Ideological clash of two jihadi titans shakes Al Qaeda
By Caryle Murphy | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor from the December 15, 2008 edition
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – A bitter, year-long feud that has shaken Al Qaeda’s ideological pillars grew even sharper last month. A former associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri accused him of working for Sudanese intelligence, wearing "women’s garments" to flee Afghanistan, and spreading an incorrect Islamic theory of jihad.
Mr. Zawahiri "is only good at fleeing, inciting, collecting donations, and talking to the media," wrote Sayyed Imam al-Sharif in his latest attack on Al Qaeda’s No. 2.
Sayyed Imam, serving a life sentence in Egypt, is an esteemed theoretician of jihad whose ideas helped shape Al Qaeda’s ideology. But now he’s decrying its stock in trade – mass murder – in a clash that is an example of how some once-fierce zealots of violent jihad are having second thoughts.
"It is really an argument about … what means are militarily effective and Islamically legitimate," says William McCants, a Washington area-based analyst of militant Islamism. Imam, he adds, is saying that only "a guerrilla war conducted against enemy soldiers" is permitted.
Imam’s prison writings were preceded by a series of books and commentaries from imprisoned members of Islamic Group, a group that waged a guerrilla war against the Egyptian government in the 1990s. Their so-called "revisions" renounced violence and some put forward ideas on how to peacefully create an Islamic society.
Terrorism experts disagree on the impact that Imam’s scathing critiques of Zawahiri and Al Qaeda will have on the global jihadi movement, particularly since he writes from prison where he is believed subject to influence from Egyptian and US intelligence agencies.
But his writings have put Zawahiri on the defensive. And they come amid other pressures, including the disabling of several Al Qaeda-linked online forums – presumably by Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies – and an intensification of US military activity in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding.
"One shouldn’t overestimate the impact of this [ideological feud] in the overall war on terror, but it is definitely going to divert some of Zawahiri’s creative energy away from operations," says Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow in Harvard Kennedy School’s international security program.
"Zawahiri’s support among jihadis is still strong, but he is losing the media battle to convince the public that Al Qaeda is winning," adds Mr. McCants, who monitors Al Qaeda Web activity at jihadica.com. "That, coupled with the US Predators attacks in Pakistan, put him under tremendous pressure."
Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and author of "Inside Terrorism," says he does not believe that Imam’s writings are going to have a huge adverse impact on Al Qaeda’s hard-core followers. If you are a hard-line militant, "are you going to listen to an elderly, geriatric guy in an Egyptian prison?" Mr. Hoffman asks. "It’s not as if Zawahiri himself changed his mind."
Far more problematic for Al Qaeda, Hoffman says, is the sabotage of its online forums, some of which have not been working since September. As the principle means of communicating with followers and potential recruits, their loss "has been a serious blow," Hoffman says.
Imam, also known as Dr. Fadl, was a close ally of Zawahiri when Imam led Egypt’s Islamic Jihad in the 1980s. His reputation as a top jihadi ideologue rested on his books, particularly his 1994 "A Compendium for the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge."
But Imam and Zawahiri disagreed about many things and grew estranged. When Imam stepped down as Islamic Jihad leader in 1993, Zawahiri took his place. Though Al Qaeda cited Imam’s writings, he never joined the group.
In Nov. 2007, Imam released "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," a book that refuted Al Qaeda’s terrorist tactics and ideology and was especially critical of Zawahiri.