the Foundation

I spent the day today at a fascinating day-long conference organized by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point about the various internal and external challenges to al-Qaeda within the Islamic world.  By Chatham House Rule I can”t talk about the specifics of who was there or what was said, but I can say that it was one of the more interesting events of its kind I”ve been to lately.    Speakers looked in depth at the experience of radical Islamist movements in Yemen and Algeria, the internal arguments within jihadist circles (including some made famous recently by Larry Wright and Peter Bergen, but others as well), the various ramifications of al-Qaeda”s relationship with various affiliate movements from Iraq to the Maghreb, the role of various trends in Saudi salafism, and more. Wish I could offer more detail but really can”t. 

There”s no rule against my describing my own talk, though.  I spoke about the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood:  not about the arguments over whether and how to engage with the MB, and not about the deep history of the relationship (back to the splits in the Egyptian MB over Qutb) but specifically over how AQ and the MB view each other today.   While I”m not going to reproduce the whole talk here (I will be turning it into an article very soon if I can just find the time), and I”m not going to repeat familiar parts such as the core doctrinal differences between the two movements, the basic argument was that this long-simmering relationship turned “hot” in late 2005 – early 2006. It has increasingly emerged as a central ideological battlefield within Islamist politics, triggered by Zarqawi”s bombing of the hotels in Amman (which made things very difficult for the Jordanian MB), the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 (perhaps the single most divisive moment), the Hezbollah-Israel conflict (where much of the MB sided with Hezbollah but jihadist purists refused to accept the Shia party as legitimate), and – of course – Iraq.  Keeping in mind the importance of local variation (MB organizations really differ from country to country) and splits within individual MB organizations (the struggles between different trends within MB youth), it”s difficult to miss the rising salience of the core doctrinal and organizational divides. 

It isn”t always appreciated the extent to which Iraq proved a particular challenge to the MB.  Most MB members opposed the war, and supported the “muqawima”.  But the rise of Zarqawi”s methods and ideology repelled many of them, leading to sharp public controversies between Zarqawi and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (among others).   It is quite interesting that there has been virtually no evidence of any MB ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq, while in one al-Ekhlaas posting in October 2007, Abdullah Mansour complained:  ‘why has the Ikhwan not issued one official statement calling its followers to jihad in Iraq?”  The decision of the MB”s Islamic Party to contest elections in 2005 and join the government placed it at sharp odds with prevailing sentiment in most of the Islamic world, not just al-Qaeda, and disturbed many within the Muslim Brotherhood itself – tying Jordanian and Egyptian MB leaders who I”ve interviewed over the last couple of years into knots. It highlighted, according to the Palestinian-Jordanian journalist Yasir al-Za”atra, the absence of any real global MB organization able to control its national organizations. 

The split between the nationalist jihadist “muqawima” factions and the Islamic State of Iraq (AQI) in April 2007 drove this to a fever pitch, with the jihadist forums (led by statements by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) coming to define nearly all of their Islamic rivals as “Ikhwani”… wiith this label extending even to salafi stalwarts such as Abdullah Janabi, the “hero” of Falluja,  Hareth al-Dhari of the Assocation of Muslim Scholar of Iraq, the Islamic Army of Iraq, al-Jazeera (or, as they call it al-Khanzeera), and even at one point Hamed al-Ali.  Shamal al-Baghdadi summed this up a few months ago on an al-Ekhlaas posting, confessing that he didn”t “know where to start with the conspiracies, treasons, hateful alliances”, dubbing them the “ikhwan of apostasy, living under thumb of the tyrants and ruwafidh.. they are no better than Awakenings,  Abu Rishas by another name.”  

At any rate, my talk drew on both my ongoing research into the Muslim Brotherhood and on a rather vast quantity of postings on jihadist forums over the last five years to track the eruption of the “Ikhwan issue” in the jihadist consciousness and the MB response.   Among the many, many examples that I drew upon were the works of Akram Hijazi, a Jordanian who has emerged as one of key ideologues of the centrality of MB/AQ conflict (perhaps because he’s Jordanian, where salafi jihadists much stronger than in most of Arab world); a massive five part expose by Abd al-Majid Abd al-Karim Hazeen on al-Ekhlaas in August 2007 of “the conspiracies of the Ikhwan against Islam and its people”; a number of direct appeals to Brotherhood members to join the jihad; the surprisingly large amount of time Ayman al-Zawahiri devoted to the MB, Hamas and Qaradawi in his Q+A session;  and dozens of others.  As ‘abu qandahar’ wrote on the al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the “Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan.”   How and why that came to be so – and whether it”s really even true – is a fascinating story… which will have to wait for that article!