The jihadi forums have seen some rather heated and confused debate over the past several months after the publication online of a series of writings from senior leaders of the pre-9/11 al-Qa’ida organization whom we’ve not heard from in years, and which are bringing back into the open serious disagreements over strategy and ideology that had divided al-Qa’ida prior to the 9/11 attacks. The online imbroglio over this growing al-Qa’ida revisions literature – even the existence of the literature itself – has, to my knowledge, escaped the notice of Western audiences. My aim here is to draw attention to this new “crack in the foundation” of the movement, focusing on the most recent salvo: five letters written, under a pseudonym, by Sayf al-‘Adl (also spelled Saif al-Adel), the second-in-command of al-Qa’ida’s historical leadership. These letters are the latest addition to a significant recent body of work by al-Qa’ida figures that directly challenges the claims to the al-Qa’ida legacy made by the more familiar faces of the post-9/11 al-Qa’ida organization – Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi in particular – a challenge that has not gone unnoticed by al-Qa’ida’s online constituency.
The Five Letters
The letters in question (here and here) were posted by Mustafa Hamid (Abu al-Walid al-Masri) to his website on December 31, 2010, and Hamid introduces them as “five articles, full of frankness and ardor, sent to me by one of the brothers in jihad, an old comrade in arms from Afghanistan.” He describes the author as having adopted the new nickname “’Abir Sabil” (lit., wayfarer or passer-by), and places him among that first generation of jihadis that has “weathered the treachery and betrayals of two decades of activity.” Hamid says the essays are written in a tone “much different from the convulsive tension which has become the predominant characteristic of those who belong to or attach themselves to the jihadi current,” whose vision of jihad “is a mixture of violent hysteria, harm of oneself and others, fighting without guidance or insight, and the killing of as many human beings as possible.” The letters themselves are not dated, but appear to have been written around November 19, 2010, as they refer in one place to the Lisbon Conference as “now underway.” Hamid presents them in the hopes that they will lead to an internal Islamic dialogue that would seek to come to terms with the past mistakes of jihadi activism, and in this sense he frames them as part of the larger trend of jihadi revisions – though, as will be seen below, the five letters do not call for a cessation of violence, a point on which the five letters differ from the broader revisions literature.
Who is ‘Abir Sabil?
In an introductory note appended by Mustafa Hamid to each of the letters, we are told that the author “is a long-time member of the al-Qa’ida Organization. He joined the organization at the end of 1989, when the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the famous battle of Jalalabad had entered the phase of gradual attrition. Though not one of its founders, he assumed some of the most important roles in the organization, including operational leadership in the areas of training, the administration of the camps, and general security and military activity. In 1995 he played a major role in Somalia, supervised the training of the Somali groups, and worked to set in motion their operations in the field. He also played a prominent role in the battle of Kandahar at the end of 2001…. After the martyrdom of Abu ‘Ubayda al-Banshiri in 1996 and then Abu Hafs al-Masri in 2001 – two co-founders, with Usama bin Ladin, of the al-Qa’ida Organization – “Abir Sabil” became the most senior and important member in the uppermost rank of the field leadership of that organization.”
All of these details are consistent with what is known of Sayf al-‘Adl – who also happens to be Mustafa Hamid’s son-in-law. Jamal Ismail, who reported on the five letters the day after they appeared on Mustafa Hamid’s website, also identifies Sayf as the author. Without naming sources, Ismail further reported that Ayman al-Zawahiri had contacted Sayf, whom Ismail claims is living inside Afghanistan, to urge him against releasing his letters. Ismail’s story does not refer to Mustafa Hamid’s website as the medium of distribution, but there can be little doubt that he is referring to the five letters signed ‘Abir Sabil. (See also this piece for further context.)
The Five Letters as Revisions Texts
Though Ismail’s story is subtitled “Sayf al-‘Adl issues revisions against violence,” Ismail does not repeat or detail anything specific in the article that portray the five letters in this light. In fact, the letters do not appeal to the jihadi community in general nor to al-Qa’ida in particular to renounce violence, though they do contain other characteristics of the jihadi revisions “genre”: they argue that the jihadi movement has made fundamental mistakes, has refused to acknowledge or learn from them, and is in dire need of some re-evaluation. The letters do not get into specifics about what those mistakes are or how to correct them, but they are nonetheless quite damaging to al-Qa’ida’s current leadership.
First of all, not only did Sayf bypass al-Qa’ida’s official channels for distribution, he elected to release these letters via Mustafa Hamid, the most well-known jihadi insider to have come out in no uncertain terms against al-Qa’ida’s current leadership and strategic vision, going so far as to call on its North Waziristan-based bosses to disband the group altogether. In the fifth letter, Sayf admits that his connection to Mustafa Hamid may provoke some controversy, and he claims to have had disagreements with Hamid, old and new. However, Sayf says he also agrees with Hamid on many issues, adding that “we are both sons of the same current, both on one path in which there is no retreat and no surrender. Shaykh Abu al-Walid has a track record that nobody can deny.”
The first three letters are devoted to Afghanistan, and basically present arguments for that country’s unique suitability as a graveyard of empires. There is some dissonance with al-Qa’ida’s ideological messaging within these letters – he speaks highly of the fact that the Afghans are united in their adherence to the Hanafi school of Islamic law, for instance, a notion that al-Qa’ida’s Salafis would find abhorent – but it is really in the last two letters that Sayf takes exception, if often only implicitly, with al-Qa’ida’s current approach.
The fourth letter is addressed to the preachers and scholars of the ummah, and while he has some bones to pick with Muslim religious leaders for distracting the community with irrelevant minutia and for being all-too-willing to legitimize corrupt and oppressive regimes, the main message of this letter is one of conciliation, and Sayf devotes just as much space to criticizing the religious failings of the mujahidin as he does to clerical hypocrisy. He is willing to acknowledge the good in a variety of Muslim leaderships typically condemned in the harshest terms by al-Qa’ida’s current leadership. He ends with an appeal to Islam’s preachers and scholars and to “all who belong to the Islamist trends: we are not enemies of one another. Rather you are our partners in changing the world…. We are not claiming that there is only one way, but rather that there are two paths: preaching (da’wa) and jihad. Our view is that the importance of jihad lies in preparing the ground and clearing the way for the call (da’wa)… The conclusion that must be drawn – no matter whether you were with us but became lost and perplexed, or are of those who think we seek worldly gain – is that our enemy is clear, and our swords must be drawn against him alone for the liberation of the ummah. Islam is coming, so be with us and we will secure the victory together, and will realize the caliphate of God on earth. Da’wa and jihad together – this is our strategy.”
The final letter begins by bemoaning al-Qa’ida’s failure to fess up to and learn from its mistakes, and then turns to outlining a strategic theory for anti-imperialist jihad that Sayf credits Mustafa Hamid with introducing to al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. This echoes ‘Abdallah Muhammad Fazul’s 2009 autobiography, which makes the provocative claim that Mustafa Hamid “convinced the al-Qa’ida leadership to confront the United States.” (I discuss this briefly here). Basically, Sayf says that Hamid, using the metaphor of pack mules and the mule driver, explained how American imperialism is a project that distributes the burden of subjugation upon various agent regimes, who are thus divided, ruled, and made to serve the interests of empire even in their internal and external conflicts. The implication is that violent opposition to what in most jihadi literature are called the “apostate regimes” is ultimately counter-productive. Sayf concludes by appealing to the “youth of the ummah” to focus their jihad on the mule driver and not the mules – to fight the US, not its client states.
In its broad strokes, none of this is radically different from what we’ve come to expect from al-Qa’ida’s official statements. But in a number of respects – its manner of distribution, its call for review, its relatively ecumenical appeal to Islamists, and its implicit rejection of state-focused revolutionary violence – these messages do present a challenge to Zawahiri and the current leadership of al-Qa’ida, a challenge made all the more serious by the author’s stature in the world of jihadism.
(For background on the revisions literature, Jihadica has followed this genre in a number of posts, and see also this more lengthy study by Omar Ashour. On the cast of characters mentioned here, see my now somewhat dated Harmony profiles of Sayf, Mustafa Hamid, and Fazul).