Bin Laden's Dissidents: Turning their Backs on Jihad
Part 2: 'Things Are Slowly Changing'
"When I first read the fax, I thought that he must have been coerced," says Mohammed al-Shafey, an editor at the London-based Arab newspaper, which printed the document of renunciation. "Fadl was the brain, the think tank of jihad. Only later, when I read his new book, did I realize that he really meant what he wrote." Dr. Fadl wrote the book Shafey is referring to, in which he explains the reasons for his change of heart, in his prison cell and announced its completion in the fax he sent to London.
Dr. Fadl is not only seen as the brain of al-Qaida, but is also considered one of Zawahiri's mentors. Both men are surgeons and attended medical school in Cairo together. Zawahiri was one of thousands arrested in 1981 after former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated. Fadl fled to Pakistan and settled in Peshawar, where he treated wounded fighters from Afghanistan.
After completing a prison sentence in Cairo, Zawahiri went to Peshawar, then a magnet for Islamists. At that time, it was clear to the two men that Dr. Fadl was the superior intellect. He was said to have encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran.
On Aug. 11, 1988, in Peshawar, Fadl and Zawahiri met for the first time with a young Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden and a Palestinian named Abdullah Assam. The four men would later found al-Qaida, "the basis," as a fighting alliance against infidels, the West and the United States, after the collapse of the world's other superpower, the Soviet Union. Bin Laden had money and followers, while Fadl and Zawahiri had dreamed up the ideological underpinnings for jihad.
Fadl soon wrote something of a manual for jihadism. According to the document, holy war is the natural state of Islam and the "only way to end the domination of the infidels." With such a manifesto in his past, Fadl's renunciation of al-Qaida is not easily dismissed as insignificant.
Greatest Trial in its History
It is a heavy blow to bin Laden and Zawahiri when one of the founders of their network describes al-Qaida's ideology and the attacks of Sept. 11 as mistakes. "Dr. Fadl is fundamentally questioning their theological authority," says Lawrence Wright, who describes the history of al-Qaida in his book, "The Looming Tower." In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Wright wrote "Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians -- including Christians and Jews -- unless they are actively attacking Muslims." Wright believes that the terrorist organization faces the greatest challenge in its history.
Just how seriously Zawahiri took Fadl's pamphlet of renunciation is evident in the 200-page response he issued in March of this year, which was also published on the Internet. Zawahiri writes that he can only imagine Dr. Fadl's conversion to be the work of Arab intelligence agencies working in concert with the CIA, and that the document must have been written under duress.
"If you claim that these operations were illegal," al-Qaida's number two man writes, addressing Fadl directly, "then this must also apply to all operations conducted in Palestine." According to Zawahiri, Fadl has never questioned Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Paul Cruickshank of New York University and terrorism expert Peter Bergen spent six months investigating the turmoil within al-Qaida. The two were the first to interview Noman Benotman, and they also spoke with other critics of the terror organization -- including Sheikh Salman al-Oudah. On the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Saudi went on the television channel MBS to publicly demand of bin Laden how many innocents had already been killed in the name of al-Qaida. Oudah also wanted to know how bin Laden planned to face the almighty with hundreds, even thousands, of innocent lives on his conscience.
"Al-Oudah is neither in prison nor is he suspected of being a friend of the Americans or a tool of the Saudi government," says Cruickshank. On the contrary: In 2004, the sheikh called on Iraqis to fight against the US occupiers in their country.
Cruickshank believes that, ironically enough, it was the Iraq war that delayed latent criticism of bin Laden and his concept of jihad. "What's emerging now has been simmering for a long time." The fact that American soldiers were occupying holy ground provided every major terrorist leader with a convenient justification for jihad in Iraq.
There is no doubt that al-Qaida remains an unscrupulous and dangerous terrorist organization, even if it has lost some of its influence in Iraq. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, its core countries, it is enjoying renewed support. Allied with the newly strengthened Taliban, al-Qaida is doing its part to seriously jeopardize the regimes in Islamabad and Kabul. "In the long term, however, they will face problems as a result of the ideological debate," says Peter Bergen. "They are already having trouble finding recruits in Europe today."
Wearing a Suit for Friday Prayers
This shift in the general mood that experts like Bergen believe is happening in Europe is clearly in evidence at London's Al-Tawhid Mosque. Two of the presumed attackers who planned, and failed, to commit attacks in London and Glasgow in late June 2007 were frequent visitors to the mosque. "But now people have had enough of Islam constantly being equated with terrorism," says Usama Hasan, the mosque's 36-year-old imam.
These days Hasan wears a suit when leading Friday prayers. "I am a Muslim living in the West, and I want everyone to see it." Hasan, himself a former fighter in Afghanistan and member of a fundamentalist group, now preaches the renunciation of violence and condemns terrorism.
"I have the feeling that things are slowly changing," says former Libyan terrorist Benotman, referring to the small series of prominent renegades. He was once so well known among jihadists that he dealt directly with bin Laden. That was in the summer of 2000, when roughly 200 people representing groups from many countries came together in Kandahar. Benotman was living in a guesthouse that bin Laden owned.
The Libyans, fearing retaliation against their own country, were opposed to the crusade against the United States that was discussed at such great length in Kandahar. According to Benotman, even Taliban leader Mullah Omar was in favor of attacking Israel instead of the United States. "We told bin Laden at the time that he could not force his strategy on all Arabs," the Libyan recalls today. "His response was that there was an operation underway that he could no longer stop, and that the fighters were ready to act." Bin Laden was referring to the attackers of Sept. 11.
After the attacks on America, the Libyans parted ways with al-Qaida. Several Libyan newspapers published Benotman's open letter to Zawahiri last year. He has been living in London in recent years. He says that he has never been in prison, neither in Libya nor anyplace else.
Then the elegantly dressed man, a one-time jihadist, walks out of the chic restaurant and disappears into the Green Park Underground station.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Turning their Backs on Jihad
- Part 2: 'Things Are Slowly Changing'
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