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The Heretic: The Fascinating Story of How Al-Qaeda's Mastermind Dr Fadl Turned His Back on Terror - Part Three

By Lawrence Wright

13 July 2008

Read Part Two Here

Zawahiri responds

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 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 organisation 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 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 US Treasury has described as an al-Qaeda facilitator and fundraiser, declared on a website 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 authorised flying aircraft into targets during suicide operations.) He observed that although the Arab regimes have a natural self-interest in encouraging non-violence, 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, they can evolve into political parties. 'We have to admit we do not have in our land a true political process worthy of the name,' Ali argued. 'What we have are regimes that play a game in which they use whatever will guarantee their continued existence.'

Meanwhile, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian Islamist living in 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 Quran and hundreds of the Prophet's sayings call for jihad and fighting those unjust tyrants,' Tartusi exclaimed on a jihadist website. '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, honour, 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 website 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 sympathisers were paying so much attention to Fadl's manuscript made it imperative that Zawahiri offer a definitive rebuttal. Since al-Qaeda's violent ideology rested, in part, on Fadl's foundation, Zawahiri would have to find a way to discredit the author without destroying the authority of his own organisation. It was a tricky task.

Zawahiri's main problem in countering Fadl was his own lack of standing as a religious scholar. 'Al-Qaeda has no one who is qualified from a Sharia perspective to make a response,' Fadl boasted to al-Hayat. 'All of them - bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others - are not religious scholars on whose opinion you can count. They are ordinary persons.' Of course, Fadl himself had no formal religious training, either.

In February this year, Zawahiri announced in a video he had finished a 'letter' responding to Fadl's book. 'The Islam presented by that document is the one that 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 200 pages long. 'This message I present to the reader today is among the most difficult I have ever written in my life,' Zawahiri admits in his introduction. Although the text is laden with footnotes and lengthy citations from Islamic scholars, Zawahiri's strategy is apparent from the beginning. Whereas Fadl's book is a trenchant attack on the immoral roots of al-Qaeda's theology, Zawahiri navigates his argument toward the familiar shores of the 'Zionist-Crusader' conspiracy. Zawahiri claims Fadl wrote his book 'in the spirit of the Minister of the Interior'. He characterises it as a desperate attempt by the enemies of Islam - 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 defence, Zawahiri clearly displays the moral relativism that has taken over the organisation. 'Keep in mind that we have the right to do to the infidels what they have done to us,' he writes. 'We bomb them as they bomb us, even if we kill someone who is not permitted to be killed.' He compares 9/11 to the 1998 American bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, in retaliation for al-Qaeda's destruction of two American embassies in East Africa. (The US mistakenly believed 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 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 'The US gives itself the right to take any Muslim without respect to his visa,' Zawahiri writes. 'If the US and westerners don't respect visas, why should we?'

Zawahiri makes some telling psychological points; for instance, he says that the imprisoned Fadl is projecting his own weakness on the Mujahideen, who have grown stronger since Fadl deserted them, 15 years earlier. 'The Islamic Mujahid movement was not defeated, by the grace of God; indeed, because of its patience, steadfastness and thoughtfulness, it is heading toward victory,' he writes. He cites the strikes on 9/11 and the ongoing battles in 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.

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.'

Zawahiri's argument demonstrates why Islam is so vulnerable to radicalisation. It is a religion that was born in conflict, and in its long history it has developed a reservoir of opinions and precedents that are supposed to govern the behaviour of Muslims toward their enemies. Some of Zawahiri's commentary may seem comically academic, as in this citation in support of the need for Muslims to prepare for jihad: 'Imam Ahmad said: "We heard from Harun bin Ma'ruf, citing Abu Wahhab, who quoted Amru bin al-Harith citing Abu Ali Tamamah bin Shafi that he heard Uqbah bin Amir saying, 'I heard the Prophet say from the pulpit: "Against them make ready your strength."' Strength refers to shooting arrows and other projectiles from instruments of war.'

And yet such proof of the rightfulness of jihad, or taking captives, or slaughtering the enemy is easily found in the commentaries of scholars, the rulings of Sharia courts, the volumes of the Prophet's sayings, and the Koran itself. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Egyptian Grand Mufti, has pointed out that literalism is often the prelude to extremism. 'We must not oversimplify,' he told me. Crude interpretations of Islamic texts can lead men like Zawahiri to conclude that murder should be celebrated. They come to believe religion is science. They see their actions as logical, righteous and mandatory. In this fashion, a surgeon is transformed from a healer into a killer, but only if the candle of individual conscience has been extinguished.

Several times in his lengthy response, Zawahiri complains of double standards when critics attack al-Qaeda's tactics but ignore similar actions on the part of Palestinian organisations. He notes that Fadl ridicules the fighting within al-Qaeda. 'Why don't you ask Hamas the same thing?' Zawahiri demands. 'Isn't this a clear contradiction?'

Zawahiri knows 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 fervour are boiling over in Palestine.

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 organisation, 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 their cause has been harmed by indiscriminate violence. In February, Abu Turab al-Jazairi, an al-Qaeda commander in northern Iraq, whose nom de guerre suggests 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 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 9,000 fighters who call themselves members of al-Qaeda in Iraq can be relied upon.

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 autumn, 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 protege 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 staunch the flow of criticism, Zawahiri boldly initiated a virtual-town-hall meeting. This spring, he released two lengthy audio responses to nearly 100 of the 900 often testy queries that were posed. The first came from a man who identified himself sardonically as the Geography Teacher. 'Excuse me, Mr Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing, with Your Excellency's permission, the innocents in 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.'

The murder of innocents emerged as the most prominent issue in the exchanges. An Algerian university student sarcastically congratulated Zawahiri for killing 60 Muslims in Algeria on a holy feast day. What was their sin, the student wanted to know. 'Those who were killed on 11 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 neighbours, will you treat him tolerantly so that you will not become a gang whose only concern is revenge?'

Many of the questions dealt with Fadl, beginning with why Zawahiri had altered without permission Fadl's Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, Zawahiri claimed the writing of the book was a joint effort, because al-Jihad had financed it. He had to edit the book because it was full of theological errors. 'We neither forged anything nor meddled with anything,' Zawahiri said. Later, he added, 'I ask those who are firm in their covenant not to pay attention to this propaganda war that the United States is launching in its prisons, which are situated in our countries.' Fadl's revisions, Zawahiri warned, 'place restrictions on jihadist action which, if implemented, would destroy jihad completely.'

Is Al-Qaeda Finished?

It is, of course, unlikely that al-Qaeda will voluntarily follow the example of the Islamist Group and Zawahiri's own organisation, al-Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one to which Zawahiri and the leaders of al-Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond. Radical Islam began as a spiritual call to the Muslim world to unify and strengthen itself through holy warfare. For the dreamers who long to institute God's justice on earth, Fadl's revisions represent a substantial moral challenge. But for the young nihilists who are joining the al-Qaeda movement for their own reasons - revenge, boredom, or a desire for adventure - the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.

According to a recent National Intelligence Estimate in the US, al-Qaeda has been regenerating, and remains the greatest terror threat to America. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, says 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 Pakistan 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 the current membership totals less than 200 men; American intelligence estimates range from under 300 to more than 500. Meanwhile, new al-Qaeda-inspired groups, which may be only tangentially connected to the leaders, have spread, and older, more established terrorist organisations are now flying the al-Qaeda banner, outside the control of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hoffman thinks this is the reason that bin Laden and Zawahiri have been emphasising 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 20th anniversary. That is a long life for a terrorist group. Most terror organisations disappear with the death of their charismatic leader, and it would be hard to imagine al-Qaeda remaining a coherent entity without Osama bin Laden. The Red Army Faction went out of business when the Berlin Wall came down and it lost its sanctuary in East Germany. The IRA, unusually, endured in various incarnations for almost a century, until economic conditions in Ireland improved significantly, and the membership agreed to reach a political accommodation. When one looks for hopeful parallels for the end of al-Qaeda, it is discouraging to realise 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 organisation 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 10 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 towards harmony and co-existence. 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. 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 nearly 30 years ago, there would be peace today between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: 'Only what benefits people stay on the earth.'

'It's very easy to start violence,' Zuhdy said. 'Peace is much more difficult.'

The Heretic: The Fascinating Story of How Al-Qaeda's Mastermind Dr Fadl Turned His Back on Terror - Part Two

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