Al Qaeda is “imploding,” a State Department counterterrorism official told the Associated Press last week, as a result of growing opposition in the Muslim world.
The implication that al Qaeda’s demise may be imminent is almost certainly incorrect. But what is true is that “a severe intellectual conflict has emerged” within the jihadist movement, said Kamal Habib, a former official of the Egyptian Jihad Organization (Al Arab, September 14).
Over the past year, al Qaeda has been publicly criticized by several of its own former supporters and ideological leaders, most notably Sayyid Imam Al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, who once saved the life of Usama bin Laden.
“Sayyid Imam is viewed as the greatest and most important authority for all of the jihadist salafist groups,” said Kamal Habib.
So when Sayyid Imam declared in a November 2007 book that killing non-combatant civilians, including Christians and Jews, is prohibited and that Al Qaeda’s conduct of jihad against the west was illegitimate, it produced an ideological earthquake within Islamist ranks.
“Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare,” wrote Lawrence Wright in an illuminating article in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008).
“Al Qaeda senior leaders in 2008 have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group’s legitimacy,” observed National Intelligence Officer Ted Gistaro in an August 12 speech (pdf). “This defensive tone … reflects concern over allegations by militant leaders and religious scholars that al Qaeda and its affiliates have violated the Islamic laws of war, particularly in Iraq and North Africa.”
One of the major al Qaeda responses came in a book by bin Laden deputy Ayman al Zawahiri called “The Exoneration: A Treatise Exonerating the Community of the Pen and the Sword from the Debilitating Accusation of Fatigue and Weakness” (pdf).
The book is an attempt to defend the legitimacy of al Qaeda’s tactics, including the killing of civilians, against the critiques of Sayyid Imam and other Islamic figures.
“Those who claim that killing innocent persons is absolutely forbidden are in a position of accusing the prophet, may God’s peace and prayers be upon him, his companions, and the generation following them that they were killers of innocent persons, as they see it,” wrote Zawahiri.
He noted that the prophet authorized the use of catapults, which do not discriminate between innocent and guilty, and he also killed all the males of a Jewish tribe “and made no distinction between one person and another.”
“The Exoneration,” which was published in January 2008, was translated a few months later by the DNI Open Source Center. The translation has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.
“Zawahiri’s strategic thinking and understanding of asymmetrical warfare and revolutionary violence is heavily indebted to vanguardism, a Leninist theory of revolution which posits that a small, revolutionary elite uses violence to rouse the people to fight against the government,” according to a contractor analysis (pdf) performed for the Department of Defense and obtained by Secrecy News.
“The potential problem with Zawahiri’s application of the theory of vanguardism… is that terrorism usually diminishes the support of both the government as well as the terrorist organization,” as appears to be the case today.
See “Zawahiri Tries to Clear Name, Explain Strategy,” Transnational Security Issues Report, prepared for the Department of Defense by the International Research Center, April 21, 2008.
“Is Al Qaeda going to dissipate as a result of the criticism from its former mentors and allies? Despite the recent internal criticism, probably not in the short term,” said analyst Peter Bergen at a July 30 congressional hearing.
“However, encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups like Al Qaeda are the seeds of their own long-term destruction: Their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don’t offer a positive vision of the future; they keep expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn’t precisely share their world view; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics,” Mr. Bergen said.