The bravado of the Al-Qaeda leadership is hiding divisions within the terrorist group over the wisdom of their strategies. Despite the tough talk, key leaders are seriously questioning whether Al-Qaeda is on the winning side. This does not mean they are giving up on the cause but it shows that the War on Terror is taking a toll on their confidence.
The former spokesman of Al-Qaeda, Suleiman Abu Ghaith has been permitted to leave Iran and has written a book called “Twenty Guidelines on the Path of Jihad.” Al-Qaeda and its leaders are not mentioned by name but the criticisms are widely seen as directed towards them. He says that certain jihadists have made it seem like they are part of a “culture of killing and destruction” instead of “securing a better life for all who live with Islam and in the Islamic state.” He writes that there’s been too much of an emphasis on violence instead of on building the institutions of Islamic states.
The introduction to Abu Ghaith’s book is written by Abu Hafs the Mauritarian, another high-level Al-Qaeda leader who was the head of its Sharia Committee. He opposed the 9/11 attacks and has had a public rift with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda. This shows that significant elements of the group are calling for a revision in strategy and are willing to publicly voice their challenges to the leadership.
This dissension first became public in 2005 when a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, criticized his tactics. He questioned the wisdom of Zarqawi’s attacks on Shiite civilians, beheadings and bombings of mosques. Zawahiri said this was causing a backlash and “in the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows.” He also warned Zarqawi that “this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it.”
In October 2006, another high-level Al-Qaeda official named Attyia al-Jaza’ri that fought in Algeria wrote a letter warning Zarqawi that he was leading the terrorist group to defeat. He was harshly critical of the attacks on Sunni tribal leaders, massacres of civilians and unwillingness to form partnerships with others towards the same goal. Jaza’ri said that he was in direct contact with Al-Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan, indicating they were on his side.
He said that in Algeria, “their enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves” with their “lack of reason, delusions, their ignoring of people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy and friendliness.” He warned Al-Qaeda was on the same path in Iraq.
The most damaging criticism for Al-Qaeda came from Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. al-Fadl, who mentored Ayman al-Zawahiri and is a major spiritual leader in the jihadist world. He gave a theological rebuttal to Al-Qaeda and called Zawahiri a serial liar who acted as an agent of the Sudanese government in the 1990s. He went so far as to blame Al-Qaeda for causing more anguish for the Muslim world than the U.S. or Israel.
“Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers,” Dr. al-Fadl said. He even said that Muslims following Al-Qaeda were in violation of Islam. “Let the Muslims consider who they are going to follow: Allah, or bin Laden and al-Zawahiri?” he wrote. Zawahiri responded to the condemnation by claiming that al-Fadl was being tortured in prison in Egypt and was forced to write those words.
Dr. al-Fadl also says that Allah punishes Muslims by permitting their defeat on the battlefield. If Allah approves of their jihad, he will help them defeat the enemies of Islam. Therefore, the success of U.S. military efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is seen as a rebuttal to the religious legitimacy of Al-Qaeda and its allies. If the U.S. military is defeated, then it is seen as vindication that Allah is on their side.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Al-Qaeda-allied terrorist group, has also issued a “corrective studies” critiquing the group. It now says that “Islam is a pragmatic religion, which acknowledges that war is a part of human life, but it doesn’t call for the use of violence for the sake of change and reforms.” The group argues that violent jihad can be waged against enemy military forces in Muslim lands as “resistance in Islam and defending against the colonizers and invaders is a concept originally agreed upon among Muslims and non-Muslims.”
The promotion of Saif al-Adel to Al-Qaeda’s military chief means that this dissenting faction will be playing a larger role in the group’s decision-making. Like Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Saif al-Adel has been released from Iran and is being embraced by the Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan despite the criticism. He agrees with Abu Ghaith and has also written that more focus needs to be put on “the greater objective…the establishment of a state.” The Telegraph wrote that al-Adel’s promotion reflects “the triumph of a minority faction within al-Qaeda who had opposed the 9/11 attacks, arguing that the inevitable U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan would cost the jihadist movement its only secure base.”
his split shows Al-Qaeda is disappointed in its own performance and its hardships are forcing it to evaluate itself. The West’s efforts against Al-Qaeda are making the terrorist group second-guess itself, but the group is quickly adapting. And as Al-Qaeda adapts, so must we.