Al Qaeda Then and Now

By Lawrence Wright
The New Yorker, June 2, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Last May, a fax arrived at the London office of the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat from a shadowy figure in the radical Islamist movement who went by many names. Born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, he was the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr. Fadl.

Members of Al Jihad became part of the original core of Al Qaeda. Among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of Al Qaeda's top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse.

Now Fadl was rejecting Al Qaeda's violence. "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that," Fadl wrote.

Fadl's efection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. His previous work had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaeda's murderous acts.

In 1968, two teenagers met at Cairo University's medical school. Zawahiri, who was already involved in clandestine Islamist activity, was drawn to a tall, solitary classmate named Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Admired for his brilliance and his tenacity, Imam was expected to become either a great surgeon or a leading cleric. He fasted twice a week and, each morning after dawn prayers, studied the Koran, which he had long since memorized. The Egyptian government enrolled him in a boarding school for exceptional students, and at 18 he entered medical school.

Both Zawahiri and Imam were pious and high-minded, prideful, and rigid in their views. They tended to look at matters of the spirit in the same way they regarded the laws of nature — as a series of immutable rules, handed down by God.

Imam learned that Zawahiri belonged to a subterranean world. "I knew from another student that Ayman was part of an Islamic group," he later told a reporter for Al Hayat, a pan-Arabic newspaper. The group came to be called Al Jihad.

Egypt's military government was then led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1967, Nasser led Egypt and its Arab allies into a disastrous confrontation with Israel. The Arab world was traumatized. Radical Islamists argued that Muslims had fallen out of God's favor, and that only by returning to the religion as it was originally practiced could Islam regain its supremacy in the world.

In 1981, soldiers affiliated with Al Jihad assassinated the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, rounded up thousands of Islamists, including Zawahiri. Before he was arrested, Zawahiri went to Imam's house and urged him to flee.

Imam slipped out of Egypt and made his way to Peshawar, Pakistan. Imam left his real identity behind and became Dr. Fadl. Zawahiri finished serving his sentence in 1984, and also fled Egypt. He was soon reunited in Peshawar with Fadl, who had become the director of a Red Crescent hospital there.

Fadl became Al Jihad's emir, or chief. Zawahiri, whose reputation had been stained by his prison confessions, was left to handle tactical operations. He had to defer to Fadl's superior learning in Islamic jurisprudence. The jihadis who came to Peshawar revered Fadl for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran and the Hadith — the sayings of the Prophet.

Kamal Helbawy, a former spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist group, was also in Peshawar, and remembers Fadl as a "haughty, dominating presence," who frequently lambasted Muslims who didn't believe in the same doctrines.

In Peshawar, Fadl devoted himself to formalizing the rules of holy war. The jihadis needed a text that would school them in the proper way to fight battles whose real objective was not victory over the Soviets but martyrdom and eternal salvation. "The Essential Guide for Preparation" appeared in 1988, and quickly became one of the most important texts in the jihadis' training.

The "Guide" begins with the premise that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with nonbelievers, Fadl asserts, resorting to peace only in moments of abject weakness. Because jihad is a religious exercise, there are divine rewards to be gained. The greatest prize goes to the martyr.

On August 11, 1988, Fadl attended a meeting in Peshawar with several senior leaders of Al Jihad. They were joined by a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. Fadl proposed combining the Saudi's money with the Egyptians' expertise. The men who met that day formed a new group, called Al Qaeda.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in 1989, Zawahiri and most members of Al Jihad relocated to Sudan. Zawahiri urged Fadl and his family to join them there. Fadl, who was completing what he considered his masterwork, "The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge," agreed to go.

From Sudan, members of Al Jihad watched enviously as a much larger organization, the Islamic Group, waged open warfare on the Egyptian state. The group was determined to launch a social revolution. Members undertook to enforce Islamic values by "compelling good and driving out evil." Blood on the ground became the measure of the Islamic Group's success, and the murder was done in the name of God.

One of the founders of the Islamic Group was Karam Zuhdy. In 1981, Zuhdy was caught in the Egyptian government's roundup of Islamists after the Sadat assassination, and for three years he lived in the same cellblock as Zawahiri. They respected each other but were not friends. "Dr. Ayman was polite and well-mannered," Zuhdy recalls.

In 1990, the spokesman for the Islamic Group was shot dead, and soon afterward the Islamic Group announced its intention to respond with a terror campaign. Dozens of police officers were murdered. Intellectuals were also on its hit list. Next, the Islamic Group targeted the tourist industry, declaring that it corrupted Egyptian society. During the nineties, more than twelve hundred people were killed in terror attacks in Egypt.

The exiled members of Al Jihad decided that they needed to enter the fray. Fadl disagreed. He also complained that Al Jihad was undertaking operations only to emulate the Islamic Group. "This is senseless activity that will bring no benefit," he warned. His point was quickly proved when the Egyptian security services captured a computer containing the names of Zawahiri's followers, nearly a thousand of whom were arrested.

Embarrassed by these failures, members of Al Jihad demanded that their leader resign. Many were surprised to discover that the emir was Fadl. He willingly gave up the post, and Zawahiri became the leader of Al Jihad.

In 1994, Fadl moved to Yemen, where he resumed his medical practice and tried to put the work of jihad behind him. Before he left, he gave a copy of his finished manuscript to Zawahiri, saying that it could be used to raise money. Few books in recent history have done as much damage.

Fadl wrote the book under yet another pseudonym, Abdul Qader bin Abdul Aziz, in part because the name was not Egyptian and would further mask his identity. But his continual use of aliases also allowed him to adopt positions that were somewhat in conflict with his stated personal views.

"The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge," which is more than a thousand pages long, starts with the assertion that salvation is available only to the perfect Muslim. Even an exemplary believer can wander off the path to Paradise with a single misstep. Fadl contends that the rulers of Egypt and other Arab countries are apostates of Islam. "The infidel's rule, his prayers, and the prayers of those who pray behind him are invalid," Fadl decrees. "His blood is legal."

In writing this book, Fadl also expands upon the heresy of takfir — the excommunication of one Muslim by another. Fadl defines Islam so narrowly that nearly everyone falls outside the sacred boundaries. Muslims who follow his thinking believe that they have a divine right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

When Fadl moved to Yemen, he considered his work in revolutionary Islam to be complete. His son Ismail al-Sharif said Fadl cut off all contact with bin Laden. Fadl took his family to the mountain town of Ibb. He had two wives, with four sons and two daughters between them. He called himself Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Sharif.

While in Ibb, Fadl learned that his book had been bowdlerized. His original manuscript scolded the Islamic Group, at a time when Zawahiri was attempting to engineer a merger with it. Those sections of the book had been removed. Other parts were significantly altered. The thought that a less qualified writer had taken liberties with his masterpiece sent him into a fury. He soon discovered the perpetrator. "Zawahiri committed these perversions," Fadl said.

In 1995, Zawahiri travelled to Yemen and appealed to Fadl for forgiveness. By this time, Zawahiri had suspended his operations in Egypt, and his organization was floundering. Now his former emir refused to see him. "I do not know anyone in the history of Islam prior to Ayman al-Zawahiri who engaged in such lying, cheating, forgery, and betrayal of trust," the inflamed author said.

Meanwhile, Karam Zuhdy remained incarcerated, along with more than twenty thousand Islamists. "We began to read books and reconsider." The prisoners came to feel that they had been manipulated into pursuing a violent path.

In 1997, rumors of a possible deal between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government reached Zawahiri, who was then hiding in an Al Qaeda safe house in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Montasser al-Zayyat, the Islamist lawyer, reports that Zawahiri called him. "Why are you making the brothers angry?" Zawahiri asked him. Zayyat responded that jihad did not have to be restricted to an armed approach.

The talks between the Islamic Group and the government remained secret until July, when one of the imprisoned leaders announced the organization's intention to cease all violent activity. Incensed, Zawahiri wrote a letter addressed to the group's imprisoned leaders. "God only knows the grief I felt when I heard about this initiative and the negative impact it has caused," he wrote.

Zawahiri became increasingly isolated. He understood that violence was the fuel that kept the radical Islamist organizations running. Together with several leaders of the Islamic Group who were living outside Egypt, he plotted a way to wreck the Islamic Group's attempt to reform itself. On November 17, 1997, six young men entered the ruins of Queen Hatshepsut's temple, near Luxor, where hundreds of tourists were strolling. For 45 minutes they shot randomly, and killed 62 people, then later apparently committed suicide.

If Zawahiri and the exiled members of the Islamic Group hoped that this action would undermine the nonviolence initiative, they miscalculated. The Islamic Group's imprisoned leaders wrote a series of books and pamphlets, collectively known as "the revisions," in which they formally explained their new thinking. "The Islamic Group does not believe in the creed of killing by nationality," one of its representatives later explained.

The years immediately after 9/11 presented an opportunity for the Islamists to offer their vision of a redeemed political system that brought about real improvements in people's lives. Instead, they continued to propagate their fantasies of theocracy and a caliphate, and did nothing to address the actual problems facing the Egyptians. As a result, the young were eager for a way to escape the dead end of radical Islam.

Before 9/11, the Egyptian government had quietly permitted the Islamic Group's leaders to carry their discussions about renouncing violence to members in other prisons around the country. After the attacks, state security decided to call more attention to these debates. Many Islamists had fantasized that they would be hailed as heroes by their society. Now Karam Zuhdy and other imprisoned leaders were asking the radicals to accept that they had been deluded from the beginning.

These emotional discussions were widely covered in the Egyptian press. Zuhdy publicly apologized to the Egyptian people for the Islamic Group's violent deeds. These confessions also cast light on other organizations — in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood — that had never fully addressed their own violent pasts.

I went to the office of the Brotherhood to talk to Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the movement. "From the start until now, the Muslim Brotherhood has been peaceful," he maintained. "We have only three or four instances of violence in our history, mainly assassinations." The Muslim Brotherhood also created Hamas, which employs many of the same tactics now condemned by the Islamic Group.

Unlike other radical movements, the Brotherhood has embraced political change as the only legitimate means to the goal of achieving an Islamic state. "We welcome these revisions, because we have called for many years to stop violence," Erian continued. "But these revisions are incomplete. They reject violence, but they don't offer a new strategy for reform and change."

Dr. Fadl was practicing surgery in Ibb when the 9/11 attacks took place. Fadl returned home and watched the television coverage with his family. They asked him who he thought was responsible. "This action is from Al Qaeda, because there is no other group in the world that will kill themselves in a plane," he responded.

In Fadl's opinion, the organization had committed "group suicide" by striking America, which was bound to retaliate severely. Indeed, nearly 80 percent of Al Qaeda's members in Afghanistan were killed in the final months of 2001.

At first, the Yemenis weren't sure what to do with the celebrated jihadi philosopher. At the beginning of 2002, Fadl was smuggled onto a plane to Cairo. Fadl was held by Egyptian authorities and eventually transferred to a facility inside Tora Prison where major political figures were held. Fadl remains there to this day, under a life sentence.

There may be many inducements for Dr. Fadl's revisions, but his smoldering resentment of Zawahiri's literary crimes was obviously a factor. Fadl claimed in Al Hayat that his differences with Zawahiri were "objective," not personal. "He was a burden to me on the educational, professional, jurisprudential, and sometimes personal levels," Fadl complained.

Usama Ayub, the Islamic Center director, told me that Fadl was questioning his thinking before his arrest in Yemen. Ayub called Fadl in late 2000 or early 2001 to inform him that he was preparing a nonviolent initiative of his own. "He encouraged me," Ayub said.

The book's first segment appeared in the newspapers Al Masri Al Youm and Al Jarida, in November, 2007. Titled "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," it attempted to reconcile Fadl's well-known views with his sweeping modifications.

The premise that opens "Rationalizing Jihad" is "There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property." Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances.

In order to declare jihad, Fadl writes, certain requirements must be observed. One must have a place of refuge. There should be adequate financial resources to wage the campaign. Finally, the enemy should be properly identified in order to prevent harm to innocents. "Those who have not followed these principles have committed the gravest of sins," Fadl writes.

To wage jihad, one must first gain permission from one's parents and creditors. The potential warrior also needs the blessing of a qualified imam or sheikh. Even if a person is fit and capable, jihad may not be required of him. Fadl says God also praises those who choose to isolate themselves from unbelievers rather than fight them.

Despite his previous call for jihad against unjust Muslim rulers, Fadl now says that such rulers can be fought only if they are unbelievers, and even then only to the extent that the battle will improve the situation of Muslims. Obviously, that has not been the case in Egypt or most other Islamic countries.

Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians unless they are actively attacking Muslims. "There is nothing in the Sharia about killing Jews and the Nazarenes, referred to by some as the Crusaders," Fadl observes. "They are the neighbors of the Muslims ... and being kind to one's neighbors is a religious duty." Indiscriminate bombing is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. "If vice is mixed with virtue, all becomes sinful," he writes.

To Muslims living in non-Islamic countries, Fadl sternly writes, "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."

Fadl does not condemn all jihadist activity. "Jihad in Afghanistan will lead to the creation of an Islamic state with the triumph of the Taliban, God willing," he declares. As Fadl sees it, "If it were not for the jihad in Palestine, the Jews would have crept toward the neighboring countries a long time ago." Speaking of Iraq, he notes that, without the jihad there, "America would have moved into Syria." Fadl addresses the bloody division between Sunnis and Shiites: "Harming those who are affiliated with Islam but have a different creed is forbidden."

Fadl approaches the question of takfir with caution. He observes that the matter is so complex that it must be left in the hands of competent Islamic jurists. "It is not permissible for a Muslim to condemn another Muslim," he writes. "He should renounce only the sin he commits."

In his Al Hayat interview, Fadl labels 9/11 "a catastrophe for Muslims," because Al Qaeda's actions "caused the death of tens of thousands of Muslims — Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and others."

Fadl asserts that the hijackers of 9/11 "betrayed the enemy," because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. "The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying," Fadl continues. "The Prophet — God's prayer and peace be upon him — said, 'On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.' "

Fadl observes, "People hate America, and the Islamist movements feel their hatred and their impotence. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy's buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours? ... That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11."

Fadl's arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare. If the security services in Egypt, in tandem with the Al Azhar scholars, had undertaken to write a refutation of Al Qaeda's doctrine, it would likely have resembled the book that Dr. Fadl produced. With so many leaders of Al Jihad endorsing the book, it seemed clear that the organization itself was now dead.

The fact that Al Qaeda followers and sympathizers were paying so much attention to Fadl's manuscript made it imperative that Zawahiri offer a definitive refutation. Since Al Qaeda's violent ideology rested on Fadl's foundation, Zawahiri would have to find a way to discredit the author without destroying the authority of his own organization.

Zawahiri's main problem in countering Fadl was his own lack of standing as a religious scholar. "Al Qaeda has no one who is qualified from a Sharia perspective to make a response," Fadl boasted to Al Hayat. "All of them — bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others — are not religious scholars on whose opinion you can count."

In February 2008, Zawahiri announced: "The Islam presented by that document is the one that America and the West wants and is pleased with: an Islam without jihad," Zawahiri said. "Because I consider this document to be an insult to the Muslim nation, I chose for the rebuttal the name 'The Exoneration,' in order to express the nation's innocence of this insult."

The "letter," which finally appeared on the Internet in March, was nearly two hundred pages long. "This message I present to the reader today is among the most difficult I have ever written in my life," Zawahiri admits in his introduction. Zawahiri claims that Fadl wrote his book "in the spirit of the Minister of the Interior." He characterizes it as a desperate attempt by the enemies of Islam to "stand in the way of the fierce wave of jihadi revivalism that is shaking the Islamic world."

In presenting Al Qaeda's defense, Zawahiri clearly displays the moral relativism that has taken over the organization. "Keep in mind that we have the right to do to the infidels what they have done to us," he writes. "We bomb them as they bomb us, even if we kill someone who is not permitted to be killed."

Writing about the treatment of tourists, Zawahiri says, "The majority of scholars say that it is permissible to strike at infidels, even if Muslims are among them," Zawahiri contends. He cites a well-known verse in the Koran to support the practice of kidnapping: "When the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush."

As for 9/11, Zawahiri writes, "The mujahideen didn't attack the West in its home country with suicide attacks in order to break treaties, or out of a desire to spill blood, or because they were half-mad, or because they suffer from frustration and failure, as many imagine. They attacked it because they were forced to defend their community and their sacred religion from centuries of aggression."

Zawahiri knows that Palestine is a confounding issue for many Muslims. "The situation in Palestine will always be an exception," Gamal Sultan, the Islamist writer in Cairo, told me. Essam el-Erian, of the Muslim Brotherhood, said, "Here in Egypt, you will find that the entire population supports Hamas and Hezbollah, although no one endorses the Islamic Group." Recently, however, the embargo in the Arab press on any criticism of terrorist acts by the Palestinian resistance movement has been breached by several searching articles that directly address the futility of violence.

Zawahiri has watched Al Qaeda's popularity decline in places where it formerly enjoyed great support. In Pakistan, where hundreds have been killed recently by Al Qaeda suicide bombers, public opinion has turned against bin Laden and his companions.

In Saudi Arabia, where the government has been trying to tame its radical clerics, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Aal al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti, issued a fatwa in October, 2007, forbidding Saudi youth to join the jihad outside the country. Two months later, Saudi authorities arrested members of a suspected Al Qaeda cell who allegedly planned to assassinate the Grand Mufti.

In December, in order to stanch the flow of criticism, Zawahiri boldly initiated a virtual town-hall meeting, soliciting questions in an online forum. This spring, he released two lengthy audio responses to nearly a hundred of the questions.

The murder of innocents emerged as the most prominent issue in the exchanges. Zawahiri even had to defend himself for helping to spread the myth that the Israelis carried out the attacks of 9/11.

Many of the questions dealt with Fadl, beginning with why Zawahiri had altered without permission Fadl's encyclopedia of jihadist philosophy. Zawahiri claimed that the writing of the book was a joint effort. He had to edit the book because it was full of theological errors.

Radical Islam began as a spiritual call to the Muslim world to unify and strengthen itself through holy warfare. For the dreamers who long to institute God's justice on earth, Fadl's revisions represent a substantial moral challenge. But for the young nihilists who are joining the Al Qaeda movement for their own reasons, the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.

The core of Al Qaeda is much reduced from what it was before 9/11. An Egyptian intelligence official told me that the current membership totals less than two hundred men.

This August, Al Qaeda will mark its twentieth anniversary. That is a long life for a terrorist group. Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its efforts except blood and grief.

"Dr. Fadl's revisions and Zawahiri's response show that the movement is disintegrating," Karam Zuhdy, the Islamic Group leader, told me. He quoted the Prophet Muhammad: "Only what benefits people stays on the earth."

AR  When you see to the heart of a movement via the dealing of a pair of characters like Fahd and Zawahiri in this way, it loses its threatening aura and becomes a mere band of knaves and fools. For me, this is the end of Islam as a respectable ideology.