Dr. Fadl had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaeda’s murderous acts. His defection posed a terrible threat.Illustration by John Ritter
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.“I’m taking you off the Henderson account and putting you into this steel drum.”
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.”“Is ‘oblivious’ the same as ‘undecided’?”
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.“Then we’re agreed—it’s a great day for a ballgame.”
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.“I wish our marriage had a restore point.”
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.”“I can cure your back problem, but there’s a risk that you’ll be left with nothing to talk about.”
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.” ♦
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