PJ Media

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.

The organization they established, Al Jihad, played a part in the Egyptian president’s assassination, and since then, the two haven’t been able to agree on much of anything. Fadl went into seclusion as a kind of hidden private practitioner, and Zawahiri became famous in a cave in Afghanistan. But it was the latter’s meddling with The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge – not to mention his presumptuous re-titling of the book Guide to the Path of Righteousness for Jihad and Belief – that appears to have turned his erstwhile comrade against him. Apart from being amusing in itself (what price the self-sacrificing “bravery” of suicide bombing if the big bad terrorists can’t even handle being edited?) it shows that heaven-minded emirs suffer from the earthly vice of amour propre.

However, the Fadl-Zawahiri argument is noteworthy in telling historical way, too. If it carries on – and judging by Zawahiri’s defensive posture in the wake of Fadl’s latest salvo, it probably will – their debate recapitulates one of the key philosophical ruptures that occurred in the 19th century within the Russian intelligentsia, a rupture that similarly began with an arcane literary feud, but altered the course of human events in ways we are still dealing with. The victor in that dispute planted all the seeds from which the diseased saplings of Bolshevism eventually emerged, but that there was even an alternative suggests that, as with any ideological struggle, things might have turned out differently.


The name Pyort Lavrovich Lavrov is not famous in the West, much less in contemporary Russia, but in 1868, this ex-artillery officer in the Romanov army was the considered the brilliant antidote to Nihilism. He was a political gradualist who, in his Historical Letters, which came out that same year, advocated the end of “heroic activists and fanatical martyrs, of rash waste of forces and of useless sacrifices.” Lavrov was referring to the prior “Generation of the Sons,” who had held that a professional corps of revolutionaries was necessary for ending czarism and establishing an egalitarian social order in the steppes. (They stood in Oedipal contrast to the “Generation of the Fathers,” epitomized by Alexander Herzen. If you’ve seen or read Tom Stoppard’s magnificent theatrical trilogy The Coast of Utopia, you’re aware of the humane socialism for which Herzen stood, and how the failure of his ideas to catch on caused him no end of personal grief.)

The “sons” had selected Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of What Is To Be Done? (probably the worst novel, although the simultaneously the greatest call to arms, ever written) as their mentor, and a deranged psychopath and murderous con artist called Sergei Nechaev as their idol. Lavrov set about to undo the old program of assassination and bomb throwing by advocating a softer form of agitation to be spread through propaganda. The new revolutionaries, argued Lavrov from his popular magazine Vperyod (“Forward”), should be stoic, self-educating and ascetic – an elite sect of scholar-priests or “eternal students.” The Lavrovists were by no means parliamentary democrats or what we would call “liberals” by Westerns standards. They were Populists who thought the antique peasant commune system, the obshchina, was a sufficient basis for reinventing society from the bottom up. Much in what Lavrov advocated sounds, mutatis mutandis, like what Fadl is now advocating for Islamism: “[T]he implementation of justice cannot be achieved by means either of exploitation or of the authoritative rule of personalities; victory over indolent self-gratification cannot be brought about by means of violent seizure of unearned wealth or the reversion of the right to self-indulgence from one persona to another.” And: “People who assert that the ends justifies the means should always restrict this rule with a simple truism: with the exception of means that undermine the end itself.”


Lavrov wasn’t against lying and manipulation to advance revolutionary goals. But defined in opposition to the regnant ideology of his time, Lavrov’s doctrine represented a progressive break with Russian tradition. He wanted revolutionaries to “go to the people” and convert them to the cause not by intimidation but by a gentle and sympathetic illustration of their plight. The result was the so-called Mad Summer of 1874, in which the Lavrovists attempted to preach their quiet gospel to the Russian peasantry in a manner that not a few witnesses to the event likened to a religious awakening. Easier said than done. “No thanks,” answered the peasantry, which actually professed its loyalty to the czar and found these clever student-rebels to be talking nonsense.

What rose against the late failure of radical hopes was a return to the more violent form of revolutionism, best articulated and developed by another Pytor of the era – Pytor Nikitich Tkachev, who should rightly be seen as a godfather to Leninism. The son of a petty nobleman, Tkachev spent his youth alternating between radical journalism and prison. He lacked Lavrov’s sophistication and was a Jacobin who agreed mainly with Nechaev on the need for “revolutionary prototypes” to quicken and man the coming takeover of the state, which he believed would have to be coincidental with popular backing. A coup d’etat by a handful of militants wouldn’t hold unless the people supported it. What distinguished him most from prior intelligents was that Tkachev was one of the first serious students of Marxism, albeit not a blind follower of it.

Tkachev had briefly collaborated with Lavrov, contributing one article to Vperyod, before realizing that the two were inextricably at odds with each other philosophically and morally. He viewed Lavrov as a weak and ineffectual moderate, while Lavrov viewed him as a dangerous upstart and a nasty throwback to the days of underground terrorism. By 1874, Tkachev had published a pamphlet entitled, The Tasks of Revolutionary Propaganda in Russia, which effectively cleaved Russian radicalism into two opposing camps. There were three main points in the essay. The first was that the revolution must be waged by professional revolutionaries, not the untutored and ill-disciplined masses, on whose behalf, of course, the revolutionaries were acting: “A violent revolution can take place only when the minority is no longer willing to wait until the majority itself recognizes its needs, and when it decides, so to speak, to impose this consciousness upon the majority…” The second point was that the revolution should happen as soon as possible, which was sooner than most people had thought because, according to Tkachev, Russia’s notorious backwardness was over-hyped and already disappearing. The country could not afford to wait for capitalism to gain a foothold and allow its economic and social contradictions to explode into a proletarian-led revolt. “Have we the right to spend time on re-education?” Tkachev asked with all the impatience of a kill first, proselytize later missionary. The third point was an obvious correlative of the first two: Only a powerful party with its own resources, tacticians, and propaganda machines would be capable of fomenting and leading this revolution.


Lavrov immediately grasped the power of his adversary’s ideas and how they might lure the next cycle of Romantic Russian thinkers. Though his response was trenchant and prophetic – “The belief that a party, once it has seized dictatorial power, will then voluntarily renounce it, can be entertained only before the seizure” – Lavrov lost the great debate. One of those pestering ironies of history was that he was a good friend of Karl Marx and his defender and co-thinker against Tkachev was none other than Friedrich Engels, who haughtily denounced Tkachev as a “green and exceptionally immature schoolboy, a kind of Simple Simon the Russian revolutionary youth.” Indeed, Marx and Engels thought that feudal Russia was the last place socialism could take hold, much less that it would orchestrated by men proclaiming themselves Marxists. Engels may have destroyed Tkachev with his wit and his abstract logic, but half a century later, it was the latter who seemed to have intuited the true nature of how the Romanovs would terminate, and how the first “workers’ state” was to be established.

As the great Hungarian-Russian historian Tibor Szamuely has phrased it,

The Tasks of Revolutionary Propaganda in Russia was an extraordinary document. Not just because of the quality and originality of its ideas—though that alone would have ensured it an important place in Russian revolutionary literature—but because its main theses were to be repeated with astonishing precision, nearly thirty yeas later, by the greatest revolutionary leader of our age. And to the question which became the title of his most important book, ‘What is to be done?’ Lenin gave practically the same answer as Tkachev.

We are now glimpsing the lineaments of the same ideological squabble within Islamism. The coarser Tkachev in this case is Zawahiri, who on his best day unencouragingly sounds like Noam Chomsky, comparing the attacks on the World Trade Center to the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, in a desperate effort to win “hearts and minds.” The more cerebral Lavrov is Fadl, who represents a repudiation not of his Islamist predecessors but of his own former self: He is the ex-Nihilist turned “moderate,” deploring violence against innocents and advocating a softer means of spreading the teachings of the Prophet.


Not for nothing did Wright analogize the early Fadl to Leon Trotsky and Che Guevara. And as he further noted in his New Yorker piece, Muslim sympathies are beginning to favor the reinvented Fadl of the Rationalizing Jihad tendency. But the history of Russian radicalism is instructive because today’s “liberalism” may yet give way again to the renewed popularity of terrorism. Ideologies, be they secular or religious, undergo cycles of revision and regression all the time; humane versions are not predetermined to succeed.

If in the current split between Fadl and Zawahiri we are not seeing the “beginning of the end” of jihadism but only the “end of the beginning,” we are by no means at the point where one or the other strain can be said to represent the standard-bearer of this permanently menacing movement.

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