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By Lawrence Wright
Posted June 2, 2008
Last May, a fax arrived at the London office of the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat from a shadowy figure in the radical Islamist movement who went by many names. Born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, he was the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr. Fadl. Members of Al Jihad became part of the original core of Al Qaeda; among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; Al Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence. “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,” Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.
Fadl’s fax confirmed rumors 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 that hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.
Two months after Fadl’s fax appeared, Zawahiri issued a handsomely produced 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 Egypt and Kuwait—among Al Qaeda insiders. Fadl’s previous work, after all, had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaeda’s murderous acts. On a recent trip to Cairo, I met with Gamal Sultan, an Islamist writer and a publisher there. He said of Fadl, “Nobody can challenge the legitimacy of this person. His writings could have far-reaching effects not only in Egypt but on leaders outside it.” Usama Ayub, a former member of Egypt’s Islamist community, who is now the director of the Islamic Center in Münster, Germany, told me, “A lot of people base their work on Fadl’s writings, so he’s very important. When Dr. Fadl speaks, everyone should listen.”
Although the debate between Fadl and Zawahiri was esoteric and bitterly personal, its ramifications for the West were potentially enormous. Other Islamist organizations had gone through violent phases before deciding that 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 forty years, to 1968, when two precocious teen-agers met at Cairo University’s medical school. Zawahiri, a student there, was then seventeen, but he was already involved in clandestine Islamist activity. Although he was not a natural leader, he had an eye for ambitious, frustrated youths like him who believed that destiny was whispering in their ear.
So it was not surprising that he was drawn to a tall, solitary classmate named Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Admired for his brilliance and his 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 seventy-five miles south of Cairo, was conservative, and his son followed suit. He fasted twice a week and, each morning after dawn prayers, studied the Koran, which he had memorized by the time he finished sixth grade. When he was fifteen, the Egyptian government enrolled him in a boarding school for exceptional students, in Cairo. Three years later, he entered medical school, and began preparing for a career as a plastic surgeon, specializing in burn injuries.
Both Zawahiri and Imam were pious and high-minded, prideful, 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 mind-set 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 idealized 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, a pan-Arabic newspaper. The group came to be called Al Jihad. Its discussions centered on the idea that real Islam no longer existed, because Egypt’s rulers had turned away from Islamic law, or Sharia, and were steering believers away from salvation and toward secular modernity. The young members of Al Jihad decided that they had to act.
In doing so, these men were placing their lives, and perhaps their families, in terrible jeopardy. Egypt’s military government, then led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, had a vast network of informers and secret police. The prisons were brimming with Islamist detainees, locked away in dungeons where torture was routine. Despite this repressive atmosphere, an increasing number of Egyptians, disillusioned with Nasser’s socialist, secular government, were turning to the mosque for political answers. In 1967, Nasser led Egypt and its Arab allies into a disastrous confrontation with Israel, which crushed the Egyptian Air Force in an afternoon. The Sinai Peninsula soon passed to Israeli control. The Arab world was traumatized, and that deepened the appeal of radical Islamists, who argued that Muslims had fallen out of God’s favor, and that only by returning to the religion as it was originally practiced could Islam regain its supremacy in the world.
In 1977, Zawahiri asked Imam to join his group, presenting himself as a mere delegate of the organization. Imam told Al Hayat that 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 that Ayman himself was the emir of this group, and that it didn’t have any sheikhs.”
In 1981, soldiers affiliated with Al Jihad assassinated the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat—who had signed a peace treaty with Israel two years earlier—but the militants failed to seize power. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rounded up thousands of Islamists, including Zawahiri, who was charged with smuggling weapons. Before he was arrested, Zawahiri went to Imam’s house and urged him to flee, according to Zawahiri’s uncle Mahfouz Azzam. Imam’s son Ismail al-Sharif, who now lives in Yemen, says that this never happened. In fact, he claims, Zawahiri later put Imam in danger, by disclosing his name to interrogators.
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 Egypt and made his way to Peshawar, Pakistan, where the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was based. Imam left his real identity behind and became Dr. Fadl. It was common for those who joined the jihad to take a nom de guerre. He adopted the persona of the revolutionary intellectual, in the tradition of Leon Trotsky and Che Guevara. Instead of engaging in combat, Fadl worked as a surgeon for the injured fighters and became a spiritual guide to the jihad.
Zawahiri finished serving his sentence in 1984, and also fled Egypt. He was soon reunited in Peshawar with Fadl, who had become the director of a Red Crescent hospital there. Their relationship had turned edgy and competitive, and, besides, Fadl held a low opinion of Zawahiri’s abilities as a surgeon. “He asked me to stand with him and teach him how to perform operations,” Fadl told Al Hayat. “I taught him until he could perform them on his own. Were it not for that, he would have been exposed, as he had contracted for a job for which he was unqualified.”
In the mid-eighties, Fadl became Al Jihad’s emir, or chief. (Fadl told Al Hayat that this was untrue, saying that his role was merely one of offering “Sharia guidance.”) Zawahiri, whose reputation 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 Peshawar revered Fadl for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran and the Hadith—the sayings of the Prophet. Usama Ayub, who was in Peshawar at the time, remembered, “He would say, Get this book, volume so-and-so, and he would quote it perfectly—without the book in his hand!”
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 that 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 that Zawahiri received. (In the interview with Al Hayat, Fadl said that Zawahiri was “enamored of the media and a showoff.”) And yet he let Zawahiri take the public role and give voice to 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.
In Peshawar, Fadl devoted himself to formalizing the rules of holy war. The jihadis needed a text that would school them in the proper way to fight battles whose real objective was not victory over the Soviets but martyrdom and eternal salvation. “The Essential Guide for Preparation” appeared in 1988, as the Afghan jihad was winding down. It quickly became one of the most important texts in the jihadis’ training.
The “Guide” begins with the premise that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with nonbelievers, 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 August 11, 1988, Dr. Fadl attended a meeting in Peshawar with several senior leaders of Al Jihad, along with Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who oversaw the recruitment of Arabs to the cause. They were joined by a protégé of Azzam’s, a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The Soviets had already announced their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the prospect of victory awakened many old dreams among these men. They were not the same dreams, however. The leaders of Al Jihad, especially Zawahiri, wanted to use their well-trained warriors to overthrow the Egyptian government. Azzam longed to turn the attention of the Arab mujahideen to Palestine. Neither had the money or the resources to pursue such goals. Bin Laden, on the other hand, was rich, and he had his own vision: to create an all-Arab foreign legion that would pursue the retreating Soviets into Central Asia and also fight against the Marxist government that was then in control of South Yemen. According to Montasser al-Zayyat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo who is Zawahiri’s biographer, Fadl proposed supporting bin Laden with members of Al Jihad. Combining the Saudi’s money with the Egyptians’ expertise, the men who met that day formed a new group, called Al Qaeda. Fadl was part of its inner circle. “For years after the launching of Al Qaeda, they would do nothing without consulting me,” he boasted to Al Hayat.
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 Khartoum airport and took us to our flat,” Fadl’s son Ismail al-Sharif told me. “Zawahiri said, ‘You don’t need to work, we will pay your salary. We just want you to finish your book.’ ”
From Sudan, members of Al Jihad watched enviously as a much larger organization, the Islamic Group, waged open warfare on the Egyptian state. Both groups wished for the overthrow of the secular government and the institution of a theocracy, but they differed in their methods. Al Jihad was organized as a network of clandestine cells, centered in Cairo; Zawahiri’s plan was to take over the country by means of a military coup. One of the founders of the Islamic Group was Karam Zuhdy, a former student of agricultural management at Asyut University. The group was a broad, above-ground movement that was determined to launch a social revolution. Members undertook to enforce Islamic values by “compelling good and driving out evil.” They ransacked video stores, music recitals, cinemas, and liquor stores. They demanded that women dress in hijab, and rampaged against Egypt’s Coptic minority, bombing its churches. They attacked a regional headquarters of the state security service, cutting off the head of the commander and killing a large number of policemen. Blood on the ground became the measure of the Islamic Group’s success, and it was all the more thrilling because the murder was done in the name of God.
In 1981, Zuhdy was caught in the Egyptian government’s roundup of Islamists after the Sadat assassination, and for three years he lived in the same cellblock 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 Cairo. There was little doubt that the government was behind the killing, and soon afterward the Islamic Group announced its intention to respond with a terror campaign. Dozens of police officers were murdered. Intellectuals were also on its hit list, including Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who was stabbed in the neck. (He survived.) Next, the Islamic Group targeted the tourist industry, declaring that it corrupted Egyptian society by bringing “alien customs and morals which offend Islam.” Members of the group attacked tourists with homemade bombs on buses and trains, and fired on cruise ships that plied the Nile. The economy swooned. During the nineties, more than twelve hundred people were killed in terror attacks in Egypt.
The exiled members of Al Jihad decided that they needed to enter the fray. Fadl disagreed; despite his advocacy of endless warfare against unjust rulers, he contended that the Egyptian government was too powerful and that the insurgency would fail. He also complained that 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, nearly a thousand of whom were arrested. In retaliation, Zawahiri authorized a suicide bombing that targeted Hasan al-Alfi, the Interior Minister, in August, 1993. Alfi survived the attack with a broken arm. Two months later, Al Jihad attempted to kill Egypt’s Prime Minister, Atef Sidqi, in a bombing. The Prime Minister was not hurt, but the explosion killed a twelve-year-old schoolgirl.
Embarrassed by these failures, members of Al Jihad demanded that their leader resign. Many were surprised to discover that the emir was Fadl. He willingly gave up the post, and Zawahiri soon became the leader of Al Jihad in name as well as in fact.
In 1994, Fadl moved to Yemen, where he resumed his medical practice and tried to put the work of jihad behind him. Before he left, however, he gave a copy of his finished manuscript to Zawahiri, saying that it could be used to raise money. Few books in recent history have done as much damage.
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 also 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 that Fadl gave to Zawahiri must have come as a surprise.
“The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge,” which is more than a thousand 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 Egypt and other Arab countries are apostates of Islam. “The infidel’s rule, his prayers, and the prayers of those who pray behind him are invalid,” Fadl decrees. “His blood is legal.” He declares that Muslims have a duty to wage jihad against such leaders; those who submit to an infidel ruler are themselves infidels, and doomed to damnation. The same punishment awaits those who participate in democratic elections. “I say to Muslims in all candor that secular, nationalist democracy opposes your religion and your doctrine, and in submitting to it you leave God’s book behind,” he writes. Those who labor in government, the police, and the courts are infidels, as is anyone who works for peaceful change; religious war, not political reform, is the sole mandate. Even devout believers walk a tightrope over the abyss. “A man may enter the faith in many ways, yet be expelled from it by just one deed,” Fadl cautions. Anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic and deserves to be slaughtered.
In writing this book, 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 narrowly, however, that nearly everyone falls outside the sacred boundaries. Muslims who follow his thinking believe that 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 Yemen, he considered his work in revolutionary Islam to be complete. His son Ismail al-Sharif told Al Jarida, a Kuwaiti newspaper, that Fadl cut off all contact with bin Laden, complaining that “he doesn’t listen to the advice of others, he listens only to himself.” Fadl took his family to the mountain town of Ibb. He had two wives, with four sons and two daughters between them. He called himself Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Sharif. On holidays, the family took walks around the town. Otherwise, he spent his spare time reading. “He didn’t care to watch television, except for the news,” Ismail al-Sharif told me. “He didn’t like to make friends, because he was a fugitive. He thinks having too many relations is a waste of time.”
While awaiting a work permit from Yemen’s government, Fadl volunteered his services at a local hospital. His skills quickly became evident. “People were coming from all over the country,” his son told me. The fact that Fadl was working without pay in such a primitive facility—rather than opening a practice in a gleaming modern clinic in Kuwait or Europe—drew unwelcome attention. He had the profile of a man with something to hide.
While in Ibb, Fadl learned that his book had been bowdlerized. His original manuscript contained a barbed critique of the jihadi movement, naming specific organizations 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 Yemen for a job. “He informed me that Zawahiri alone was the one who committed these perversions,” Fadl said. In 1995, Zawahiri travelled to Yemen and appealed to Fadl for forgiveness. By this time, Zawahiri had suspended his operations in Egypt, and his organization was floundering. Now his former emir refused to see him. “I do not know anyone in the history of Islam prior to Ayman al-Zawahiri who engaged in such lying, cheating, forgery, and betrayal of trust by transgressing against someone else’s book,” the inflamed author told Al Hayat. Zawahiri and Fadl have not spoken since, but their war of words was only beginning.
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 twenty thousand Islamists. “We started growing older,” he says. “We started examining the evidence. We began to read books and reconsider.” The prisoners came to feel that they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path. Just opening the subject for discussion was extremely threatening, not only for members of the organization but for groups that had an interest in prolonging the clash with Egypt’s government. Zuhdy points in particular to the Muslim Brotherhood. “These people, when we launched an initiative against violence, accused us of being weak,” he says. “Instead of supporting us, they wanted us to continue the violence. We faced very strong opposition inside prison, outside prison, and outside Egypt.”
In 1997, rumors 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 Kandahar, Afghanistan. Montasser al-Zayyat, the Islamist lawyer, was brokering talks between the parties. Zayyat has often served as an emissary between the Islamists and the security apparatus, a role that makes him both universally distrusted and invaluable. In his biography of Zawahiri, “The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man,” Zayyat reports that Zawahiri called him in March of that year, when Zayyat arrived in London on business. “Why are you making the brothers angry?” Zawahiri asked him. Zayyat responded that jihad did not have to be restricted to an armed approach. Zawahiri urged Zayyat to change his mind, even promising that he could secure political asylum for him in London. “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 organization’s intention to cease all violent activity. Incensed, Zawahiri wrote a letter addressed 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 as a whole.”
To Zawahiri’s annoyance, imprisoned members of Al Jihad also began to express an interest in joining the nonviolence 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 fourteen 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 thirty men were crammed into cells that were about nine feet by fifteen. 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 that violence was the fuel that kept the radical Islamist organizations running; they had no future without terror. Together with several leaders of the Islamic Group who were living outside Egypt, he plotted a way to raise the stakes and permanently wreck the Islamic Group’s attempt to reform itself. On November 17, 1997, just four months after the announcement of the nonviolence initiative, six young men entered the magnificent ruins of Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, near Luxor. Hundreds of tourists were strolling through the grounds. For forty-five minutes, the killers shot randomly. A flyer was stuffed inside a mutilated body, identifying them as members of the Islamic Group. Sixty-two people died, not counting the killers, whose bodies were later found in a desert cave. They had apparently committed suicide. It was the worst terrorist incident in Egypt’s bloody political history.
If Zawahiri and the exiled members of the Islamic Group hoped that this action would undermine the nonviolence 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 definitively turned against the violence that characterized 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 Egypt but also against America. “The Islamic Group does not believe in the creed of killing by nationality,” one of its representatives later explained.
The new thinking among the leaders caught the attention of the clerics at Al Azhar, the thousand-year-old institution of Islamic learning in the center of ancient Cairo. During my stay in Egypt, I met with Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, at the nearby Dar al-Iftah, a government agency charged with issuing religious edicts—some five thousand fatwas a week. I waited for several hours in an antechamber while Gomaa finished a meeting with a delegation from the British House of Lords. Since 2003, when Gomaa was appointed Grand Mufti, a top religious post in Egypt, he has become a highly promoted champion of moderate Islam, with his own television show and occasional columns in Al Ahram, a government daily. He is the kind of cleric the West longs for, because of his assurances that there is no conflict with democratic rule and no need for theocracy. Gomaa has also become an advocate for Muslim women, who he says should have equal standing with men. His forceful condemnations of extreme forms of Islam have made him an object of hatred among Islamists and an icon among progressives, whose voices have been overpowered by the thunder of the radicals.
The door finally opened, and Gomaa emerged. He is fifty-five, tall and regal, with a round face and a trim beard. He wore a tan caftan 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 nineteen-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 reëxamining 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 center 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 American University in Cairo, and since then I’ve watched the vast, moody city go through wrenching changes. I was living there when Nasser died, in 1970. At that time, there were no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Egypt, and there were only a few hundred Americans in the country, but the Egyptian people loved America and what it stood for. When I visited the country in 2002, a few months after 9/11, I found the situation utterly reversed. The U.S. and Egyptian governments were close, but the Egyptian people were alienated and angry.
When I lived in Cairo, the population was about six million. Now it is three times that size. The unbearable congestion reflects the ungoverned quality of life in the city; pedestrians plunge into the anarchic traffic, their faces masked by fright or resignation. The virtual absence of any attempt to impose order—in the form of street lights or crosswalks—is characteristic of a government that has no sense of obligation to its people and seeks only to protect itself.
One day during my visit, I went to Cairo University, whose buildings are practically crumbling from neglect. There are nearly two hundred thousand students, a good many more than there were when Zawahiri and Fadl studied there. Although the campus was quiet, the mood of the students was troubled, if subdued. Their professors had been on strike because of low pay; in Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods, riots had broken out over the cost of bread, and, in a middle-class area, residents had marched against pollution. The government’s response to the desperation had been to round up eight hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood and throw them in jail.
Several faculty members I spoke with repeated the exhausted formulations that were so common among Egyptian intellectuals several years ago—that terrorism is mainly the consequence of America’s meddling in the Middle East, and that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job. The students were more cordial and less doctrinaire. They expressed interest in the U.S. Presidential campaign, which provided such a contrast to their own smothered political system. And they were impatient with Islamist dogma, which had done little to help ordinary Egyptians.
When I lived in Cairo under Nasser, there was still a sense of promise, despite the beating that the Arabs had taken from Israel. Economically, Egypt was on a par with India and South Korea. In the years since then, Egyptians have watched these former peers take a place among the developed nations. Countries that were once ruled by dictators and autocrats far more tyrannical than their own have refashioned themselves as liberal democracies or adopted systems that are more tolerant and responsive to citizens’ needs. Egypt, meanwhile, has stood still. Extreme solutions began to seem the only ones equal to the challenge.
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 America, having been bloodied, would loosen its grip on the Muslim world. Without American support, the tyrants of the Middle East would be pushed aside by the Islamists, who posed the only potent alternative. But the U.S., instead of withdrawing, invaded two Muslim countries and became even more enmeshed in the politics of the region. Nevertheless, the audacity of Al Qaeda’s attacks helped give radical Islamists credibility among people who were desperate for change. The years immediately after 9/11 presented an opportunity for the Islamists to offer their vision of a redeemed political system that brought about real improvements in people’s lives. Instead, they continued to propagate their fantasies of theocracy and a caliphate, which had little chance of ever happening, and did nothing to address the actual problems facing the Egyptians: illiteracy, joblessness, and the desperation that came from watching the rest of the world pass them by. As a result, the young were eager for fresh thinking—a way to escape the dead end of radical Islam.
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 fantasized that they would be hailed as heroes by their society; instead, they were isolated and rejected. Now Karam Zuhdy and other imprisoned leaders were asking the radicals to accept that they had been deluded from the beginning. 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 eighteen 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 that he was initially skeptical of the prisoners’ apparent repentance, which looked like a ploy for better treatment; however, several of the participants in the discussions had already 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 moral dimensions of the prisoners’ predicament unfolded as they continued their discussions. What about the brother who was killed while carrying out an attack that we now realize 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 makeup. “We used to blame the people and say, ‘The people are cowards,’ ” one of the leaders admitted. “None of us thought of saying that the violence we employed was abhorrent to them.”
These emotional discussions were widely covered in the Egyptian press. Zuhdy publicly apologized to the Egyptian people for the Islamic Group’s violent deeds, beginning with the murder of Sadat, whom he called a martyr. These riveting and courageous confessions also cast light on other organizations—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 stocking 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 seven hundred and fifty buildings—mainly night clubs, 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 the goal of 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 nonviolence initiative by releasing twelve thousand five hundred 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 twenty years of prison can do,” Zuhdy said.
The prisoners returned to a society that was far more religious than the one they 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 practicing surgery in Ibb when the 9/11 attacks took place. “We heard the reports first on BBC Radio,” his son Ismail al-Sharif recalls. After his shift ended, Fadl returned home and watched the television coverage with his family. They asked him who he thought was responsible. “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 October 28, 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 that 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 Afghanistan by American and coalition troops in the months after the attacks. They filled him in on details of the plot. In Fadl’s opinion, the organization had committed “group suicide” by striking America, which was bound to retaliate severely. Indeed, nearly eighty per cent of Al Qaeda’s members in Afghanistan were killed in the final months of 2001. “My father was very sad for the killing of Abu Hafs al-Masri, the military leader of Al Qaeda,” Ismail al-Sharif told Al Jarida. “My father said that, with the death of Abu Hafs, Al Qaeda is finished, because the rest is a group of zeroes.”
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 sympathized 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 that he would go to Sudan. But the promised release was postponed. The following year, Sharif has said, the offer was changed: either Fadl could seek political asylum or Egyptian authorities would come and get him. Fadl applied for asylum, but before he received a response he disappeared.
According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, which had followed his case, Fadl was taken from his cell and smuggled onto a plane to Cairo. For more than two years, Fadl—who had been tried and convicted in absentia on terrorism charges—was held by Egyptian authorities, who are notorious for their rough treatment of political prisoners. He was eventually transferred to the Scorpion, a facility inside Tora Prison where major political figures were held. Fadl remains there to this day, under a life sentence. It was clear that he was getting special treatment. His son says that he has a private room with a bath and a small kitchen, adding, “He has a refrigerator and a television, and the newspaper comes every day.” Fadl passes the time reading and trying not to gain weight. (The Egyptian authorities rejected multiple requests to speak with Fadl in prison.)
There may be many inducements for Dr. Fadl’s revisions, torture among them, but his smoldering 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, the Islamic Center director, told me that Fadl was questioning his thinking before his arrest in Yemen. Ayub called Fadl in late 2000 or early 2001 to inform him that he was preparing a nonviolent initiative of his own. “He encouraged me, although his security situation in Yemen did not allow him to discuss it,” Ayub said, adding that he warned Fadl that many of his original ideas about jihad were being used to justify violence against women and innocent civilians. “I’m about to publish a book that clarifies all these ideas,” Fadl told him. According to his son, Fadl “was not under any pressure to write the new book. He thought it could save the blood of Muslims.”
The book’s first segment appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida, in November, 2007, on the tenth anniversary of the Luxor massacre. Titled “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World,” it attempted to reconcile Fadl’s well-known views with his sweeping modifications. Fadl claims that he wrote the book without any references, which makes his verbatim quotations of Islamic sources all the more impressive. A majority of the Al Jihad members in prison signed Fadl’s manuscript—hoping, no doubt, to follow their Islamic Group colleagues out the prison door.
Hisham Kassem, a human-rights activist and a publisher in Cairo, told me that the newspapers that published Fadl’s work “bought it from the Ministry of the Interior for a hundred and fifty thousand Egyptian pounds.” The circumstances of the publication added to the general suspicion that the government had supervised the revisions, if not actually written them. Perhaps to counter that impression, Muhammad Salah, the Cairo bureau chief of Al Hayat, was allowed into Tora Prison to interview Fadl. In the resulting six-part series, Fadl defended the work as his own and left no doubt of his personal grudge against Zawahiri. Whatever the motivations behind the writing of the book, its publication amounted to a major assault on radical Islamist theology, from the man who had originally formulated much of that thinking.
The premise that opens “Rationalizing 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 circumstances. 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, dependents, 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 cease-fires 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 practice 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 that such rulers 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 Egypt or most other Islamic countries, where increased repression has been the usual result of armed insurgency. Fadl quotes the Prophet Muhammad advising Muslims to be patient with their flawed leaders: “Those who rebel against the Sultan shall die a pagan death.”
Fadl repeatedly emphasizes 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 neighbors of the Muslims . . . and being kind to one’s neighbors is a religious duty.” Indiscriminate bombing—“such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”—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 color 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. To Muslims living in non-Islamic countries, Fadl sternly writes, “I say it is not honorable to reside with people—even if they were nonbelievers and not part of a treaty, if they gave you permission to enter their homes and live with them, and if they gave you security for yourself and your money, and if they gave you the opportunity to work or study, or they granted you political asylum with a decent life and other acts of kindness—and then betray them, through killing and destruction. This was not in the manners and practices of the Prophet.”
Fadl does not condemn all jihadist activity, however. “Jihad in Afghanistan will lead to the creation of an Islamic state with the triumph of the Taliban, God willing,” he declares. The jihads in Iraq and Palestine are more problematic. As Fadl sees it, “If it were not for the jihad in Palestine, the Jews would have crept toward the neighboring countries a long time ago.” Even so, he writes, “the Palestinian cause has, for some time, been a grape leaf used by the bankrupt leaders to cover their own faults.” Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, “America would have moved into Syria.” However, it is unrealistic to believe that, “under current circumstances,” such struggles will lead to Islamic states. Iraq is particularly troubling because of the sectarian cleansing that the war has generated. Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites at the heart of Islam: “Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden.” Al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization; the Shiites are its declared enemies. Fadl, however, quotes Ibn Taymiyya, one of the revered scholars of early Islam, who is also bin Laden’s favorite authority: “A Muslim’s blood and money are safeguarded even if his creed is different.”
Fadl approaches the question of takfir with caution, especially given his reputation for promoting this tendency in the past. He observes that there are various kinds of takfir, and that the matter is so complex that it must be left in the hands of competent Islamic jurists; 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 “terrorizing the enemy is a legitimate duty”; however, he points out, “legitimate terror” has many constraints. Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in America, London, and Madrid were wrong, because they were based on nationality, a form of indiscriminate slaughter forbidden by Islam. In his Al Hayat interview, Fadl labels 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims,” because Al Qaeda’s actions “caused the death of tens of thousands of Muslims—Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and others.”
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 U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’ ”
At one point, Fadl observes, “People hate America, and the Islamist movements feel their hatred and their impotence. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours? . . . That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11.”
Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare. If the security services in Egypt, in tandem with the Al Azhar scholars, had undertaken to write a refutation of Al Qaeda’s doctrine, it would likely have resembled the book that Dr. Fadl produced; and, indeed, that may have been exactly what occurred. And yet, with so many leaders of Al Jihad endorsing the book, it seemed clear that the organization itself was now dead. Terrorism in Egypt might continue in some form, but the violent factions were finished, departing amid public exclamations of repentance for the futility and sinfulness of their actions.
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 Palestine and elsewhere, that oppose Israel and the presence of American troops in Muslim countries. “In this region, we must distinguish between violence against national governments and that of the resistance—in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine,” Essam el-Erian, of the Muslim Brotherhood, told me. “We cannot call this resistance ‘violence.’ ” Nevertheless, such movements were inevitably drawn into the debate surrounding Fadl’s book.
A number of Muslim clerics struggled to answer Dr. Fadl’s broad critique of political bloodshed. Many had issued fatwas endorsing the very actions that Fadl now declared to be unjustified. Their responses were often surprising. For instance, Sheikh Hamid al-Ali, an influential Salafi cleric in Kuwait, whom the U.S. Treasury has described as an Al Qaeda facilitator and fundraiser, declared on a Web site that he welcomed the rejection of violence as a means of fostering change in the Arab world. Sheikh Ali’s fatwas have sometimes been linked to Al Qaeda actions. (Notoriously, months before 9/11, he authorized flying aircraft into targets during suicide operations.) He observed that although the Arab regimes have a natural self-interest in encouraging nonviolence, that shouldn’t cause readers to spurn Fadl’s argument. “I believe it is a big mistake to let this important intellectual transformation be nullified by political suspicion,” Ali said. The decision of radical Islamist groups to adopt a peaceful path does not necessarily mean, however, that they can evolve into political parties. “We have to admit that 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 London, railed against the “numbness and discouragement” of Fadl’s message in telling Muslims that they are too weak to engage in jihad or overthrow their oppressive rulers. “More than half of the Koran and hundreds of the Prophet’s sayings call for jihad and fighting those unjust tyrants,” Tartusi exclaimed on a jihadist Web site. “What do you want us to do with his huge quantity of Sharia provisions, and how do you want us to understand and interpret them? Where is the benefit in deserting jihad against those tyrants? Because of them, the nation lost its religion, glory, honor, dignity, land, resources, and every precious thing!” 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 Web site in London; he said of Fadl, “Do you think any Islamic group will listen to him? No. They are in the middle of a war.”
Even so, the fact that Al Qaeda followers and sympathizers were paying so much attention to Fadl’s manuscript made it imperative that Zawahiri offer a definitive refutation. 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 organization. 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 of this year, Zawahiri announced in a video that he had finished a “letter” responding to Fadl’s book. “The Islam presented by that document is the one that America and the West wants and is pleased with: an Islam without jihad,” Zawahiri said. “Because I consider this document to be an insult to the Muslim nation, I chose for the rebuttal the name ‘The Exoneration,’ in order to express the nation’s innocence of this insult.” This announcement, by itself, was unprecedented. “It’s the first time in history that bin Laden and Zawahiri have responded in this way to internal dissent,” Diaa Rashwan, an analyst for the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, in Cairo, told me.
The “letter,” which finally appeared on the Internet in March, was nearly two hundred 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 that Fadl wrote his book “in the spirit of the Minister of the Interior.” He characterizes it as a desperate attempt by the enemies of Islam—America, the West, Jews, the apostate rulers of the Muslim world—to “stand in the way of the fierce wave of jihadi revivalism that is shaking the Islamic world.” Mistakes have been made, he concedes. “I neither condone the killing of innocent people nor claim that jihad is free of error,” he writes. “Muslim leaders during the time of the Prophet made mistakes, but the jihad did not stop. . . . I’m warning those Islamist groups who welcome the document that they are giving the government the knife with which it can slaughter them.”
In presenting Al Qaeda’s defense, Zawahiri clearly displays the moral relativism that has taken over the organization. “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 Sudan, in retaliation for Al Qaeda’s destruction of two American embassies in East Africa. (The U.S. mistakenly believed that the plant was producing chemical weapons.) “I see no difference between the two operations, except that the money used to build the factory was Muslim money and the workers who died in the factory’s rubble”—actually, a single night watchman—“were Muslims, while the money that was spent on the buildings that those hijackers destroyed was infidel money and the people who died in the explosion were infidels.” 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, America doesn’t feel bound to protect Muslims; for instance, it is torturing people in its military prisons in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “The U.S. gives itself the right to take any Muslim without respect to his visa,” Zawahiri writes. “If the U.S. and Westerners don’t respect visas, why should we?”
Zawahiri clumsily dodges many of the most penetrating of Fadl’s arguments. “The writer speaks of violations of the Sharia, such as killing people because of their nationality, skin color, hair color, or denomination,” he complains in a characteristic passage. “This is another example of making accusations without evidence. No one ever talked about killing people because of their skin color or hair color. I demand the writer produce specific incidents with specific dates.”
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, fifteen years earlier. “The Islamic mujahid movement was not defeated, by the grace of God; indeed, because of its patience, steadfastness, and thoughtfulness, it is headed toward victory,” he writes. He cites the strikes on 9/11 and the ongoing battles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, which he says are wearing America down.
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 Israel. He cites the 2005 cartoon controversy in Denmark and the celebrity of the author Salman Rushdie as examples of Western countries exalting those who denigrate Islam. He says that some Western laws prohibiting anti-Semitic remarks would forbid Muslims to recite certain passages in the Koran dealing with the treachery of the Jews.
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 Finland, or those from Vietnam in Venezuela,” he writes. No doubt, Muslims may be killed occasionally, but if that happens it’s a pardonable mistake. “The majority of scholars say that it is permissible to strike at infidels, even if Muslims are among them,” Zawahiri contends. He cites a well-known verse in the Koran to support, among other things, the practice of kidnapping: “When the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”
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. They had no means other than suicide attacks to defend themselves.”
Zawahiri’s argument demonstrates why Islam is so vulnerable to radicalization. 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 behavior 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 proofs of the rightfulness of jihad, or taking captives, or slaughtering the enemy are 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 that 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.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
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 organizations. 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?” At another point, Zawahiri concedes the failure of Al Jihad to overthrow the Egyptian government, then adds, “Neither has the eighty-year-old jihad kicked the occupier out of Palestine. If it is said that the jihad in Egypt put a halt to tourism and harmed the economy, the answer is that jihad in Palestine resulted in the siege of Gaza.” He goes on to point out that Palestinian missiles also indiscriminately kill children and the elderly, even Arabs, but no one holds the Palestinians to the same ethical standards as Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri knows that Palestine is a confounding issue for many Muslims. “The situation in Palestine will always be an exception,” Gamal Sultan, the Islamist writer in Cairo, told me. Essam el-Erian, of the Muslim Brotherhood, said, “Here in Egypt, you will find that the entire population supports Hamas and Hezbollah, although no one endorses the Islamic Group.” 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 Palestine and Lebanon is to accomplish independence, but we should ask ourselves if we are achieving that goal,” Marzouq al-Halabi, a Palestinian writer, wrote in Al Hayat in January. “We should not just say, ‘Oh, every resistance has its mistakes, there are victims by accident.’ . . . Violence has become the beginning and the end of all action. How else would you explain Hamas militants throwing Fatah leaders off the roofs of buildings?” The resistance is destroying the potential of society to ever recover, the writer argues. Unfortunately, this reconsideration of violence appears at a time when despair and revolutionary fervor are boiling over in Palestine. In March of this year, a poll found that, among Palestinians, support for violence was greater than at any time in the past fifteen years, and that a majority opposed continuing peace negotiations.
Zawahiri has watched Al Qaeda’s popularity decline in places where it formerly enjoyed great support. In Pakistan, where hundreds have been killed recently by Al Qaeda suicide bombers—including, perhaps, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto—public opinion has turned against bin Laden and his companions. An Algerian terror organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, formally affiliated itself with Al Qaeda in September, 2006, and began a series of suicide bombings that have alienated the Algerian people, long weary of the horrors that Islamist radicals have inflicted on their country. Even members of Al Qaeda admit that their cause has been harmed by indiscriminate violence. In February of this year, Abu Turab al-Jazairi, an Al Qaeda commander in northern Iraq, whose nom de guerre suggests that he is Algerian, gave an interview to Al Arab, a Qatari daily. “The attacks in Algeria sparked animated debate here in Iraq,” he said. “By God, had they told me they were planning to harm the Algerian President and his family, I would say, ‘Blessings be upon them!’ But explosions in the street, blood knee-deep, the killing of soldiers whose wages are not even enough for them to eat at third-rate restaurants . . . and calling this jihad? By God, it’s sheer idiocy!” Abu Turab admitted that he and his colleagues were suffering a similar public-relations problem in Iraq, because “Al Qaeda has been infiltrated by people who have harmed its reputation.” He said that only about a third of the nine thousand fighters who call themselves members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia can be relied upon. “The rest are unreliable, since they keep harming the good name of Al Qaeda.” He concludes, “Our position is very difficult.”
In Saudi Arabia, where the government has been trying to tame its radical clerics, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti, issued a fatwa in October, 2007, forbidding Saudi youth to join the jihad outside the country. Two months later, Saudi authorities arrested members of a suspected Al Qaeda cell who allegedly planned to assassinate the Grand Mufti. That same fall, Sheikh Salman al-Oadah, a cleric whom bin Laden has praised in the past, appeared on an Arabic television network and read an open letter to the Al Qaeda leader. He asked, “Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women, and old people have been killed, maimed, and expelled from their homes in the name of Al Qaeda?” These critiques echoed some of the concerns of the Palestinian cleric Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is considered by some to be the most influential jihadi theorist. In 2004, Maqdisi, then in a Jordanian prison, castigated his former protégé Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now dead leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, for his unproductive violence, particularly the wholesale slaughter of Shiites and the use of suicide bombers. “Mujahideen should refrain from acts that target civilians, churches, or other places of worship, including Shiite sites,” Maqdisi wrote. “The hands of the jihad warriors must remain clean.”
In December, in order to stanch the flow of criticism, Zawahiri boldly initiated a virtual town-hall meeting, soliciting questions in an online forum. This spring, he released two lengthy audio responses to nearly a hundred of the nine hundred often testy queries that were posed. The first one 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 Baghdad, Morocco, and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?” Then he demanded, “Why have you not—to this day—carried out any strike in Israel? Or is it easier to kill Muslims in the markets? Maybe you should study geography, because your maps show only the Muslim states.” Zawahiri protested that Al Qaeda had not killed innocents. “In fact, we fight those who kill innocents. Those who kill innocents are the Americans, the Jews, the Russians, and the French and their agents.” As for Al Qaeda’s failure to attack Israel, despite bin Laden’s constant exploitation of the issue, Zawahiri asks, “Why does the questioner focus on how Al Qaeda in particular must strike Israel, while he didn’t request that jihadist organizations in Palestine come to the aid of their brothers in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq?”
The murder of innocents emerged as the most prominent issue in the exchanges. An Algerian university student sarcastically congratulated Zawahiri for killing sixty Muslims in Algeria on a holy feast day. What was their sin? the student wanted to know. “Those who were killed on the eleventh of December in Algeria are not from the innocents,” Zawahiri claimed. “They are from the Crusader unbelievers and the government troops who defend them. Our brothers in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”—North Africa—“are more truthful, more just, and more righteous than the lying sons of France.” A Saudi wondered how Muslims could justify supporting Al Qaeda, given its long history of indiscriminate murder. “Are there other ways and means in which the objectives of jihad can be achieved without killing people?” he asked. “Please do not use as a pretext what the Americans or others are doing. Muslims are supposed to be an example to the world in tolerance and lofty goals, not to become a gang whose only concern is revenge.” But Zawahiri was unable to rise to the questioner’s ethical challenge. He replied, “If a criminal were to storm into your house, attack your family and kill them, steal your property, and burn down your house, then turns to attack the homes of your neighbors, will you treat him tolerantly so that you will not become a gang whose only concern is revenge?”
Zawahiri even had to defend himself for helping to spread the myth that the Israelis carried out the attacks of 9/11. He placed the blame for this rumor on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization, which aired the notion on its television station, Al Manar. Zawahiri said indignantly, “The objective behind this lie is to deny that the Sunnis have heroes who harm America as no one has harmed it throughout its history.”
Many of the questions dealt with Fadl, beginning with why Zawahiri had altered without permission Fadl’s encyclopedia of jihadist philosophy, “The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge.” Zawahiri claimed that 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 organization, Al Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear that radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to. 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, Al Qaeda has been regenerating, and remains the greatest terror threat to America. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says that although Fadl’s denunciation has weakened Al Qaeda’s intellectual standing, “from the worm’s-eye view Al Qaeda fighters have on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, things are going more their way than they have in a long time.” He went on, “The Pakistani government is more accommodating. The number of suicide bombers in both countries is way up, which indicates a steady supply of fighters. Even in Iraq, the flow is slower but continues.”
Still, the core of Al Qaeda is much reduced from what it was before 9/11. An Egyptian intelligence official told me that the current membership totals less than two hundred men; American intelligence estimates range from under three hundred to more than five hundred. Meanwhile, new Al Qaeda-inspired groups, which may be only tangentially connected to the leaders, have spread, and older, more established terrorist organizations 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 emphasizing Israel and Palestine in their latest statements. “I see the pressure building on Al Qaeda to do something enormous this year,” Hoffman said. “The biggest damage that Dr. Fadl has done to Al Qaeda is to bring into question its relevance.”
This August, Al Qaeda will mark its twentieth anniversary. That is a long life for a terrorist group. Most terror organizations 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 East Germany. The Irish Republican Army, unusually, endured for nearly a century, until economic conditions in Ireland significantly improved, and the leaders were pressured by their own members to reach a political accommodation. When one looks for hopeful parallels for the end of Al Qaeda, it is discouraging to realize that its leadership is intact, its sanctuaries are unthreatened, and the social conditions that gave rise to the movement are largely unchanged. On the other hand, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its efforts except blood and grief. The organization was constructed from rotten intellectual bits and pieces—false readings of religion and history—cleverly and deviously fitted together to give the appearance of reason. Even if Fadl’s rhetoric strikes some readers as questionable, Al Qaeda’s sophistry is rudely displayed for everyone to see. Although it will likely continue as a terrorist group, who could still take it seriously as a philosophy?
One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”
“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 Alexandria. He is a striking figure, fifty-six years old, with blond hair and black eyebrows. His daughter, who is four, wrapped herself around his leg as an old black-and-white Egyptian movie played silently on a television. Such movies provide a glimpse of a more tolerant and hopeful time, before Egypt took its dark turn into revolution and Islamist violence. I asked Zuhdy how his country might have been different if he and his colleagues had never chosen the bloody path. “It would have been a lot better now,” he admitted. “Our opting for violence encouraged Al Jihad to emerge.” He even suggested that, had the Islamists not murdered Sadat thirty years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: “Only what benefits people stays on the earth.”
“It’s very easy to start violence,” Zuhdy said. “Peace is much more difficult.”
Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Looming Tower"
From The Economist print edition
Posted July 17, 2008
THESE days in Peshawar, where al-Qaeda was founded 20 years ago, the only glimpse of Osama bin Laden comes on little green packets of safety matches strewn around town by American officials (see picture). They bear the portrait of the world's most wanted man, along with the promise that America will pay up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
It is an appropriate image. Like one of these matches, Mr bin Laden caused a flash with the September 11th attacks on America in 2001, then vanished into smoke, leaving a burning trail of militancy stretching from Indonesia to Afghanistan, Iraq, north Africa and Europe. And despite the reward offered for his capture, now $25m, nobody has yet betrayed the whereabouts of "the Sheikh", who periodically emerges on the internet to deliver some doom-laden warning to the West.
Nearly seven years into America's "global war on terror", the result remains inconclusive. Al-Qaeda lost a safe haven in Afghanistan, but is rebuilding another one in Pakistan; Mr bin Laden is at large, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who masterminded September 11th, has gone on trial in Guantánamo Bay; many leaders have been captured or killed, but others have taken their place; al-Qaeda faces an ideological backlash, but young Muslims still volunteer to blow themselves up.
True, America has not been struck since 2001, but European capitals have been bombed. A number of plots have been averted on both sides of the Atlantic. Al-Qaeda and its nebula of like-minded groups still pose the most direct threat to the security of Western countries, and of many others besides. Western intelligence agencies are convinced al-Qaeda still wants to develop non-conventional weapons, whether chemical or biological agents or "dirty bombs" that create a cloud of radioactivity. In Iraq bombs are already mixed with chlorine gas. Even a rudimentary nuclear bomb, say the spooks, might not be beyond the reach of terrorists.
Al-Qaeda has built on decades of Middle Eastern terrorism. Palestinian groups internationalised their violence in the 1970s; Hizbullah used suicide-bombers against the Americans in Lebanon back in 1983; Palestinian suicide-bombers sought to inflict maximum civilian casualties in Israel from 1994; and Algerians who hijacked a French airliner the same year tried to fly it into the Eiffel Tower but were foiled.
In those days, though, attacking Western targets was part of a local nationalist or sectarian fight. Al-Qaeda's dark genius was to weave these strands together with the tools of globalisation to create a networked movement with a single worldwide cause: jihad against America. Conventional terrorist groups, such as the Basque ETA movement or even Lebanon's Hizbullah, often keep their violence in bounds to avoid alienating their political supporters. But global jihadists, without a domestic constituency, seek to maximise civilian casualties for spectacular effect. Counting the victims is tricky. Attacks on Western civilians have dropped, but the routine use of suicide-bombings has raised the slaughter, mostly of Muslims, to appalling levels (see chart 1).
Al-Qaeda's ideology was forged by one big victory and two decades of failures. Disparate Arab fighters who helped Afghan ones evict Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 were initially elated, but became dejected by the ensuing civil war and the failure of violent campaigns in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. Many extremists decided to end the bloodletting. But a cadre of wandering jihadists gathered in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban and decided to redirect their ire from the "near" enemy to the "far" one.
The rationale was explained by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's co-founder, in his memoirs, entitled "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner". The "Jewish-Crusader alliance", as he called the West, would never allow its local allies to be toppled. The answer was to attack America directly.
Such tactics would have several advantages, Mr Zawahiri said. They would deal "a blow to the great master". Given the depth of anti-Americanism across the Muslim world, they would "win over the nation". And the attacks would sow discord between Western countries and their local allies, presenting America with a dilemma: withdraw support from its friends or become directly involved in the Middle East. If America took military action, Mr Zawahiri argued, "the battle will turn into clear-cut jihad against the infidels," which Muslims were bound to support.
Seen in this light, one of the objectives of the September 11th attacks was to provoke the Americans into invading Muslim lands. But if al-Qaeda intended to trap America in Afghanistan, its plan went badly awry, at least initially. The Taliban fell quickly in 2001 and al-Qaeda's followers were forced into hiding.
A hubristic America, however, then walked into a trap of its own making by invading Iraq in 2003. It got rid of a dangerous dictator but gave the jihadists a popular cause against American occupiers in the Muslim heartland. For a while the jihadists thought they could carve out a base in Iraq from which to destabilise the region. That danger may now have been averted. Helped by al-Qaeda's excesses, a bloodied America seems to be fighting its way out of the worst of the troubles it created for itself.
The beginning of the end?
So terrorism experts are now debating whether al-Qaeda is starting to burn itself out. "On balance, we are doing pretty well," Michael Hayden, the director of America's Central Intelligence Agency, told the Washington Post in May. "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally-and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically'-as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
Many thought he was being overly optimistic. Had General Hayden himself not given warning two months earlier that the restoration of an al-Qaeda haven in Pakistan's tribal belt constituted a "clear and present danger" to the West?
A related argument has been provoked by "Leaderless Jihad", a book by Marc Sageman, a counter-terrorism consultant. He argues that al-Qaeda's core leadership has been "neutralised operationally". The bigger danger now comes from loose groups of Muslims in the West who radicalise each other and carry out autonomous, self-financed attacks.
This thesis has come in for strong criticism, particularly from Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University. He notes that al-Qaeda's imminent death has often been heralded in the past, only to be contradicted by the sound of new explosions. Many plots in Europe have direct connections back to Pakistan, he notes.
Part of the problem lies in al-Qaeda's diffuse nature. Its core members may number only hundreds, but it has connections of all kinds to militant groups with thousands or even tens of thousands of fighters. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation, a militant network and a subculture of rebellion all at the same time.
To explain the movement, many experts draw parallels with globalisation. Some describe it as a venture-capital firm that invests in promising terrorist projects. Others speak of it as a global "brand" maintained by its leaders through their propaganda, with its growing number of "franchises" carrying out attacks.
The rise of al-Qaeda's stateless terrorism does not mean that the old state-sponsored variety has disappeared. Libya, which once supported the IRA and other violent causes, may now be co-operating with the West, but Iran, among others, supports both Palestinian militants and Lebanon's Hizbullah movement. Should Iran redirect Hizbullah towards a global terrorist campaign against the West-for instance, if the country's nuclear sites were bombed-the effect might be more devastating than any of al-Qaeda's works.
For the moment, though, the most immediate global threat comes from the ungoverned, undergoverned and ungovernable areas of the Muslim world. These include the Afghan-Pakistani border, the parts of Iraq still in turmoil, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and swathes of Yemen, Somalia, the western Sahara desert and the chain of islands between Indonesia and the Philippines (see map).
Just as important as any of these is the "virtual caliphate" of cyberspace. The internet binds together the amorphous cloud of jihadist groups, spreads the ideology, weaves together the "single narrative" that Islam is under attack, popularises militant acts and distributes terrorist know-how. Because al-Qaeda is so dispersed, the fight against it has strained an international order still based on sovereign states.
This special report will attempt to answer the impossible question posed in 2003 in a leaked memo from Donald Rumsfeld, then America's defence secretary: "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
A hydra-headed monster -- Al-Qaeda may have been cut down in Afghanistan, but it is growing in Pakistan’s border area
THE Taliban Hotel has changed clientele. The abandoned Afghan homestead, close to the border with Pakistan, had long been used by insurgents as a resting place on their way to fight in Afghanistan; now it accommodates a contingent of American and Afghan soldiers.
This newest link in the chain of American border outposts is something of a fluke. The Americans discovered its importance only last September, when a patrol ran into a group of insurgents and found that the nearby hilltops provided good observation and electronic listening posts into Pakistan’s ungoverned region of North Waziristan. “After three weeks there we decided we couldn’t leave,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Fenzel.
So now his men of the 1-503rd Airborne battalion are overseeing the construction of a new government and police compound, and a “cultural centre” that will be turned into a mosque. The Americans are trying to win over surrounding villagers with the promise of roads, construction jobs and government services. They are also hoping to organise a jirga, or council of elders, with tribesmen from both sides of the frontier to pacify the area.
This is a very different way of conducting military business than when the Americans first got to Afghanistan in 2001. Then the emphasis was on killing or capturing terrorists. Lots of civilians were killed in bombing raids. But as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan worsened in 2006 and Iraq slid towards bloody anarchy, American forces overhauled their tactics. The counter-insurgency manual issued in 2006 says their first task is to “protect the population”, assist economic development and improve governance in order to isolate the insurgents. American troops are no longer enjoined to “find, fix, finish” but to “clear, hold, build”. These methods are proving helpful. But there are too few troops, whether foreign or Afghan. And they can do little about the sanctuary on the other side of the border.
These days Pakistan’s tribal belt along the frontier with Afghanistan makes up the world’s most worrying reservoir of jihadists, containing an opaque mixture of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani sectarian extremists, Kashmiri militants and foreign fighters of all colours. Mixed in among them are al-Qaeda’s senior leaders who, in the view of American officials, act as “force multipliers”—a small cadre, perhaps numbering only in the hundreds, who provide technical expertise, training, ideological rigour and sometimes funds.
All have been protected by the honour code of the Pushtun tribes, with whom foreign fighters have forged close relations since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. Some of the foreigners have taken local wives, and many Pushtun warriors have embraced the ideology of global jihad.
The Pakistani tribal belt is less of a haven for al-Qaeda than Taliban-ruled Afghanistan had been before 2001. Yet it is secure enough, says last year’s threat assessment by America’s intelligence agencies, to provide al-Qaeda with many of the advantages it once derived from its base across the border in Afghanistan: a place to regroup its senior lieutenants, broadcast its propaganda, train a new generation of militants and plan fresh attacks around the world. Among those believed to be hiding in the tribal areas is Abu Khabab al-Masri, famous for being in charge of experiments with chemical and biological agents in which dogs were killed on video.
The Afghan insurgency is intensifying year by year; in May and June this year it was deadlier for Western troops than the Iraqi one. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are tantalisingly close to hand, yet distressingly hard to reach.
Pakistani forces, some of whose outposts are within shouting distance of American positions, play an ambiguous role: sometimes they turn a blind eye to the insurgents, and sometimes they help the Americans spot them. Relations between commanders on both sides of the border have usually been cordial. But ask American officers whether they regard Pakistan as a friend or a foe, and many reply: “Both.”
On June 10th American jets killed 11 members of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps during bombing raids against insurgents on the border of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Five days later, after a brazen Taliban attack on Kandahar prison that freed 1,000 inmates, including about 400 Taliban, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, threatened to send his forces into Pakistan. His officials claim Pakistani intelligence was behind a recent attempt to kill him.
American soldiers do sometimes fire into Pakistan, and special forces and the CIA work together to gather information on the big fish across the frontier. Once in a while missiles go off from American unmanned aircraft or ground artillery to strike at wanted men. American officers recognise that, even with the best will of the world, the Pakistani army would struggle to keep control of its remote frontier. The question these days is how hard it is trying.
When Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state at the partition of British India in 1947, the colonial border arrangements were left largely unchanged. The frontier with Afghanistan was always fuzzy. A strip of mountainous territory on the Pakistani side, carved out by the British as a buffer zone, remained as autonomous tribal lands whose population had few of the rights accorded to other Pakistani citizens.
The seven districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are run at arm’s length by the president’s office through the governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the “agents” he appoints among tribal elders. FATA has been one of Pakistan’s most neglected regions. Income per person is half the (already low) national average.
Successive Pakistani governments have encouraged the tribes to emphasise their Islamic rather than their Pushtun identity. Pakistan (together with America and Saudi Arabia) supported the anti-Soviet jihad and later it backed the Taliban. Afghanistan, it felt, offered “strategic depth” in case of war with India.
President Pervez Musharraf made an abrupt U-turn by co-operating with America in toppling the Taliban in 2001, but although he sent the army into FATA to hunt the remnants of al-Qaeda, he allowed the Taliban to regroup. Apologists say Mr Musharraf could not take on too many enemies and had other things to worry about. Critics retort that he deliberately sought to destabilise Afghanistan or, more charitably, that he hedged his bet because he feared America would soon withdraw.
Pakistan’s military campaign hurt al-Qaeda, at least for a time. Intercepted letters from Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda figures, written in 2005, complain of weakness, shortage of funds, difficulties communicating with the outside world and the ever-present fear of arrest or assassination. Nevertheless al-Qaeda proved hard to separate from the Taliban, and the Pakistani army suffered painful losses in the ensuing clashes. In 2006 Mr Musharraf agreed to a truce. All this left both al-Qaeda and the Taliban stronger than before; worse, the Taliban acquired a Pakistani branch that spread violence and radicalism across the country. Last December Benazir Bhutto, a Pakistani opposition leader, was killed in an attack for which the Americans blamed the Pakistani Taliban.
Mr Musharraf thus finds himself attacked by Americans for failing to curb militants, and by militants (and many Pakistanis) for being an American stooge. After eight years of military rule, Pakistanis earlier this year voted the opposition into power. But the country is still confused, even in denial, over the threat from militants.
Sounding the retreat
Events in South Waziristan, the largest of the tribal agencies, are particularly worrying. Last month the Pakistani army invited journalists on a rare visit to the area to see how it had dealt with the tribal redoubt of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the umbrella group of the Pakistani Taliban. In January the army told some 200,000 people to leave their homes before sweeping through with attack helicopters, artillery and tanks.
A few days after the journalists’ visit, Mr Mehsud summoned them back to the region to demonstrate that he remained in charge. The Taliban leader, surrounded by hundreds of long-haired fighters, denied accusations that he had ordered the killing of Ms Bhutto, blaming Mr Musharraf instead. He said he would not agree to stop cross-border attacks: “Islam does not recognise frontiers and borders.”
Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, insists that his new civilian government must be left to deal with extremism in its own way. He says the government will fight terrorists vigorously, but has to regain the support of a sceptical public. The tribal areas need to be integrated into the rest of the country both politically and economically in order to isolate extremists. Peace deals have already been signed in the “settled” areas of NWFP, but Mr Gilani insists that “no talks will be held with anyone refusing to lay down arms.”
All this sounds very similar to what the Americans are trying to do across the border in Afghanistan, yet they are not reassured. It is the army, not the government, that is in charge of the talks, and the Americans fear that it will surrender control to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as it has done in the past. And the talks will do nothing to improve matters in Baluchistan, the seat of the main body of Taliban leaders known as the “Quetta Shura”, that runs the most intense front of the insurgency in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, apparently untroubled by the Pakistani authorities.
America would like to see Pakistan adopt some of its counter-insurgency methods to strengthen its grip on the tribal areas, and is offering about $750m over five years for social and economic development in FATA. But the Pakistani army seems reluctant to change its thinking. Having lost about 1,000 soldiers since 2001 and had 250 of its soldiers captured by Mr Mehsud’s fighters, it is tired and demoralised. NATO says the number of cross-border infiltrations has risen sharply this year.
One bit of hopeful news was the rout of Islamist parties in NWFP in the recent election, where the winner was the secular Pushtun nationalist party, the Awami National Party, which opposes the militants. But the provincial capital, Peshawar, is surrounded by armed groups, prompting a paramilitary operation to stop the city falling into their hands. The province’s chief minister, Ameer Haider Hoti, claims that past Pakistani governments had built up armed factions as a tool of foreign policy. Now, he says, “this monster was created, and nobody knows how to handle it.”
Hearts and minds -- Al-Qaeda’s star is falling in Iraq but rising in the Maghreb
THE “Islamic State of Iraq”, as al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies in that country like to call themselves, pumps out a stream of triumphant videos showing its fighters blowing up American Humvees. But these days the swagger has gone as the jihadists have been greatly weakened by the Americans and Sunni tribesmen. Their predicament was summed up in an interview by a man calling himself Abu Turab al-Jazairi. Described as one of al-Qaeda’s leaders in northern Iraq, the movement’s last bastion, he acknowledged losing several cities “because a large number of tribal leaders betrayed Islam”. And some of al-Qaeda’s fighters “got carried away with murdering and executions”.
One of America’s justifications for invading Iraq in 2003 was that Saddam Hussein was supporting al-Qaeda. That claim, like the one that he had weapons of mass destruction, has been discredited. In fact, it was the invasion of Iraq that revived al-Qaeda after its eviction from Afghanistan in 2001. By early 2006, America’s National Intelligence Assessment on terrorism concluded that the Iraq conflict was “breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement”.
The war in Iraq has cost the lives of more than 4,000 American soldiers, done grievous harm to the country’s reputation and run up a bill of hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars. Al-Qaeda can claim a large part of the credit for inflicting this damage. It grafted itself onto a local Sunni insurgency and carried out many of the bloodiest suicide-bombings that wrecked the prospect of an early political settlement and provoked a sectarian war.
In June 2006 American forces tracked down the organisation’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and killed him in a bombing raid on his hideout north of Baghdad. Even so, a bleak Marine Corps intelligence report in the summer of 2006 found that American and Iraqi troops were “no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in Anbar”.
Al-Qaeda hoped to create a base in the heart of the Islamist world from where it could extend the war to neighbouring countries and, ultimately, take on Israel itself. An intercepted letter to Zarqawi in October 2005 from Mr Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s co-founder, predicted that the Americans would withdraw “soon” and urged him to prepare to fill the void. But Mr Zawahiri also advised Zarqawi, who was known as “Sheikh of the Slaughterers” because he liked to behead enemies, to go easy on the bloodletting because it was putting off ordinary Muslims.
Al-Qaeda had initially been welcomed as a champion of the Sunni cause against the Americans and the Shia. But many Sunnis soon came to see the organisation as a brutal imposition, killing anybody it considered a traitor or insufficiently pious. Some tribes in Anbar province had tried to turn against al-Qaeda in 2005, but their leaders were killed.
When Colonel Sean MacFarland of the 1st Armoured division took charge of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, in early 2006, he felt that the city was in “enemy hands”. To retake it he needed more Iraqi recruits, so he decided to woo local leaders who had wasta, or influence. His first task was to protect those sheikhs who had moved over to the Americans. They became the conduits of American humanitarian assistance. In neighbourhoods where security was improving, the Americans also got the infrastructure repaired and the machinery of government restored.
The Americans and their new Iraqi allies pushed into al-Qaeda’s strongholds, retaking Ramadi neighbourhood by neighbourhood, combining American firepower and Iraqi knowledge. This started a virtuous circle in which tribal sheikhs felt secure enough to join in, in turn increasing security. This “Awakening” has since spread beyond the original province of Anbar, pushing al-Qaeda further northward.
The other engine of violence in Iraq, Shia sectarian killings, has also lost power, thanks to American security measures and the ceasefire declared by Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical cleric, in August 2007. Insurgent attacks are now at their lowest level since 2004; the number of American soldiers killed dropped to 19 in May, the lowest monthly total since the invasion of Iraq (see chart 2).
A turn for the better
Grit, determination, an eleventh-hour change of tactics and the Sunni tribal movement helped America to avoid the defeat in Iraq that seemed perilously close less than two years ago. Al-Qaeda is not so much fighting to beat America in Iraq but to survive. Increasingly, say Western officials, foreign fighters now prefer to take themselves to Pakistan.
But counter-terrorism experts worry about the consequences of America’s success. Might Iraq now start exporting seasoned veterans, as Afghanistan did in the 1990s? Optimists say the danger is less acute than many fear, for three reasons. First, many of the foreign jihadists went to Iraq on a one-way ticket: to die as suicide-bombers. Second, governments are more aware of the danger of returning jihadists. And third, Zarqawi’s death seems to have removed the main impetus behind exporting Iraq’s violence.
Zarqawi’s decision to bomb three hotels in Amman in November 2005 backfired badly, causing a wave of revulsion, especially in his native Jordan. Among the bombed-out ruins of his hideout, American forces found a letter from a man calling himself Atiyah who said he spoke on behalf of the whole of al-Qaeda’s leadership. Written just weeks after the Amman bombs, it warned Zarqawi that his actions were alienating potential supporters. He risked repeating the jihadists’ ruinous bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s when, Atiyah said, “their enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves, were consumed and fell.”
The savagery of the Algerian jihad took the lives of more than 100,000 people through the 1990s. The worst of the fighting was waged by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which denounced democracy and embraced jihad as the only means to power. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), broke away in 1998. It had always been close to al-Qaeda, with strong links to fighters in Iraq.
In September 2006, thanks in part to matchmaking by Zarqawi, the GSPC rebranded itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and introduced suicide tactics, attacking a series of foreign targets, including the United Nations office in Algiers. It also kidnapped Western tourists in Mauritania and Tunisia. The jihadists use the vast expanse of the Sahara to train recruits from across the region.
Other al-Qaeda offshoots have emerged, for instance, in Yemen and Lebanon. Whether these franchises will fare any better than Algeria’s earlier kind of jihadism, or than the troubled one in Iraq, remains to be seen. Mr Jazairi, for one, thought the bombings in his native Algeria were “sheer idiocy”. Better to fight in Iraq, he said. Still, it may be only a matter of time before AQIM, in particular, leaps across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Doing their own thing -- Unlike in America, terrorism in Europe is often home-grown
SITTING in front of a black flag inscribed with a Koranic verse, Umar Islam jabs his finger at the camera. “As you kill, you will be killed. And if you want to kill our women and children, then the same thing will happen to you.”
Mr Islam, a 30-year-old convert once known as Brian Young, lists the transgressions of his fellow Britons: they have sons and daughters serving as soldiers in “Muslim lands”; they pay taxes to support the army; and they have not pushed hard enough to remove their leaders. Worse, they are too obsessed with television soap operas and sport to know what is happening. “Most of you are too busy watching ‘Home and Away’ and ‘Eastenders’, complaining about the World Cup and drinking your alcohol...I know because I’ve come from that.”
Other members take turns to harangue their country on video, among them the apparent leader of the gang, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, who complains that the British are more concerned about the killing of foxes than of Muslims. These “martyrdom videos”, adding some British flavour to the themes of global jihad, were never broadcast. They were found by British police during a wave of arrests in August 2006 and shown at the trial of eight men accused of attempting to blow up seven or more transatlantic airliners en route from London to North America. Mr Ali denies that the group meant to kill anybody; it was planning only a small explosion at London’s Heathrow airport to attract publicity, he told the court.
If the prosecution were to prove its case, the alleged plot would have been the biggest since the September 11th 2001 attacks on America, potentially killing between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Even without this case, though, it is plain that Europe is now bearing the brunt of jihadist attacks on the West, even though America is seen as the main enemy. Ten remotely controlled bombs were set off on Madrid’s trains on March 11th 2004, killing 191 people, and four suicide-bombers blew themselves up on London’s public transport on July 7th 2005, killing 52. Since then, several more bombs failed to detonate properly in London and Glasgow, and other attacks were foiled across Europe.
For America, the terrorist threat is still mainly an external one, involving extremists coming from abroad to carry out attacks. In Europe it is largely an internal problem of home-grown Muslim extremists. This helps to explain why Americans see the struggle against jihadism as a “war”, whereas Europeans consider it mainly a matter for the police; why America is attracted by the idea of fighting terrorists “over there”, whereas Europe worries that military action will only worsen the problem “over here”. Indeed, the biggest threat to America may come from “clean skin” European extremists.
Marc Sageman, in his book “Leaderless Jihad”, argues that these European-born radicals, usually descendants of poor migrants, are drawn to violence less by religious ideology and more by the idea of “jihadist cool”. They may know little about the Koran, but feel a sense of outrage and want to emulate the heroic figures they see on militant internet clips. These groups of friends, says Mr Sageman, become radicalised on their own. As international security has tightened, they have been unable to reach Iraq or Pakistan to fight there or were sent back, so they fight at home instead.
Ed Husain, a former member of the militant Hizb ut-Tahrir group in Britain and now co-director of the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank set up to counter extremism, says that many young Muslims see radical Islam as a means of asserting their identity: “It gives you a sense of rebellion but you don’t feel bad about it. You are doing God’s work.”
Not over here
So why do Muslims in America seem more immune from militancy? According to Mr Sageman, the idea of a “war on Islam” makes less sense to them because of America’s more inclusive attitude to the immigrants, greater social mobility and the bigger role religion plays in public life. Others point out that Muslims in America form a smaller proportion of the population, are more dispersed and usually have higher skills than in Europe.
Counter-terrorism officials say the main reason America has avoided another attack is that it is farther from al-Qaeda’s main battlegrounds. With greatly improved intelligence co-operation, and with hundreds of thousands of people barred from travelling to America, al-Qaeda finds it easier to strike at Europe.
In Britain, the number of jihadist suspects tracked by MI5, the domestic intelligence service, keeps rising. Last year Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, said his agency was watching about 2,000 people deemed to pose a direct threat to national security and public safety. He dismissed the idea of a leaderless movement. Terrorist attacks in Britain, whether successful or foiled, “are not simply random plots by disparate and fragmented groups”, he insisted. Rather, most “have taken place because al-Qaeda has a clear determination to mount terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom”.
Britain’s prominent role in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with a large resident population of Pakistani descent, puts it at greater risk of attack than others. But many other European countries also have substantial Muslim minorities. Germany’s opposition to the war in Iraq offered little protection; it was just luck that two bombs failed to go off on commuter trains in 2006. Last September German police foiled an alleged plot to bomb several places that attracted American visitors. Denmark has been climbing up the jihadists’ hate-list ever since one of its newspapers published some cartoons deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
France suffered Iranian-inspired bombings in the 1980s and Algerian ones in the 1990s, but has remained largely unscathed in recent years, thanks in part to a well-oiled counter-terrorist apparatus. Still, French security officials expect more attacks, given the violent stirrings of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Spain and Italy are also worried.
As Europe’s prisons fill with jihadists, there are fears that radicalisation will spread among inmates. In Britain, police are particularly concerned that jihadists will form links with black criminal gangs, giving them access to weapons. In Spain in 2004, police arrested a group that had hatched a plot in prison to blow up Spain’s High Court and kill its leading antiterrorism judge, Baltasar Garzón.
The following year, police in Los Angeles stumbled on a group led by an ex-convict convert to Islam that was planning to bomb military recruitment stations, the Israeli consulate and synagogues. The trouble with prisons, says an FBI source, is that inmates are already predisposed to violence. America may not be as immune from home-grown terrorism as it thinks.
Bending the rules -- The high cost of Guantánamo Bay
IT SHOULD have been the start of catharsis: justice would be seen to be done when the man who had boasted of masterminding the September 11th attacks on America was made to answer for his crimes. Instead, the arraignment hearing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other al-Qaeda suspects became another instalment in the long-running farce—or tragedy—of America’s prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.
“KSM”, as security types usually refer to the camp’s most famous inmate, was chatting, laughing and reciting Koranic verses throughout the proceedings. He told the military judge that he welcomed the prospect of a death sentence. “I have been looking to be a martyr [for] a long time.”
The Geneva Conventions, which America belatedly recognises as applying to the camp’s “unlawful enemy combatants”, protect prisoners from being paraded in public. KSM had to approve an artist’s sketch of him in court, but complained that his nose had been drawn too big. The artist agreed it was “a little beaky” and rushed off to change it.
Guantánamo Bay became a symbol of legal abuse, maltreatment and torture from the moment the first orange-clad inmates stumbled in with their shackles, blindfolds and earmuffs in early 2002. It was built in the belief that, as an American base on leased Cuban soil, it was beyond the reach of America’s federal courts. But that rationale has been dismantled by successive rulings of the Supreme Court. Last month, by a narrow vote of five to four, the court recognised the inmates’ right to seek their freedom before a federal judge.
Still, the legal process ahead is likely to be messy, because the Supreme Court has left much unsaid. It did not pronounce on the legality of the military commissions, the standard of proof required to be held in detention, the admissibility of evidence obtained under duress, and what access prisoners will have to secret information. Moreover, the ruling does not cover the roughly 21,000 prisoners held by American forces in Iraq or the 650-odd in Bagram in Afghanistan, which get far less scrutiny.
Donald Rumsfeld, the former American defence secretary, famously said that Guantánamo Bay was meant to house the “worst of the worst”. Yet the majority of the 780 or so prisoners who have passed through the hands of the interrogators there have been sent back to their home countries without charge.
Of the remaining 270, only 20 have had charges for war crimes filed against them. Between 60 and 80 may eventually be prosecuted. About 60 have been approved for release but for various reasons cannot go. That leaves an awkward group of perhaps 120 against whom there is insufficient evidence to prosecute but who are still considered dangerous. Some legal experts argue that a new national security court should decide whether they can be interned without trial.
According to a tally by the Centre on Law and Security at New York University, American civilian courts have convicted more than 80 people, mostly Americans, on terrorism charges, whereas the military commissions at the camp have processed only one case.
Doubtful legality, doubtful value
Guantánamo Bay has become an embarrassment. Even President George Bush has said he wants to shut it down. Both the Democratic and the Republican candidates to succeed him in his job have promised to do so.
Guantánamo Bay has two main functions aside from handing out justice: to stop potential fighters from returning to the “battlefield” (which could mean indefinite imprisonment) and to gather intelligence. The Bush administration claims that its dark web of security measures—including “waterboarding” (simulated drowning) of prisoners, secret CIA prisons and the “rendition” of suspects to their countries of origin, where they may be tortured—have saved countless lives and generated a wealth of information. Perhaps so. But it is impossible to judge the quality of such information, or to know how many other lives have been lost or endangered by the outrage that such methods have caused among Muslims.
Certainly those methods have proved an obstacle to international co-operation, a vital component of the fight against global terrorism. Even as some Western countries have hardened their antiterrorist legislation, extending periods of detention without charge, widening conspiracy laws and restricting free speech, they have viewed America’s attempts to bend the rules with suspicion.
Mr Garzón, Spain’s best-known investigating judge, is baffled by America’s refusal to give him information about the whereabouts of Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a prominent al-Qaeda ideologue wanted in Spain in connection with the Madrid bombings. Mr Nasar is widely reported to have been arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the Americans, but he does not figure on any list of detainees.
Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmad, a Spaniard sentenced to six years in prison for membership of al-Qaeda, had his conviction overturned by the Spanish courts in 2006 in part because it had been based on possibly tainted evidence gathered at Guantánamo. In March this year Mr Garzón dropped his request for the extradition to Spain of two British residents recently freed from the camp, on the ground that the mental and physical suffering they had endured made prosecution impossible.
Likewise, Peter Clarke, a former British counter-terrorism police chief who advises Policy Exchange, a London-based think-tank, says that “any evidence obtained in Guantánamo is inadmissible.” He also underlines the moral power of criminal prosecution; after a spate of terrorism-related convictions (and guilty pleas) in Britain, he says, the dialogue with British Muslims may now become more constructive. Indeed, British Muslims have started to report suspicious activity to the police, leading to at least one arrest. In an age of fragmented, even “leaderless” jihadists, that kind of intelligence volunteered may prove much more helpful than the sort extracted by simulated drowning.
Powers of persuasion --Saudi Arabia tackles terrorism with a mixture of tough policing and gentle re-education
YOUSUF AL-AYEERI, al-Qaeda’s ex-leader in Saudi Arabia, was not ready when the order came to open a new front in the land of Mecca and Medina. He had told his commanders, in a letter written in the coded language of a football coach, that his “teams” were not yet strong enough; they could play some away games in neighbouring countries, but it would be best to wait six months to build up a fan base in Saudi Arabia, particularly among religious authorities.
But according to Saudi security sources, Seif al-Adel, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Iran, insisted that the time was ripe to take on the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia’s relations with America, its main protector, were badly strained after the September 11th attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis), and America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 had riled Muslims. For Osama bin Laden, one of al-Qaeda’s main aims had always been to depose the “tyrants” who had let American troops into his native country in 1991. In April 2003 the Americans announced their intention to leave. Yet on May 12th 2003 three suicide squads set off car-bombs in Western residential compounds, killing 26 people. It was the start of the most serious al-Qaeda campaign outside Iraq, targeting Western compounds, Saudi police offices and oil installations.
Within two years, however, the Saudi authorities seemed to have got a firm grip on the militants. Their policy mixed hard-nosed security operations and an extensive deradicalisation programme in the prisons with social measures for the families of militants. These days, Saudi Arabia, often considered the fount of hardline ideology and finance for jihadists, is seen by many as a model for fighting terrorism.
After the downfall of the Taliban, the Saudis had been on the lookout for al-Qaeda veterans returning from Afghanistan. When explosives were accidentally set off in Riyadh in May 2003, say Saudi officials, security forces found a vast cache of weapons. The interior ministry put out a list of 19 wanted men. But a few days later the first suicide car-bombs exploded.
Initially, the militants seemed to enjoy a degree of public backing. “When the attacks started, the mosques were almost supporting them. We could not arrest 35,000 imams,” said a Saudi security source. But the police and the national guard carried out hundreds of raids and learnt fast. They killed Ayeeri within a month of the attacks and three more leaders within the next two years.
Al-Qaeda, for its part, was bumping off ever more Muslims. A lorry-bomb in Riyadh in November 2003 killed mostly Muslim expatriates. When the militants struck a building used mainly by the Saudi traffic police in April 2004, the dead included a child.
For the past three years, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia appears to have become increasingly fragmented, with no clear leadership or methodology. Alms-giving and money transfers, the main sources of terrorist funding, have been restricted to the point where some Western diplomats say it could drive all charitable donations underground and become counterproductive. Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), one the best-known jihadi online magazines, disappeared for more than two years. “They underestimated the Saudi police,” says a senior security source. “But we are fortunate they started prematurely. If they had listened to Ayeeri maybe they would be in a different position.”
Although fragmented, al-Qaeda is still active. A twin car-bomb attack on Saudi Arabia’s main oil-processing facility at Abqaiq was only narrowly averted in February 2006, and militants have made at least five other attempts to strike at the oil infrastructure. Security sources say a Saudi general was killed at his home by some of his own tribesmen last year when they returned from Iraq.
The war of ideas
As the centre of Muslim pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia will always be a place for extremists from across the world to meet and plot, sometimes carrying secret messages. Still, the level of violence has dropped, and the country can put more effort into the war of ideas. Official propaganda talks of extremists as “misguided” or deviant. It avoids terms such as jihadi or irhabi (Arabic for “terrorist”) because they are derived from Koranic verses with positive connotations. Saudi officials note that Sura 8:60 commands the faithful to “strike terror into the enemies of Allah”. Saudi Arabia treats jihadists as victims rather than as terrorists. Jailed militants are offered one-on-one discussions with Islamic scholars to try to convince them that they have misinterpreted the rules of jihad.
Those due for release after serving short sentences for, say, fighting in Iraq undergo rehabilitation in a low-security holiday camp outside Riyadh. Other inmates have served time at Guantánamo Bay. The young men spend their days in religious discussions, art therapy, sports, vocational training and psychological assessments.
One of those who recently attended the course was 30-year-old Abdallah al-Sufyani, a lovelorn former university student from Taif. He decided to go to Iraq in 2003 after his secret girlfriend was made to marry another man. He wanted to die, but believed he would go to hell if he committed suicide. His answer was to fight the Americans and hope he would be killed as a martyr. But he survived and eventually returned home. “I did not find the truth in Iraq,” he says. “I found Muslims killing Muslims, Iraqis killing Iraqis.” Now, with the help of the Saudi government, he hopes to write a book and launch a poetry magazine.
Inmates on rehabilitation are encouraged to reconnect with friends and family on frequent home visits. When they leave, the state gives them money if they have no job, helps them find work, buys them a car and even assists them in finding a wife. Family members are looked after too, to ensure they are not recruited by extremists. Friends, relatives and tribal elders are enlisted to ensure good behaviour. The system of subsidy and patronage is so generous that Saudis quip they wish they had been in Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden.
The rate of recidivism is not known. Two former Guantánamo inmates are back in prison, but even that may be a sign of progress. “Do you know who told us about them? Their friends,” says a senior Saudi source.
As for the hardcore militants, the government has a different plan. About 700 people are currently in jail pending prosecution on terrorism-related charges. Five new high-security prisons for militants, with room for thousands, are being built by none other than the bin Laden family’s construction firm.
Some 75 people involved in the explosions in 2003 are due to be tried this year. The government wants them to be dealt with by the sternest of Wahhabi religious scholars. “It should not be a trial of the people,” says a senior Saudi figure, “it should be a trial of the ideology of al-Qaeda. The real victory over al-Qaeda will be when we defeat the ideology.”
The self-destructive gene -- Al-Qaeda’s biggest weakness is its propensity to kill indiscriminately
THE mangonel was the big gun of antiquity. But this siege engine, used to catapult rocks, burning objects or dead animals into fortified cities, troubled Islamic scholars. Some early authorities disallowed it on the ground that it was an indiscriminate weapon.
From the Crusades onwards it met with greater approval. Ibn al-Nahhas al-Dumyati, a classical writer on jihad who fought the Crusaders, ruled that mangonels could be used against the enemy “even if there are women and children among them, even if there are Muslim prisoners, merchants or those who have been granted safe conduct”.
Such opinions are cited today in religious rulings defending the September 11th attacks or arguing that weapons of mass destruction may be used against America. But Jihadists of al-Qaeda’s sort disregard long-standing injunctions against wanton slaughter. Worse, they claim the right to declare takfir, or apostasy among Muslims. When combined with a puritanical religious practice known as salafism—imitating the earliest Muslims, known as the salaf, and treating later Islamic practices with contempt—this creates an especially violent and intolerant kind of Muslim.
Salafi-takfiri jihadists cannot build political alliances; they regard even Hamas and Hizbullah, Israel’s main foes, as corrupted by politics. And once they start to spill blood, they become ever more indiscriminate: first they attack the “apostate” rulers or their foreign backers, then the ministers, then the security forces, then the civil servants, then anybody who objects to the violence, and so on. Those who recoil at the carnage, or object to the religious strictures imposed at gunpoint, are treated as apostates. At some point, though, local populations turn against their supposed champions.
This cycle of escalation and rejection was demonstrated in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Iraq. Peter Bergen, the author of several books on Osama bin Laden, suggests that al-Qaeda, in turn, is starting to unravel. “Self-destruction is encoded in the DNA of groups like al-Qaeda,” he says.
A Pew Global Attitudes survey last year found that support for Mr bin Laden and suicide-bombings had dropped across a number of Muslim countries. More importantly, even radical ideologues have become critical. Salman al-Oadah, a Saudi sheikh once jailed by the Saudi authorities and admired by Mr bin Laden, last year made a televised appeal for the al-Qaeda leader to change his violent ways.
Another blow was delivered from an Egyptian jail by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr Fadl, one of al-Qaeda’s founders in 1988 and a former leader of Mr Zawahiri’s movement, al-Jihad. He had developed much of al-Qaeda’s ideology, but at the end of last year he came up with a sweeping revision. “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property,” he wrote.
Jihad had to be authorised by a qualified imam or sheikh, he said, not the “heroes of the internet”. He approved of jihad in Afghanistan and had mixed feelings about Iraq. But the September 11th attacks, he thought, were “a catastrophe for Muslims…What good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings and he destroys one of your countries?”
Perhaps in response to such criticism, al-Qaeda’s propaganda has gone into overdrive. Mr Zawahiri wrote a rebuttal of nearly 200 pages accusing Dr Fadl of seeking American-style “Islam without jihad”. The reclusive Mr bin Laden has become more active, delivering four audio speeches this year, mostly on the crowd-pleasing theme of Palestine.
Al-Qaeda may have thought that, by goading America into invading Muslim lands, it would engineer a popular jihad against the “far” enemy. In part it succeeded. But it also discovered that fighting in Muslim lands means having to deal with a growing number of “near” enemies, be they fragile new governments, rival religious sects or tribes that have become fed up with the extremists.
Do al-Qaeda’s setbacks answer Donald Rumsfeld’s question about whether America is winning or losing the “war on terror”? Not really. The best that can be said is that America has stopped losing but is not yet winning it.
The idea lives on
Al-Qaeda is both an organisation and an idea. As an organisation it is weaker than it was when it had the run of Afghanistan, but stronger than it was immediately after the toppling of the Taliban in 2001. The loss of senior figures, the hardening of international borders and better intelligence co-operation across the world have helped to contain it. But it may yet enjoy a resurgence if Pakistan’s new government gives up trying to control the country’s tribal belt.
What of al-Qaeda as an idea? Some argue that its support base nowadays is less of an ideological movement and more of a youth cult, based on anger and the desire to emulate the fighters on internet video clips. Perhaps so. It is ideology, however, that convinces young Muslim men in northern England to define themselves as Muslim rather than British, and that drives Muslims to blow themselves up in the name of God.
The backlash, particularly from former supporters, is hurting the global jihadists. But it is unlikely to put an end to their violence for the foreseeable future. Jihadists will dismiss criticism as the product of coercion or selling out to local rulers.
Al-Qaeda was never going to be a mass movement. It takes only a small cadre of dedicated terrorists to wreak havoc, particularly if havens are available. In any case, Mr bin Laden retains a sizeable core of support in several countries, and Western mistakes could easily boost that.
Perhaps the more important opinion polls are those that gauge America’s (un)popularity. The Pew survey, for instance, found that America’s standing in the Muslim world was “abysmal”; in Pakistan it was much lower than Mr bin Laden’s (see chart 3). America’s overt military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan may be necessary to avoid a vacuum, but it will feed Muslims’ sense of grievance and encourage violent extremists.
Al-Qaeda will not be defeated by America but rather by governments in the Muslim world that manage to extend their writ across its lawless areas. This will take time, Western assistance and much diplomatic skill. Until then the West will have to co-operate with other countries (sometimes holding its nose) to contain the threat—and hope that the jihadists continue to wreck their own cause.