Notwithstanding last week’s bloody carnage in Mumbai (and there is no proof yet of Al Qaeda’s involvement there), positive signs have recently emerged of internal conflicts within Osama bin Laden’s global murder machine.
A fierce battle for the hearts and minds of international jihadists is now being fought in cyberspace.
Dr. Fadl said Al Qaeda “killed more Muslims since its establishment (in 1988), than the Israelis did in nearly 60 years of conflict.”
Two leading intellectuals of the jihadist movement—the Palestinian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and the Egyptian Sayyid Imam Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl)—have issued a damning condemnation of Al Qaeda’s brutal tactics, which they blame for the defeat of jihadists in Iraq, the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the huge setback suffered by the global jihadist movement.
Dr. Fadl, a former Al Qaeda propagandist who recently turned against bin Laden, has published a book, which is currently being serialized by the leading pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat. Fadl lambasts Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate violence and blames it for giving jihad a bad name. In an installment published last week, Fadl said Al Qaeda “killed more Muslims since its establishment (in 1988), than the Israelis did in nearly 60 years of conflict.”
Fadl accuses Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, of “inviting the American war on Afghanistan and Iraq by launching the attacks of 9/11.” He charges that the two leaders “were also the first to flee (the battlefield) after the war started in Afghanistan in 2001…before they offered a truce, and desperately sought to negotiate with the U.S.” Fadl calls Zawahri a liar for claiming that Islam sanctions the use of violence against innocent civilians.
Al Qaeda’s other critic is Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who mentored the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Maqdisi has published an essay in which he blames Zarqawi for breaking with the tenets of jihad and “taking the fight in the wrong direction.”
The split between Maqdisi and Zarqawi goes back to 2005, when the former issued an open letter from his prison cell calling on Zarqawi to stop targeting Shiite and Christian civilians in Iraq, which threatened to ignite a civil war in that country. Maqdisi also stressed that the leadership of jihad in Iraq should be in the hands of Iraqis, not Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
Zarqawi dismissed his former mentor’s argument out of hand, saying the letter would hurt the cause of jihad. Zarqawi then released a video of himself firing a machine gun in the Iraqi desert to demonstrate that the true leaders of jihad are the ones fighting on the battlefield, not those hiding in a cave in Waziristan—a not so subtle reference to bin Laden.
Taking stock of the “electronic war” among jihadists, the London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reports that Maqdisi’s argument is making inroads and he “appears to have won the first round.”
The ongoing debate on jihadist websites shows that Al Qaeda may be losing its grip on the leadership of worldwide jihad now that it has failed to hold ground in Iraq and has few achievements to show for the deaths of thousands of Muslims there.
In Mumbai, too, the overwhelming majority of victims were local citizens; despite reports that the attackers were targeting Westerners, these accounted for only 23 of the nearly 200 lives lost.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the current leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Zawahri, bin Laden’s deputy, have both sent messages to President-elect Barack Obama. The first appeared to extend an olive branch, expressing a hope that the new president would abandon President Bush’s war on terror.
But Zawahri chose to hurl insults, convinced by Obama’s Cabinet appointments—Rahm (Rahmbo) Emanuel as chief of staff, Hillary (Iron Lady) Clinton as secretary of state, and Robert (Surge) Gates staying on as secretary of defense—that Obama could be as bad as Bush, if not worse.
Judging by the chatter on the Internet, Obama has won round one against Al Qaeda even before taking office.
Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al-Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.