When Sayyid Imam’s first book was released serially last year, CT pundits were split. Some, like Lawrence Wright and Peter Bergen, said it was evidence of a serious fissure in the Jihadi Movement and would further divide it. Others, like Michael Scheuer, said it was neither evidence of a fissure nor would it divide the movement because Sayyid Imam was being coerced, which instantly discredits his book.
From the beginning, I took issue with both sides. I didn’t like the war-within position because I don’t believe that most Jihadis will change their minds upon reading Sayyid Imam; they’d require a lot more than that (family intervention, etc). But I also didn’t like the nothing-to-see-here position because it too easily adopted a Jihadi talking point and because it, like the war-within position, did not see that the most important audience for Sayyid Imam’s book was the pious, educated Arab public, particularly high-school and college-age youth. To the extent that the book persuaded fence sitters that Zawahiri and al-Qaeda were making religious errors, it succeeded. If they also came to believe there was a war within, even better.
With Imam’s second book, we have a similar dynamic. But this time, the nothing-to-see-here position is based not on the fact that Sayyid Imam is in prison but on the meanness of his words and his personal attacks on Zawahiri. Jihadis are saying it and so are astute bloggers and journalists (Rob, Nathan, and Marisa). The argument is that Sayyid Imam is so mean that Jihadis will be turned off because his rhetoric indicates that he is unfair. I don’t agree with this position for several reasons:
- Jihadis are going to dislike Sayyid Imam’s book no matter what.
- The most important audience is pious, educated Arabs, especially the youth in high school and college. It is not Jihadis.
- Sayyid Imam was pretty vicious in his first book and it didn’t seem to dampen its effect. For example, he repeatedly accused Zawahiri of abandoning his family and getting them killed.
- Sayyid Imam has a different goal in this book. He’s already tried to discredit the religious underpinnings of Zawahiri’s ideology. Now he’s trying to impugn his character. Zawahiri has said that for the Jihadi Movement to succeed it needs leaders that people can trust. Sayyid Imam is trying to destroy that trust. Think of political attack ads; Imam’s gone from attacking Zawahiri on the issues, now he’s attacking his character.
I’ll leave off on my assessment of the new things to be learned from the Denudation. I just wanted to share my thoughts on its impact and audience before the emerging narrative hardens.