THE REBELLION WITHIN
An Al Qaeda mastermind questions terrorism.
by Lawrence Wright
JUNE 2, 2008
Dr. Fadl had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaedaâ€™s murderous acts. His defection posed a terrible threat.
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 Ladenâ€™s chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of Al Qaedaâ€™s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; Al Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting Al Qaedaâ€™s violence. â€śWe are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,â€ť Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.
Fadlâ€™s fax confirmed rumors that imprisoned leaders of Al Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. â€śThere is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,â€ť Fadl wrote, claiming that hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.
Two months after Fadlâ€™s fax appeared, Zawahiri issued a handsomely produced video on behalf of Al Qaeda. â€śDo they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?â€ť he asked. â€śI wonder if theyâ€™re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.â€ť This sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadlâ€™s manifestoâ€”which was to be published serially, in newspapers in Egypt and Kuwaitâ€”among Al Qaeda insiders. Fadlâ€™s previous work, after all, had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaedaâ€™s murderous acts. On a recent trip to Cairo, I met with Gamal Sultan, an Islamist writer and a publisher there. He said of Fadl, â€śNobody can challenge the legitimacy of this person. His writings could have far-reaching effects not only in Egypt but on leaders outside it.â€ť Usama Ayub, a former member of Egyptâ€™s Islamist community, who is now the director of the Islamic Center in MĂĽnster, Germany, told me, â€śA lot of people base their work on Fadlâ€™s writings, so heâ€™s very important. When Dr. Fadl speaks, everyone should listen.â€ť
Although the debate between Fadl and Zawahiri was esoteric and bitterly personal, its ramifications for the West were potentially enormous. Other Islamist organizations had gone through violent phases before deciding that such actions led to a dead end. Was this happening to Al Jihad? Could it happen even to Al Qaeda?
more at that hot-bed of right-wing radicalism: A Reporter at Large: The Rebellion Within: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker