In 2001, imam Mohammed El Fazazi of Morocco preached that it it is a Muslim obligation to "slit the throats of non-believers" in a Hamburg mosque. Among his listeners and star pupils were Mohammed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh and Marwan al-Shehhi, three of the men who participated in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Today, eight years later, Mohammed El Fazazi has foresworn acts of terrorism against Western targets. "I admit that I went too far and overshot the target," he wrote in an open letter to his daughter, who lives in Hamburg, and Muslims living in Germany.
Muslims living in Germany, he said, should draw attention to themselves and their issues through "peaceful demonstrations, strikes and protests that are far removed from indiscriminate attacks" and the "killing of innocent people with the argument of killing kuffar," or non-believers.
Earlier this week, SPIEGEL reported about the former hate preacher's apparent change of mind. Since then the letter, which SPIEGEL ONLINE has posted in a slightly abridged form, has begun making waves. Early indications suggest that Fazazi's letter swearing off violence is likely to trigger a debate in mosques and, especially, among jihadists.
'This Is a Step Forward'
Fazazi's theses are a "crystal clear argument," said Noman Benotman, a Libyan man and former jihadist and personal acquaintance of Osama bin Laden who now lives in London. Benotman has since disavowed armed conflict and terror, and is instead trying to convince his former brothers in arms to shift their stances, too.
Fazazi, Benotman said, has many followers in the Maghreb region of North Africa. "A lot of people will listen to to it," he predicted. He said it was possible the letter would have more influence than the books written by other renegades from the al-Qaida milieu. "Because it is shorter, more people will read it."
Likewise, Benotman says that Fazazi makes arguments that are clearly and understandable Islamic. For example, he cites Fazazi's discussion of how when Muslim immigrants to Germany sign contracts "in the embassy, in the consulate or in the immigration office," they are forbidden from committing violence against their hosts, as it would be "a breach of contract and betrayal. "So far," Benotman says, "Fazazi is the best. That is a big step forward."
In Prison for Six Years
In saying this, Benotman places Fazazi in the small but august circle of individuals who, based on religious conviction, have abandoned the tenets of militant jihad in favor of peaceful means.
The most important person in this group is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the Egyption doctor, who is better known under his nom de guerre, Dr. Fadl. Fadl was a co-founder of al-Qaida and a close friend of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command in Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. In May 2007, Fadl made his conversion known to the world in the form of a fax to a London-based Arab newspaper sent from his prison in Cairo. He also described his renunciation of indiscriminately killing people in terrorist attacks. Al-Qaida took Fadl's theologically based calls so seriously that al-Zawahiri delivered a speech in which he specifically responded to his former friend.
Another member of this group is the Saudi Sheik Salman al-Oudah. Once one of the most fervent advocates of jihad, al-Oudah went on television last year to specifically address bin Laden and try to convince him to no longer commission actions that kill innocents.
In jihadi circles, particularly in North Africa, Fazazi is viewed as a real authority. At the moment, he is in a prison in his native Morocco. He has served six of the 30 years he was sentenced to for allegedly indoctrinating the people behind bomb attacks in Casablanca in 2003. Fazazi continues to claim his innocence.
Letter Races Through Mosque Communities
Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian expert on jihadi ideologies at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, believes that many might be skeptical about Fazazi's message against terrorism given the fact that its author is in prison. Still, he writes, "Fazazi is one of the most influential ideologues in the European-North African sphere, so this could be quite significant."
Brynjar Lia, a colleague of Hegghammer at the think tank of Norway's Defense Ministry, believes that Fazazi's letter "will be one more piece of ammunition in the broader ideological counterassault on al-Qaida and violent Islamism."
Like Fazazi, both Dr. Fadl and Salman al-Oudah sat in prison for years. But nobody doubts their recantations anymore. Fazazi writes that he has used his time in prison to re-evaluate his thinking, that he was not forced to do anything and that he wasn't pressured to compose the letter. Some German security officials have expressed that they believe Fazazi is telling the truth: first, because of the length of the letter; second, because -- given Fazazi's standing -- Moroccan security officials wouldn't dare torture him; third, because Fazazi isn't the type to speak out against his real beliefs.
Since it was released, Fazazi's letter has been racing through mosque communities in Germany in both Arabic and German versions.
Some of his followers refuse to believe his recantation is true. "Whatever the case may be, we won't alter our course," wrote one anonymous jihadist on a German-language online forum. The discussion has begun.