Is Al-Qaeda Disintegrating?

All is not well within the ranks of Al Qaeda, or so the media tells us.

Three major articles have appeared in the last week heralding a fracture at the theoretical-philosophical level of jihadism, which not only bodes well for the war on terror, but may signify a coming dam-break in the Islamic civil war. Of the three, the most interesting is a lengthy profile of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, or “Dr. Fadl,” written by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker. (The other two ran in the New Republic and the Washington Post). Wright is the author of The Looming Tower, the best book on Al Qaeda and the gore-soaked path to 9/11, and so may be said to know quite a lot about our enemies, their tactics, and their changing states of mind.

As for Dr. Fadl, he was formerly Bin Laden’s philosopher-in-chief, and therefore not someone whose new opinions can be easily dismissed as those of a crackpot heretic. And what new opinions they are! Last year, Fadl began publishing excerpts of a tract called Rationalizing Jihad, a sort of Islamist Goodbye to All That, castigating Al Qaeda for its violent ways, its self-arrogation of religious authority, and – it’s almost impossible to write this in earnest – its fundamental discourtesy to infidels. Among the saner judgments one will find in the book are the following:

“There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.”

“There is no such thing in Islam as the ends justifying the means.”

“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 Muslims, in contrast with those who push them into peril.”

“There is nothing in Sharia about killing Jews and Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders.”

“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.”

“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.”

Let aside whether or not Fadl’s humane interpretations of the Koran and Hadith withstand scrutiny, his citation of political asylum or visas as a way of underscoring the warm welcome Europe and America offers emigrant Muslims, or whether or not this text is even his own. (He has been incarcerated in Egypt’s Tora prison for the last two years, and so the natural suspicion among his usual readership is that he was coerced into lending his imprimatur to this about-face.) Fadl had formerly been the architect for takfir, the practice of determining who is and is not a “true” Muslim, which has been taken up with such lethal prejudice by Al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world (see Zarqawi’s old proclamations against the Shia of Iraq). So for such a theoretician to publicly renounce his most well known theory is indeed significant.

Though the real charm in Wright’s story is why Fadl authored Rationalizing Jihad: His first and most influential literary “masterpiece” had been molested by the vulgar pen of one Ayman al-Zawahiri, the “number two” of Al Qaeda.

Both men had been medical students together in Egypt in the late 1960’s, when they happened upon a fashionable new course of theocratic revolution. Fadl was the brains of the operation, as well as the hands (he was the more gifted surgeon), while Zawahiri provided the public relations and messianic zeal needed to recruit what was, at first, a local gang of jihadists set upon bringing down the Sadat regime.