In May 2007, a fax arrived at the
Fadl”s fax confirmed rumours that imprisoned leaders of al-Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. “There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,” Fadl wrote, claiming thathundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.
Two months after Fadl”s fax appeared, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a video on behalf of al-Qaeda. “Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?” he asked. “I wonder if they”re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.” This sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadl”s manifesto – which was to be published serially, in newspapers in
Although the debate between Fadl and Zawahiri was esoteric and bitterly personal, its ramifications for the west were potentially enormous. Other Islamist organisations had gone through violent phases before deciding such actions led to a dead end. Was this happening to al-Jihad? Could it happen even to al-Qaeda?
A theorist of Jihad
The roots of this ideological war within al-Qaeda go back 40 years, to 1968, when two precocious teenagers met at
So it was not surprising that he was drawn to a tall, solitary classmate named Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Admired for his brilliance and tenacity, Imam was expected to become either a great surgeon or a leading cleric. (The name al-Sharif denotes the family”s descent from the Prophet Muhammad.) His father, a headmaster in Beni Suef, a town 75 miles south of
Both Zawahiri and Imam were pious and high-minded, proud and rigid in their views. They tended to look at matters of the spirit in the same way they regarded the laws of nature – as a series of immutable rules, handed down by God. This mindset was typical of the engineers and technocrats who disproportionately made up the extremist branch of Salafism, a school of thought intent on returning Islam to the idealised early days of the religion.
Imam learned that Zawahiri belonged to a subterranean world. “I knew from another student that Ayman was part of an Islamic group,” he later told a reporter for al-Hayat , an Arabic newspaper. The group came to be called al-Jihad. Its discussions centred on the idea that real Islam no longer existed, because
In doing so, these men were placing their lives, and perhaps their families, in jeopardy.
In 1977, Zawahiri asked Sayyid Imam to join his group, presenting himself as a mere delegate of the organisation. Imam told al-Hayat his agreement was conditional upon meeting the Islamic scholars who Zawahiri insisted were in the group; clerical authority was essential to validate the drastic deeds these men were contemplating. The meeting never happened. “Ayman was a charlatan who used secrecy as a pretext,” Imam said. “I discovered Ayman himself was the emir of this group, and it didn”t have any sheikhs.”
In 1981, soldiers affiliated with al-Jihad assassinated the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat – who had signed a peace treaty with
During the next three years, these two men, who had once been so profoundly alike, began to diverge. Zawahiri, who had given up the names of other al-Jihad members as well, was humiliated by this betrayal. Prison hardened him; torture sharpened his appetite for revenge. He abandoned the ideological purity of his youth. Imam, by contrast, had not been forced to face the limits of his belief. He had slipped out of
Zawahiri finished his sentence in 1984, and also fled
In the mid-Eighties, Fadl became al-Jihad”s emir, or chief. (Fadl told al-Hayat this was untrue, saying his role was merely one of offering “Sharia guidance”.) Zawahiri, whose reputa tion had been stained by his prison confessions, was left to handle tactical operations. He had to defer to Fadl”s superior learning in Islamic jurisprudence. The jihadis who came to
Kamal Helbawy, a former spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist group, was also in Peshawar, and remembers Fadl as a “haughty, dominating presence” who frequently lambasted Muslims who didn”t believe in the same doctrines. A former member of al-Qaeda says of Fadl, “He used to lecture for four or five hours at a time. He would say that anything the government does has to come from God, and if that”s not the case then people should be allowed to topple the ruler by any means necessary.” Fadl remained so much in the background, however, that some newer members of al-Jihad thought Zawahiri was actually their emir. Fadl is “not a social man – he”s very isolated,” according to Hani al-Sibai, an Islamist attorney who knew both men. “Ayman was the one in front, but the real leader was Dr Fadl.”
Fadl resented the attention Zawahiri received. And yet he let Zawahiri take the public role and voice ideas and doctrines that came from his own mind, not Zawahiri”s. This dynamic eventually became the source of an acrimonious dispute between the two men.
The guide begins with the premise that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with non-believers, Fadl asserts, resorting to peace only in moments of abject weakness. Because jihad is, above all, a religious exercise, there are divine rewards to be gained. He who gives money for jihad will be compensated in heaven, but not as much as the person who acts. The greatest prize goes to the martyr. Every able-bodied believer is obligated to engage in jihad, since most Muslim countries are ruled by infidels who must be forcibly removed, in order to bring about an Islamic state. “The way to bring an end to the rulers” unbelief is armed rebellion,” the guide states. Some Arab governments regarded the book as so dangerous that anyone caught with a copy was subject to arrest.
On 11 August 1988, Dr Fadl attended a meeting in
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in 1989, Zawahiri and most members of al-Jihad relocated to Sudan, where bin Laden, who had fled Saudi Arabia after falling out with the royal family, had set up operations. Zawahiri urged Fadl and his family to join them there. Fadl, who was completing what he considered his masterwork, The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge , agreed to go. “Zawahiri picked us up from the
In 1981, Zuhdy had been caught in the Egyptian government”s round-up of Islamists after the Sadat assassination, and for three years he lived in the same prison wing as Zawahiri, in the enormous Tora Prison complex. They respected each other but were not friends. “Dr Ayman was polite and well-mannered,” Zuhdy recalls. “He was not a military man – he was a doctor. You couldn”t tell that he would be the Ayman al-Zawahiri of today.” Zuhdy remained in prison for two decades after Zawahiri finished serving his three-year sentence.
In 1990, the spokesman for the Islamic Group was shot dead in the street in
The exiled members of al-Jihad decided they needed to enter the fray. Fadl disagreed; despite his advocacy of endless warfare against unjust rulers, he contended the Egyptian government was too powerful and the insurgency would fail. He also complained al-Jihad was undertaking operations only to emulate the Islamic Group. “This is senseless activity that will bring no benefit,” he warned. His point was quickly proved when the Egyptian security services captured a computer containing the names of Zawahiri”s followers, almost 1,000 of whom were arrested. In retaliation, Zawahiri authorised a suicide bombing that targeted Hasan al-Alfi, the interior minister, in August 1993. Alfi suffered a broken arm. Two months later, al-Jihad attempted to kill
Embarrassed by these failures, members of al-Jihad demanded their leader resign. Many were surprised to discover the emir was Fadl. He willingly gave up the post, and Zawahiri soon became the undisputed leader of al-Jihad.
In 1994, Fadl moved to
Fadl wrote the book under yet another pseudonym, Abdul Qader bin Abdul Aziz, in part because the name was not Egyptian and would further mask his identity. But his continual use of aliases allowed him to adopt positions that were somewhat in conflict with his stated personal views. Given Fadl”s critique of al-Jihad”s violent operations as “senseless”, the intransigent and bloodthirsty document he gave to Zawahiri must have come as a surprise.
The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge , which is more than 1,000 pages long, starts with the assertion that salvation is available only to the perfect Muslim. Even an exemplary believer can wander off the path to paradise with a single misstep. Fadl contends that the rulers of
Fadl also expands upon the heresy of takfir – the excommunication of one Muslim by another. To deny the faith of a believer – without persuasive evidence – is a grievous injustice. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked, “When a man calls his brother an infidel, we can be sure that one of them is indeed an infidel.” Fadl defines Islam so nar rowly, however, that nearly everyone falls outside the sacred boundaries. Muslims who follow his thinking believe they have a divine right to kill anyone who disagrees with their straitened view of what constitutes a Muslim. The Compendium gave al-Qaeda and its allies a warrant to murder all who stood in their way. Zawahiri was ecstatic. According to Fadl, Zawahiri told him, “This book is a victory from Almighty God.” And yet, even for Zawahiri, the book went too far.
When Fadl moved to
While awaiting a work permit from
While in Ibb, Fadl learned his book had been bowdlerised. His original manuscript contained a barbed critique of the jihadi movement, naming specific organisations and individuals whose actions he disdained. He scolded the Islamic Group in particular, at a time when Zawahiri was attempting to engineer a merger with it. Those sections of the book had been removed. Other parts were significantly altered. Even the title had been changed, to Guide to the Path of Righteousness for Jihad and Belief . The thought that a less qualified writer had taken → ← liberties with his masterpiece sent him into a fury. He soon discovered the perpetrator.
A member of Al-Jihad had come to
The great prison debates
Meanwhile, a furtive conversation was taking place among the imprisoned leaders of the Islamic Group. Karam Zuhdy remained incarcerated, along with more than 20,000 Islamists. “We started growing older,” he says. “We started examining the evidence. We began to read books and reconsider.” The prisoners came to feel they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path. Just opening the subject for discussion was extremely threatening, not only for members of the organisation but for groups that had an interest in prolonging the clash with
In 1997, rumours of a possible deal between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government reached Zawahiri, who was then hiding in an al-Qaeda safe house in
“I politely rejected his offer,” Zayyat writes.
The talks between the Islamic Group and the government remained secret until July, when one of the imprisoned leaders, who was on trial in a military court, stood up and announced to stunned observers the organisation”s intention to cease all violent activity. Incensed, Zawahiri wrote a letter to the group”s imprisoned leaders. “God only knows the grief I felt when I heard about this initiative and the negative impact it has caused,” he wrote. “If we are going to stop now, why did we start in the first place?” In his opinion, the initiative was a surrender, “a massive loss for the jihadist movement”.
To Zawahiri”s annoyance, imprisoned members of al-Jihad also began to express an interest in joining the non-violence initiative. “The leadership started to change its views,” said Abdel Moneim Moneeb, who, in 1993, was charged with being a member of al-Jihad. Although Moneeb was never convicted, he spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison. “At one point, you might mention this idea, and all the voices would drown you out. Later, it became possible.” Independent thinking on the subject of violence was not easy when as many as 30 men were crammed into 3m x 5m cells. Except for a few smuggled radios, the prisoners were largely deprived of sources of outside information. They occupied themselves with endless theological debates and glum speculation about where they had gone wrong. Eventually, though, these discussions prompted the imprisoned leaders of al-Jihad to open their own secret channel with the government.
Zawahiri became increasingly isolated. He understood violence was the fuel that kept the radical Islamist organisations running; they had no future without terror. Together with several leaders of the Islamic Group who were living outside
On 17 November 1997, just four months after the announcement of the non-violence initiative, six young men entered the magnificent ruins of Queen Hatshepsut”s temple, near
If Zawahiri and the exiled members of the Islamic Group hoped this action would undermine the non-violence initiative, they miscalculated. Zuhdy said, “We issued a statement in the newspaper that this action is a knife in our back.” More important, the Egyptian people turned against the violence that characterised the radical Islamist movement. The Islamic Group”s imprisoned leaders wrote a series of books and pamphlets, collectively known as “the revisions”, in which they formally explained their new thinking. “We wanted to relay our experience to young people to protect them from falling into the same mistakes we did,” Zuhdy told me. He recalled that, in several television appearances, he “advised Ayman al-Zawahiri to read our responses with an open mind”. In 1999, the Islamic Group called for an end to all armed action, not only in
The new thinking among the leaders caught the attention of the clerics at Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old institution of Islamic learning in the centre of ancient
The door finally opened, and Gomaa emerged. He is 55, tall and regal, with a round face and a trim beard. He wore a tan kaftan and a white turban. He held a sprig of mint to his nose as an aide whispered to him my reasons for coming. On the wall behind his desk was a photograph of President Mubarak.
Gomaa was born in Beni Suef, the same town as Dr Fadl. “I began going into the prisons in the Nineties,” he told me. “We had debates and dialogues with the prisoners, which continued for more than three years. Such debates became the nucleus for the revisionist thinking.”
Before the revisions were published, Gomaa reviewed them. “We accept the revisions conditionally, not as the true teachings of Islam but with the understanding that this process is like medicine for a particular time,” he said. The fact that the prisoners were painfully re-examining their thinking struck him as progress enough. “Terrorism springs from rigidity, and rigidity from literalism,” he said. Each concept is a circle within a circle, and just getting a person to inch away from the centre was a victory. “Our experience with such people is that it is very difficult to move them two or three degrees from where they are,” he said. “It”s easier to move from terrorism to extremism or from extremism to rigidity. We have not come across the person who can be moved all the way from terrorism to a normal life.”
Decades ago, I taught English at the
When I lived in
One day during my visit, I went to
Several faculty members I spoke to repeated the exhausted formulations that were so common among Egyptian intellectuals several years ago – that terrorism is mainly the consequence of
When I lived in
The jubilation felt by some Egyptians after 9/11 was tied, in part, to a hope that their lives would finally change, no doubt for the better. They expected that
Before 9/11, the Egyptian government had quietly permitted the Islamic Group”s leaders to carry their discussions about renouncing violence to members in other prisons around the country. After the attacks, state security decided to call more attention to these debates. Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who was close to the minister of the interior and was then the editor of al-Mussawar , a government weekly, was permitted to cover some of the discussions. “There were three generations in prison,” he said. “They were in despair.” Many of these Islamists had fantasised that they would be hailed as heroes by their society; instead, they were rejected. Now Zuhdy and other imprisoned leaders were asking the radicals to accept they had been deluded from the start. It was an overwhelming spiritual defeat. “We began going from prison to prison,” Ahmed recalled. “Those boys would see their leaders giving them the new conception of the revisions.” Ahmed recalls that many of the prisoners were angry. “They would say, “You”ve been deceiving us for 18 years! Why didn”t you say this before?””
Despite such objections, the imprisoned members of the Islamic Group largely accepted the leaders” new position. Ahmed says he was initially sceptical of the prisoners” apparent repentance, which looked like a ploy for better treatment; however, several had been sentenced to death and were wearing the red clothing that identifies a prisoner as a condemned man. They had nothing to gain. Ahmed says that one of these prisoners told him, “I”m not offering these revisions for Mubarak! I don”t care about this government. What is important is that I killed people – Copts, innocent persons – and before I meet God I should declare my sins.” Then the man burst into tears.
The prisoners” predicament unfolded as they continued their discussions. What about the brother who was killed while carrying out an attack that we now realise was against Islam? Is he a martyr? If not, how do we console his family? One of the leaders proposed that if the brother who died was sincere, although genuinely deceived, he would still gain his heavenly reward; but because “everyone knows there is no advantage to violence, and that it is religiously incorrect”, from now on such actions were doomed. What about correcting the sins of other Muslims? The Islamic Group had a reputation in Egypt for acting as a kind of moral police force, often quite savagely – for instance, throwing acid in the face of a woman who was wearing make-up. “We used to blame the people and say, “The people are cowards,”” one of the leaders admitted. “None of us thought of saying the violence we employed was abhorrent to them.”
These emotional discussions were widely covered in the Egyptian press. Zuhdy publicly apologised to the Egyptian people for the Islamic Group”s violent deeds, beginning with the murder of Anwar Sadat, whom he called a martyr. These riveting and courageous confessions also cast light on other organisations – in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood – that had never fully addressed their own violent pasts.
I went to the office of the Brotherhood to talk to Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the movement. He is a small, defiant man with a large prayer mark on his forehead. I reminded him that when we last spoke, in April 2002, he had just got out of prison. He laughed and said, “I”ve been back in prison twice more since then!” We sat in our stockinged feet in the dim reception room. “From the start until now, the Muslim Brotherhood has been peaceful,” he maintained. “We have only three or four instances of violence in our history, mainly assassinations.” He added, “Those were individual instances and we condemned them as a group.”
But in addition to the killings of political figures, terrorist attacks on the Jewish community in Cairo, and the attempted murder of Nasser, members of the Muslim Brotherhood took part in arson that destroyed some 750 buildings – mainly nightclubs, theatres, hotels and restaurants – in downtown Cairo in 1952, an attack that marked the end of the liberal, progressive, cosmopolitan direction that Egypt might have chosen. (The Muslim Brotherhood also created Hamas, which employs many of the same tactics now condemned by the Islamic Group.) And yet, unlike other radical movements, the Brotherhood has embraced political change as the only legitimate means to achieving an Islamic state. “We welcome these revisions, because we have called for many years to stop violence,” Erian continued. “But these revisions are incomplete. They reject violence, but they don”t offer a new strategy for reform and change.”
He pointed out that radical Islamists have long condemned the Muslim Brotherhood because of its willingness to compromise with the government and even to run candidates for office. “Now they are under pressure, because if they accept democratic change by democratic means they will be asked, “What is the difference between you and the Muslim Brothers?””
According to Zuhdy, the Egyptian government responded to the non-violence initiative by releasing 12,500 members of the Islamic Group. Many of them had never been charged with a crime, much less tried and sentenced. Some were shattered by their confinement. “Imagine what 20 years of prison can do,” Zuhdy said.
The prisoners returned to a society that was far more religious than the one they had left. They must have been heartened to see most Egyptian women, who once enjoyed western fashions, now wearing hijab, or completely hidden behind veils, like Saudis. Many more Egyptian men had prayer marks on their foreheads. Imams had become celebrities, their sermons blaring from televisions and radios. These newly released men might fairly have believed that they had achieved a great social victory through their actions and their sacrifice.
And yet the brutal indifference of the Egyptian government toward its people was unchanged. As the Islamists emerged from prison, new detainees took their place – protesters, liberals, bloggers, potential candidates for political office. The economy was growing, but the money was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy; meanwhile, the price of food was shooting up so quickly that people were going hungry. Within a few months of being released, hundreds of the Islamists petitioned, unsuccessfully, to be let back into prison.
From the Egyptian government”s point of view, the deal with the Islamic Group has proved to be an unparalleled success. According to Makram Mohamed Ahmed, the former editor of Al-Mussawar , who witnessed the prison debates, there have been only two instances where members showed signs of returning to their former violent ways, and in both cases they were betrayed by informers in their own group. “Prison or time may have defeated them,” Montasser al-Zayyat, the lawyer, says of the Islamic Group. “Some would call it a collapse.”
Dr Fadl was practising surgery in Ibb when the 9/11 attacks took place. “We heard the reports first on the BBC,” his son Ismail al-Sharif recalls. After his shift ended, Fadl returned home and watched the coverage with his family. They asked him who he thought was respon sible. “This action is from al-Qaeda, because there is no other group in the world that will kill themselves in a plane,” he responded.
On 28 October 2001, two Yemeni intelligence officers came to Fadl”s clinic to ask him some questions. He put them off. The director of the hospital persuaded Fadl to turn himself in, saying he would pull some strings to protect him. Fadl was held in Ibb for a week before being transferred to government detention in the capital, Sanaa. The speaker of parliament and other prominent Yemeni politicians agitated unsuccessfully for his release.
Fadl was joined in prison by Yemeni members of al-Qaeda who had escaped the bombing of
At first, the Yemenis weren”t sure what to do with the celebrated jihadi philosopher. There were many Yemenis, even in the intelligence agencies, who sympathised with al-Qaeda. According to Sharif, at the beginning of 2002 Yemeni intelligence offered Fadl the opportunity to escape to any country he wanted. Fadl said he would go to
According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, which had followed his case, Fadl was taken from his cell and smuggled on to a plane to
There may be many inducements for Dr Fadl”s revisions, torture among them, but his smouldering resentment of Zawahiri”s literary crimes was obviously a factor. Fadl claimed in al-Hayat that his differences with Zawahiri were “objective”, not personal. “He was a burden to me on the educational, professional, jurisprudential and sometimes personal levels,” Fadl complained. “He was ungrateful for the kindness I had shown him and bit the hand that I had extended to him. What I got for my efforts was deception, betrayal, lies and thuggery.”
Usama Ayub, director of the Islamic Centre in
The book”s first segment appeared in the newspapers al-Masri al-Youm and al-Jarida , in November 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the
Hisham Kassem, a human rights activist and a publisher in
The premise that opens Rationalising Jihad is: “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circum stances. His argument may seem arcane, even to most Muslims, but to men who had risked their lives in order to carry out what they saw as the authentic precepts of their religion, every word assaulted their world view and brought into question their own chances for salvation.
In order to declare jihad, Fadl writes, certain requirements must be observed. One must have a place of refuge. There should be adequate financial resources to wage the campaign. Fadl castigates Muslims who resort to theft or kidnapping to finance jihad: “There is no such thing in Islam as ends justifying the means.” Family members must be provided for. “There are those who strike and then escape, leaving their families, dependants and other Muslims to suffer the consequences,” Fadl points out. “This is in no way religion or jihad. It is not manliness.” Finally, the enemy should be properly identified in order to prevent harm to innocents. “Those who have not followed these principles have committed the gravest of sins,” Fadl writes.
To wage jihad, one must first gain permission from one”s parents and creditors. The potential warrior also needs the blessing of a qualified imam or sheikh; he can”t simply respond to the summons of a charismatic leader acting in the name of Islam. “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country,” Fadl warns. “They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves and prisons.”
Even if a person is fit and capable, jihad may not be required of him, Fadl says, pointing out that God also praises those who choose to isolate themselves from unbelievers rather than fight them. Nor is jihad required if the enemy is twice as powerful as the Muslims; in such an unequal contest, Fadl writes, “God permitted peace treaties and ceasefires with the infidels, either in exchange for money or without it – all of this in order to protect the Muslims, in contrast with those who push them into peril.” In what sounds like a deliberate swipe at Zawahiri, he remarks, “Those who have triggered clashes and pressed their brothers into unequal military confrontations are specialists neither in fatwas nor in military affairs… Just as those who practise medicine without background should provide compensation for the damage they have done, the same goes for those who issue fatwas without being qualified to do so.”
Despite his previous call for jihad against unjust Muslim rulers, Fadl now says such rul ers can be fought only if they are unbelievers, and even then only to the extent that the battle will improve the situation of Muslims. Obviously, that has not been the case in
Fadl repeatedly emphasises that it is forbidden to kill civilians – including Christians and Jews – unless they are actively attacking Muslims. “There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders,” Fadl observes. “They are the neighbours of the Muslims… and being kind to one”s neighbours is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing – “such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transport” – is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. “If vice is mixed with virtue, all becomes sinful,” he writes. “There is no legal reason for harming people in any way.” The prohibition against killing applies even to foreigners inside Muslim countries, since many of them may be Muslims. “You cannot decide who is a Muslim or who is an unbeliever or who should be killed based on the colour of his skin or hair or the language he speaks or because he wears western fashion,” Fadl writes. “These are not proper indications for who is a Muslim and who is not.” As for foreigners who are non-Muslims, they may have been invited into the country for work, which is a kind of treaty. What”s more, there are many Muslims living in foreign lands considered inimical to Islam, and yet those Muslims are treated fairly; therefore, Muslims should reciprocate in their own countries.
Fadl does not condemn all jihadist activity, however. “Jihad in
Fadl approaches the question of takfir with caution, especially given his reputation for promoting this tendency in the past. He observes there are various kinds of takfir, and that the matter is so complex it must be left in the hands of competent Islamic lawyers; members of the public are not allowed to enforce the law. “It is not permissible for a Muslim to condemn another Muslim,” he writes, although he has been guilty of this on countless occasions. “He should renounce only the sin he commits.”
Fadl acknowledges that “terrorising the enemy is a legitimate duty”; however, he points out, “legitimate terror” has many constraints. Al-Qaeda”s terrorist attacks in
The most original argument in the book and the interview is Fadl”s assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 “betrayed the enemy”, because they had been given US visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the
At one point, Fadl observes, “People hate
Fadl”s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare. If the security services in
As the Muslim world awaited Zawahiri”s inevitable response, the press and the clergy were surprisingly muted. One reason was that Fadl”s revisions raised doubts about political activity that many Muslims do not regard as terror – for instance, the resistance movements, in
A number of Muslim clerics struggled to answer Dr Fadl”s broad critique of political bloodshed. Many had issued fatwas endorsing the very actions Fadl now declared to be unjustified. Their responses were often surprising. For instance, Sheikh Hamid al-Ali, an influential Salafi cleric in
The decision of radical Islamist groups to adopt a peaceful path does not necessarily mean, however, they can evolve into political parties. “We have to admit we do not have in our land a true political process worthy of the name,” Ali argued. “What we have are regimes that play a game in which they use whatever will guarantee their continued existence.”
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian Islamist living in
Jihadist publications were filled with condemnations of Fadl”s revisions. Hani el-Sibai, the Islamist attorney, is a Zawahiri loyalist who now runs a political website in
Even so, the fact that al-Qaeda followers and sympathisers were paying so much attention to Fadl”s manuscript made it imperative that Zawahiri offer a definitive rebuttal. Since al-Qaeda”s violent ideology rested, in part, on Fadl”s foundation, Zawahiri would have to find a way to discredit the author without destroying the authority of his own organisation. It was a tricky task.
Zawahiri”s main problem in countering Fadl was his own lack of standing as a religious scholar. “Al-Qaeda has no one who is qualified from a Sharia perspective to make a response,” Fadl boasted to al-Hayat . “All of them – bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others – are not religious scholars on whose opinion you can count. They are ordinary persons.” Of course, Fadl himself had no formal religious training, either.
In February this year, Zawahiri announced in a video he had finished a “letter” responding to Fadl”s book. “The Islam presented by that document is the one that
The “letter”, which finally appeared on the internet in March, was nearly 200 pages long. “This message I present to the reader today is among the most difficult I have ever written in my life,” Zawahiri admits in his introduction. Although the text is laden with footnotes and lengthy citations from Islamic scholars, Zawahiri”s strategy is apparent from the beginning. Whereas Fadl”s book is a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of al-Qaeda”s theology, Zawahiri navigates his argument toward the familiar shores of the “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy. Zawahiri claims Fadl wrote his book “in the spirit of the Minister of the Interior”. He characterises it as a desperate attempt by the enemies of Islam –
In presenting al-Qaeda”s defence, Zawahiri clearly displays the moral relativism that has taken over the organisation. “Keep in mind that we have the right to do to the infidels what they have done to us,” he writes. “We bomb them as they bomb us, even if we kill someone who is not permitted to be killed.” He compares 9/11 to the 1998 American bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in
When Zawahiri questions the sanctity of a visa, which Fadl equates with a mutual contract of safe passage, he consults an English dictionary and finds in the definition of “visa” no mention of a guarantee of protection. “Even if the contract is based on international agreements, we are not bound by these agreements,” Zawahiri claims, citing two radical clerics who support his view. In any case,
Zawahiri makes some telling psychological points; for instance, he says that the imprisoned Fadl is projecting his own weakness on the mujahideen, who have grown stronger since Fadl deserted them, 15 years earlier. “The Islamic mujahid movement was not defeated, by the grace of God; indeed, because of its patience, steadfastness and thoughtfulness, it is heading toward victory,” he writes. He cites the strikes on 9/11 and the ongoing battles in
To dispute Fadl”s assertion that Muslims living in non-Islamic countries are treated fairly, Zawahiri points out that in some western countries Muslim girls are forbidden to wear hijab to school. Muslim men are prevented from marrying more than one wife, and from beating their wives, as allowed by some interpretations of Sharia. Muslims are barred from donating money to certain Islamic causes, although money is freely and openly raised for
Writing about the treatment of tourists, Zawahiri says, “The mujahideen don”t kidnap people randomly” – they kidnap or harm tourists to send a message to their home countries. “We don”t attack Brazilian tourists in
As for 9/11, Zawahiri writes, “The mujahideen didn”t attack the west in its home country with suicide attacks in order to break treaties, or out of a desire to spill blood, or because they were half-mad, or because they suffer from frustration and failure, as many imagine. They attacked it because they were forced to defend their community and their sacred religion from centuries of aggression.”
Zawahiri”s argument demonstrates why Islam is so vulnerable to radicalisation. It is a religion that was born in conflict, and in its long history it has developed a reservoir of opinions and precedents that are supposed to govern the behaviour of Muslims toward their enemies. Some of Zawahiri”s commentary may seem comically academic, as in this citation in support of the need for Muslims to prepare for jihad: “Imam Ahmad said: “We heard from Harun bin Ma”ruf, citing Abu Wahab, who quoted Amru bin al-Harith citing Abu Ali Tamamah bin Shafi that he heard Uqbah bin Amir saying, “I heard the Prophet say from the pulpit: “Against them make ready your strength.”” Strength refers to shooting arrows and other projectiles from instruments of war.”
And yet such proof of the rightfulness of jihad, or taking captives, or slaughtering the enemy is easily found in the commentaries of scholars, the rulings of Sharia courts, the volumes of the Prophet”s sayings, and the Koran itself. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Egyptian Grand Mufti, has pointed out that literalism is often the prelude to extremism. “We must not oversimplify,” he told me. Crude interpretations of Islamic texts can lead men like Zawahiri to conclude that murder should be celebrated. They come to believe religion is science. They see their actions as logical, righteous and mandatory. In this fashion, a surgeon is transformed from a healer into a killer, but only if the candle of individual conscience has been extinguished.
Several times in his lengthy response, Zawahiri complains of double standards when critics attack al-Qaeda”s tactics but ignore similar actions on the part of Palestinian organisations. He notes that Fadl ridicules the fighting within al-Qaeda. “Why don”t you ask Hamas the same thing?” Zawahiri demands. “Isn”t this a clear contradiction?”
Recently, however, the embargo in the Arab press on any criticism of terrorist acts by the Palestinian resistance movement has been breached by several searching articles that directly address the futility of violence. “The whole point of resistance in
Zawahiri has watched al-Qaeda”s popularity decline in places where it formerly enjoyed great support. In
Abu Turab admitted he and his colleagues were suffering a similar public relations problem in
In December, in order to staunch the flow of criticism, Zawahiri boldly initiated a virtual-town-hall meeting. This spring, he released two lengthy audio responses to nearly 100 of the 900 often testy queries that were posed. The first came from a man who identified himself sardonically as the Geography Teacher. “Excuse me, Mr Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing, with Your Excellency”s permission, the innocents in
The murder of innocents emerged as the most prominent issue in the exchanges. An Algerian university student sarcastically congratulated Zawahiri for killing 60 Muslims in
Many of the questions dealt with Fadl, beginning with why Zawahiri had altered without permission Fadl”s Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge . Zawahiri claimed the writing of the book was a joint effort, because al-Jihad had financed it. He had to edit the book because it was full of theological errors. “We neither forged anything nor meddled with anything,” Zawahiri said. Later, he added, “I ask those who are firm in their covenant not to pay attention to this propaganda war that the United States is launching in its prisons, which are situated in our countries.” Fadl”s revisions, Zawahiri warned, “place restrictions on jihadist action which, if implemented, would destroy jihad completely.”
Is Al-Qaeda finished?
It is, of course, unlikely that al-Qaeda will voluntarily follow the example of the Islamist Group and Zawahiri”s own organisation, al-Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one to which Zawahiri and the leaders of al-Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond. Radical Islam began as a spiritual call to the Muslim world to unify and strengthen itself through holy warfare. For the dreamers who long to institute God”s justice on earth, Fadl”s revisions represent a substantial moral challenge. But for the young nihilists who are joining the al-Qaeda movement for their own reasons – revenge, boredom, or a desire for adventure – the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.
According to a recent National Intelligence Estimate in the
Still, the core of al-Qaeda is much reduced from what it was before 9/11. An Egyptian intelligence official told me the current membership totals less than 200 men; American intelligence estimates range from under 300 to more than 500. Meanwhile, new al-Qaeda-inspired groups, which may be only tangentially connected to the leaders, have spread, and older, more established terrorist organisations are now flying the al-Qaeda banner, outside the control of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hoffman thinks this is the reason that bin Laden and Zawahiri have been emphasising
This August, al-Qaeda will mark its 20th anniversary. That is a long life for a terrorist group. Most terror organisations disappear with the death of their charismatic leader, and it would be hard to imagine al-Qaeda remaining a coherent entity without Osama bin Laden. The Red Army Faction went out of business when the Berlin Wall came down and it lost its sanctuary in
One afternoon in
“Dr Fadl”s revisions and Zawahiri”s response show that the movement is disintegrating,” Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me one afternoon, in his modest apartment in
“It”s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”