The meme going around the past few weeks is that al-Qaeda is on the ropes. One of the first places I saw it in the mainstream press was an LA Times story from April, the main themes of which have been echoed recently in the Bergen/Cruickshank and Wright pieces. The main evidence offered is that several hard-line religious scholars that used to support AQ have now renounced the organization. Awda (Saudi cleric), Hamid al-Ali (Kuwaiti cleric), Sayyid Imam (former head of Egyptian al-Jihad), and the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia are the most commonly cited personalities.
Michael Scheuer dissents (of course!), arguing that these scholars have either been co-opted, have an ax to grind, or are has-beens, so their criticism won’t matter to the Jihadis. In fact, Scheuer argues that the Jihadis are on the march:
these arguments are occurring in the context of the jihadis expanding in North Africa, the Levant, and Europe; effectively resisting U.S.-led military coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan; and winning elections every time one is held in the Arab world — Gaza, Egypt, Bahrain, and most recently in Kuwait.
There is something to the recent meme that Scheuer is missing: these attacks from former prominent supporters or fellow travelers are severely damaging the publics’ opinion of AQ, especially among educated Salafis. The books or letters written by Awda or Sayyid Imam are carefully formulated criticisms of AQ from within the classical Islamic tradition, not silly there-is-no-violence-in-jihad arguments. Moreover, these men have major names in the Jihadi-Salafi community and their earlier works are still much cited, so they have to be dealt with. Although Zawahiri dismisses their attacks in precisely the same way Scheuer does, he wrote a 188-page book in response to one of them, Sayyid Imam. And he released it only two months after Imam’s book came out. You do not write a book of that length and release it that fast if you are not worried. Since Scheuer is all about listening to the enemy, he should not be so quick to dismiss something Zawahiri takes so seriously.
That said, Scheuer is right that there is a little too much optimism about AQ’s impending doom. AQ may be collapsing in Iraq and losing the larger war for public sympathy, but it is still attracting recruits and expanding its operations on the margins of the Middle East–Algeria and Pakistan/Afghanistan.
It is also casting its eye on Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza (good luck with the last two!).
In short, there are some positive signs that AQ is losing the war of perceptions (i.e. it looks like a loser right now), but it is still quite strong.
One final note: Scheuer’s suggestion that the recent electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Salafis in Kuwait constitute jihadi expansion is wrongheaded. What does the U.S. stand to gain by lumping democratically-elected MB and Salafi candidates in with AQ? The U.S. should be looking for ways to increase the political participation of these groups while identifying local variations between them that can be used to the advantage of the U.S. and to the detriment of AQ.
I think the point I tired to make is that the recanters are just defeatists. Their recanting may be sincere, but it protects the status quo and offers no hope to those dissatisfied with U.S. policy and its impact, or those who are weary of Arab tyrants. Dr. Fadl and al-Awdah may say that jihad is okay, but the rules they appear to have laid down make a militarily effective jihad is all but impossible. They seem to disagree with al-Shaybani’s argument that if innocent Muslims can never be killed, there can be no jihad because their are innocent Muslims everywhere. The shackles al-Fadl and al-Awdah have strapped on the conduct of jihad, challenge commonsense, Muslim history, and — this from a non expert — Sharia reasoning.
My own view is that the main danger from the recanters to al-Qaeda is that they will reinforce the defeatism that appears to be bone deep in the Arab world. It is something that bin Laden and Zawahiri are acutely aware of and have struggeled against. The newly revised Dr. Fadl, in fact, seems to be saying “If you can’t be sure you will win, why fight?” and I think that sort of defeatism hurts AQ more than theological backtracking prompted by a prison-kitchenette for al-Fadl and a TV show for al-Awdah.
Falls Church, VA
Scheuer’s quote matches a comment, almost verbatim, that he made today on NPR. It sounds like he’s got his lines down.
Michael, thank you for your polite and reasonable response. Your assessment of Fadl is right on–he really hasn’t left the door open for much of an asymmetrical jihad. But his argument, and that of Awda, are well within the Islamic tradition in the sense that they both counsel weighing the costs and benefits of any proposed violent action. If more harm than good is going to come of it, the action shouldn’t be undertaken. The same discussion surrounds topics like a single soldier fighting against a multitude and rebelling against a Muslim ruler. This cost-benefit analysis is intrinsic to classical Islamic reasoning about violence.
Fadl’s argument is also classical in the sense that he recognizes the drastic difference between the medieval situation and today. Medieval jihad theory centers on two conventional armies meeting on a field of battle. As Fadl points out, it makes sense to talk about human shields in that context . But it’s not fair, he argues, to draw an analogy to the modern context where the Jihadis are not fielding a conventional force against another conventional force, but rather attacking civilians to send a message.
Zawahiri’s response in his Exoneration exhibits a very sophisticated understanding of political violence and you’ll notice that he has a long section defending his theories of revolutionary vanguardism. But I still think he’s on shaky ground vis-a-vis the medieval tradition.
I’m going to be out of town over the next two weeks, so my blogging will be spotty. But if you or anyone else is interested, I’d like to go through Fadl and Zawahiri’s arguments in detail. Larry Wright characterized their debate as esoteric, but I think there are some good insights into the tensions between the Salafi desire for authenticity and the modern context they are confronting.
Michael, I actually thought your comments brought up a valuable point that the panel on NPR was avoiding. You’ve certainly identified the most glaring whole in the criticism of the AQ dissidents. I was just surprised that the quote I read wasn’t from the NPR show.