Where Radical Islam Is At Now


Hugh Hewitt interviewed Lawrence Wright yesterday, the author of the excellent book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and the author of a brand new long article in The New Yorker.

Hugh and Lawrence go over the beginning of al-Qaeda and the radical Islam movement as they have done in the past, its always good to go over it one more time. But the real meat of the interview is where the radical Islam movement is at right now, and it all hinges on a very important man in the movement….Dr. Fadl:

HH: Of course, Zawahiri goes with bin Laden now, Fadl’s been sidelined to Yemen, and the blind Sheik is in America, and in jail, and so the leadership goes to Afghanistan. But then 9/11 happens, and Fadl says al Qaeda’s committed group suicide. Did he disapprove of the action on a theological basis or because of its practical consequences?

LW: Well, actually, Hugh, this…the point of this argument is that there are two tracks.

HH: Yup.

LW: One is practical, you know, does it accomplish our goals. And in terms of 9/11, no. If you wanted to wound America and cause it to withdraw from the Middle East, the consequence is the opposite. You wounded America, but now we invade two Muslim countries, and we and the West are much more deeply engrossed in Middle Eastern affairs than we were previously. And then the second is theological – is this the correct Muslim practice? Are we doing the right thing? And what Dr. Fadl had sold in his previous books to young Muslims who were considering joining al Qaeda, is the philosophy that this is the only route to salvation. Islam has to be purified. No Muslim can go to Heaven without reestablishing the kind of pure Islam we stand for. And now, you know, one of his arguments, for instance, about 9/11 is indiscriminate killing is against Islam. And that was part of his reaction to 9/11.

HH: Now let’s update it to where we are today. In 2003, Fadl was arrested in Yemen, and shipped to Egypt secretly. And this past year, he wrote a new book called Rationalizing Jihad, primarily composed in the Scorpion, within Tora prison…by the way, the Scorpion sounds like about the last place in the world anyone wants to be.

LW: Yeah, it is. Well, Egyptian prisons are infamous.

HH: And in this 2007, Rationalizing Jihad, Fadl, the author of so much, writes, “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that, and there is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Lawrence Wright, this must have sent earthquakes through al Qaeda.

LW: Well, yeah, you can judge their reaction by the fact that Zawahiri has responded in repeated videos, and has written a 200 page book trying to refute Dr. Fadl’s arguments. And he’s not the only member of al Qaeda. They’ve brought out ever legion, you know, that they can to attack Dr. Fadl to try to dampen the argument that’s going on right now.

HH: Now the obvious question will be, how much coercion is in Dr. Fadl’s renunciation of his previous ideology? What do you think on this?

LW: Well, I don’t know. I mean, the honest answer is that he’s in an Egyptian prison, and they can do horrible things to him. On the other hand, he’s one of many voices, some of which have come out of the prisons, and others of whom are free. There was a movement that has started in the Egyptian prisons in the 1990s, on the part of another organization called Gama’a Islamiya, or the Islamic Group. And they had begun, after years, decades of being in Egyptian prison, to reexamine their violent views. Now this is long past the time when torture and that sort of thing might have been used on them. And they began to write a series of revisions. Now, a lot of these guys are out of prison, and I’ve talked to them. And they are no longer under the kind of subjugation that they were in the Egyptian prisons. It’s pretty clear that they have had a sincere rethinking of their previous views. And Fadl’s views track theirs very closely.


HH: You also mentioned in The Rebellion Within the work of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia who issued a fatwa in October of 2007, forbidding Saudi youth to join the jihad outside of the country.

LW: And then al Qaeda tried to kill him. Saudi authorities rounded up a bunch of young al Qaedaistas after that. They stopped a plot.

HH: And Sheikh Salman al-Oadah, who is another former bin Ladenist whose now rebuked him on television, are these outliers? Or do they represent a sort of generalized revulsion against al Qaeda?

LW: Well, I think that you’re beginning to see a consensus developing not among moderate Muslims, but among radical ones, that first of all, these actions are not productive, and secondly, they are not Islam. They are indiscriminate violence, they…bin Laden and al Qaeda use principles that are opposed to the fundamental tenets of Islam. And this is an attack from within radical Islam itself, and that’s why I think it’s so significant.


LW: Yeah, I mean, for one thing, Dr. Fadl’s argument places the relevance of al Qaeda at question right now. Al Qaeda can’t exist without terror. That’s all it is. It can’t really very well defend its philosophy. It’s own philosopher has overturned the apple cart. And so the only thing that al Qaeda can do to demonstrate its relevance is to create some other radical, terrible, tragic action. And I think they’re under a lot of pressure right now to do something like that.

They both then discuss the response to Dr. Fadl’s book by Zawahiri who tries to rationalize 9/11 by comparing it to the Clinton aspirin factory bombing which killed one man along with attacking Hezbollah….apparently because they grow strong as al-Qaeda grows weaker:

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about, though, where it goes from here. I’m reading from the last couple of pages of your article, is al Qaeda finished? “It is, of course, unlikely that Al Qaeda will voluntarily follow the example of the Islamist Group and Zawahiri’s own organization, Al Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear that radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to. 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—revenge, boredom, or a desire for adventure—the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.” Expand on that, Lawrence Wright. What are the relative numbers here?

LW: Well, you know, when we talk about al Qaeda, al Qaeda central, the core of al Qaeda, a member of Egyptian intelligence puts a number at fewer than 200. American intelligence says they estimate between three and five hundred. But it’s not a very large organization. It’s much reduced from what it was. On the other hand, al Qaeda is a movement, and there are many affiliates that are connected to some extent with al Qaeda central, and then there are a lot of wannabes that are al Qaeda sympathizers. Those people, and I think especially among the wannabes, there are a lot of nihilists who are only in this for action. There’s been some interesting European studies, especially a Dutch study, of this third generation of al Qaeda. And they’re so much less focused politically than their forbearers in that group. They have very poorly formed ideas about what they’re up to. They’re just striking out. And for them, I don’t think they’re going to care about what Dr. Fadl has to say.

HH: And so what is the, in that Dutch study, or in the other reading that you’ve done, how to combat that?

LW: Well, I think that one thing that we’ve done, I think the best thing that we’ve done since 9/11, is to model the behavior that we’re doing right now with this magnificent election we’re having, where we’re really talking to ourselves about who we are and what kind of country we want to become. And I can tell you the Muslim world is fixated on it, because it’s such an example of what they don’t have, the opportunity to change their governments, to really reform their own countries. This has been a lesson that America has given to the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world, that I think is very valuable. And that’s one way, I think the most productive way, that we can address this problem.

I agree, it is the most productive way to address the problem. But we’ve had free Democratic elections for centuries now. Why the interest all of sudden? could it be because of what we accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan? Could it be that we are no longer viewed as that paper tiger super power who talked a good fight but ran once it got tough?

The rest of the middle east now views a free Iraq. Where they have their own form of Democracy and elections, no tyrant or dictator ruling for decades. Infrastructure being improved daily and a government that has accomplished more then the United States own government.

They see this, they see our own election season and now may very well believe that Democracy isn’t just a fantasy for middle easterners. It IS possible.

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In context of the Muslim world timeline, Curt, Sayyed Imam’s “new rules of engagement for jihad” (as I called it when I blogged on it’s impending release on Nov 13, 2007) is actually old news. It is only the west that is now waking up to the internal battle.

Thus, any effects Sayyed Imam’s publication has had in the Muslim jihad and religious worlds (altho neither Sayyed or Zawahiri are religious scholars, but jihad leaders) is already visible, and in progress. And you cannot talk about one without talking about the other rebuttal publication – also old news in the Muslim world.

When Dr. Fadl’s (aka Sayyed or Sayd Imam) book was released, Zawahiri fired back with his “The Exoneration” book (which I’ve never found a translation of the 188 pg document). He refers to it often in his “Open Meeting” he conducted earlier this year as a way to answer the many tough questions posed to him. This makes both Dr. Fadl and Zawahiri’s publications many months old and already in wide circulation. Our western press will not make much additional impact.

As Jamestown.org said April 30th, when discussing these documents and the theological battles between the two jihad leaders:

Al-Zawahiri highlights many inconsistencies between Dr. Fadl’s previous literature and the latest document. On the ideological/jurisprudence level, al-Zawahiri contests Dr. Fadl’s work in a detailed 19-page section of religious quotes and Quranic verses by many prominent Salafi-jihadist scholars from both the medieval and contemporary Islamic world.

There is no doubt al-Zawahiri’s reaction to Dr. Fadl’s ideological retractions is comprehensive, using religious arguments and logic to refute and highlight weaknesses in the document. On the other hand, the lengthy response demonstrates that al-Qaeda is seriously alarmed by the possible negative consequences the document might inflict on their ideology and the jihadi movement.

These dualing publications will (if not already has) come down to those jihad fighters who can be swayed by Sayyed, and those that cannot. Rather like the DNC members – who cling to “Bush lied” and no Saddam/terrorist links – there is no amount of documentation or logic that will ever alter a hard-headed terrorists’ convictions.

What it may do, however, is provide incentive for moderate Islam religious authorities to speak out, affecting the ability of jihad recruitment.

A very important post, Curt.

I didn’t get to listen to the interview, as it happened after I went in to work.

Yep… I knew Wright was aware of it since I read his 14 page New Yorker right off the bat in it’s entirety. Good stuff, it is. I believe Sayyed Imam’s publication came out in December, and Zawahiri’s Exoneration came out in early March. The OpenMeeting was either late March or early April. That was only Part I. I’m still waiting for Laura Mansfield to finish a translation of Part II of that Open Meeting.

The problem with both these leaders is that neither are religious scholars or authorities. Sayyed Imam’s Islamic jurisprudence is superior to Zawahiri’s, but he has had no formal training either. Neither possess the power to issue fatwas. Dr. Fadl is not even an Islamic lawyer… he’s a surgeon.

Both enjoy immense popularity and following. But still, they are both near the bottom of the religious authority food chain.

And actually, yes… I agree with Wordsmith that it is an important post. Western media needs to get up to speed on what is old news to Muslims. Because this can affect how the west views progress in the war against the global Islamic jihad movements. So please don’t misunderstand me. Just think that this info benefits those not already aware. But I don’t expect many additional waves in the Muslim/terrorist world.