Bin Laden's Dissidents: Turning their Backs on Jihad

By Britta Sandberg

More and more prominent terrorists are defecting from the cause. The Egyptian theologian Dr. Fadl is the best known, but many others are likewise reconsidering. Experts see it as a delayed reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Noman Benotman walks into a restaurant on Park Lane, the exclusive, minimalist sort of place that is currently all the rage in London. People in business suits converse in hushed tones at nearby tables. Benotman, wearing an orange polo shirt and a gray checked blazer, fits in perfectly.

Benotman, a 41-year-old man from Libya, was once a jihadist. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and it was in those days, which some would later romanticize as heroic, that he met Osama bin Laden. Benotman says that he was once adept at using an AK-47, and that he remembers making out the faces of Soviet helicopter pilots before shooting them down.

After the Soviet army withdrew in disgrace from Kabul and Kandahar, Benotman returned to his native Libya, where he became one of the leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The group, several hundred strong, sought to overthrow the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which they believed was corrupt and un-Islamic. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Benotman was an important figure in the expanding global network of terrorism.

Today he sits in a London restaurant and orders an espresso with a glass of water from a waiter dressed in a white uniform. He speaks with a flawless British accent.

Nothing Short of Spectacular

Benotman has just returned from Libya, where he is working on behalf of the Gadhafi regime, the same regime he hoped to oust only a decade ago. He has been assigned a very delicate task. His job is to convince imprisoned members of his former terrorist group to sign a peace treaty of sorts. He has traveled to Libya 25 times in the last 16 months, and his efforts are paying off. Now, he says, the document that will allow his former comrades to be reintegrated into society is as good as written -- and on the verge of being signed.

Under the agreement the terrorists, most of them in prison for many years, will renounce violence and the murder of civilians. It will also include a denial of recent al-Qaida claims that the LIFG has joined forces with the international terrorist organization. This is untrue, says Benotman, explaining that the Libyans distanced themselves from al-Qaida long ago. His new mission is anything but secretive. Arab television broadcaster Al-Jazeera recently reported on his trips to Libya -- a story about a former jihadist's attempt to bring about peace, after all, is nothing short of spectacular.

Libya is not the only place where efforts to part ways with al-Qaida and its founders are underway. Almost seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11 and 10 years after bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, founded the "International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," the organization is beginning to show cracks.

If one imagines al-Qaida as experts have characterized it -- as a system of terror franchises with branches worldwide -- then there is clearly an uprising taking place among many branch managers. They are distancing themselves from the icons of terror, and from their goals and methods. So far, it apparently remains an internal process, disputes within the various groups that have been smoldering for some time and are now rising to the surface. And there is little to indicate a causal connection between this development and the United States-led war on global terrorism.

His Utmost to Kill

Counterterrorism experts from Europe and the United States met in Florence in May to discuss the current state of affairs. Just how many terrorists remain engaged in the war against the West was a matter for debate. But most of the experts believed that bin Laden still exerts direct influence over a widely diverse group of terrorist organizations, both as a symbolic figurehead and as a financier of training camps and attacks around the world. And all at the conference agreed that bin Laden himself remains determined to do his utmost to kill as many people in the West as possible.

The al-Qaida leadership is still believed to be hiding out in the mountainous, inaccessible border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From their isolated location, bin Laden and Zawahiri compose periodic messages to their followers around the world, often seeking to portray the dissidents as creatures of the hated West. The Egyptian doctor Zawahiri, in particular, insists that renegades like Benotman have either been paid off by the West or tortured into compliance, and that Western intelligence agencies engage in propaganda to create divisions and uncertainty among his holy warriors.

But Zawahiri's messages, delivered by video or broadcast on the Internet, appear to be losing their effectiveness.

In late May, India's influential Deoband religious movement issued a fatwa against terrorism. In a joint proclamation at a meeting in New Delhi attended by representatives of the country's leading Islamic organizations, the groups stated: "It is the goal and purpose of Islam to extinguish all forms of terrorism and to disseminate the message of global peace. Those who use the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to justify terror are merely upholding a lie."

The supreme mufti of the Deobandis and three envoys signed the document. "In terms of its theological significance, this is roughly the equivalent of a ruling by the Supreme Court in Washington," activist Javed Anand later said. The Deobandis, whose name is derived from a small city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, once inspired and offered religious instruction to fighters in the Islamic world. Militant Pakistani groups, jihadists in Iraq and even the Taliban invoked the Deobandis for many years. But those days are now gone.

Former militants who have renounced jihad often begin to proselytize among their former comrades-in-arms. In late April, a handful of former members of the militant Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded in Jordan in 1953 and eventually spread to about 40 countries, established a foundation to combat fundamentalism among Muslims in Europe.

Maajid Nawaz, 31, is the director of the new organization, known as the Quilliam Foundation. In his past, Nawaz helped develop secret terrorist cells in Pakistan and later in Denmark. He spent five years in an Egyptian prison, where he turned his back on radical Islam. The foundation was established in the British Museum, and when he gave his speech at the event, Nawaz was wearing a well-tailored Hugo Boss suit and his beard was neatly trimmed. "I turned away from Islamism," he said, "because I recognized it as the curse of Islam."

'Do Not Exceed the Limits'

This small rebellion within al-Qaida had its beginnings in May 2007, in the form of a fax received at the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. It was sent by one of the eminent authorities of al-Qaida, a man who was once bin Laden's mentor before he went from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to Afghanistan, and long before he became a shining light in the Islamic world. The man's name is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Like Zawahiri, Sharif is an Egyptian doctor, and he later competed with Zawahiri for bin Laden's favor. Sharif is better known under his nom de guerre, Dr. Fadl.

Ironically Dr. Fadl, 58, sent the fax from a prison in Cairo, where he has been serving a life sentence since 2004. He wrote that jihadism is reprehensible and that it violates the precepts of Islam and Shariah law. Killing people solely on the basis of their nationality is not in keeping with the Koran, he wrote, especially since the victims of such acts are often "innocent Muslims and non-Muslims." "Fight, on God's behalf, against those who fight you, but do not exceed the limits," the converted Dr. Fadl wrote.

A man once referred to as the "al-Qaida's chief ideologue," and one of the organization's founders, disassociating himself with al-Qaida, bin Laden and Zawahiri? It was a sensation, a turning point for the terrorist network.

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