A radical new strategy: kill fewer Muslims

Jun 5th 2008
From The Economist print editionhttp://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=11496851&fsrc=nwlbtwfree


Al-Qaeda is under fire from inside radical Islam; sadly, the blood may merely flow elsewhere


Rex Features

A BOMB exploded outside the Danish embassy in Pakistan’s capital on June 2nd, killing at least half-a-dozen people. The same day another bomb struck a police headquarters in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Just an ordinary start to an ordinary month in this 21st century, you might think. Except that these attacks followed, and some will say belie, a claim the previous week from Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, that, on balance, America was doing “pretty well” against terrorism.

Needless to say, indignant politicians and pundits pounced on Mr Hayden’s remarks, which he made in an interview with the Washington Post. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee complained to Mr Hayden that his interview was inconsistent with the CIA‘s reports to Congress. Had not last year’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that al-Qaeda had “regenerated” its ability to attack America?

It had. In fairness, however, the CIA director did not say that al-Qaeda had been put out of business. His main point was that it had suffered setbacks in the realm of ideology. “Fundamentally, no one really liked al-Qaeda’s vision of the future,” Mr Hayden said. The CIA‘s claims are no longer universally believed. But Mr Hayden’s comments coincide with the publication in a brace of heavyweight American magazines of two lengthy articles by independent researchers, also focusing on what looks like a growing schism within jihadism.

In the New Yorker of June 2nd Lawrence Wright, author of an authoritative book on al-Qaeda, concentrates on the recantation of Sayed Imam al-Shareef, alias “Dr Fadl”, a former associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy. From prison in Egypt, this off-message jihadist has for a period now been taking hurtful ideological pot-shots at al-Qaeda.

Much of this debate among jihadists turns on whether and when Muslim rulers can be deemed apostates and so become legitimate targets. But Mr al-Shareef’s quarrel with al-Qaeda goes further. Nothing in Islam, he avers, says that ends can justify means. Nor is killing Christians or Jews allowed unless they are actively attacking Muslims. Furthermore, it is dishonourable of Muslims living in non-Muslim lands to betray their hosts. By these lights, says Mr al-Shareef, the perpetrators of 9/11 were “double-crossers”, having entered America with American visas and so with an implied contract of protection.

Mr al-Shareef’s motives are not above reproach. Writing from prison, he may have come under pressure to repudiate his former allies. Part of his animus against al-Qaeda appears to derive from a literary tiff: Mr al-Zawahiri’s unauthorised emendation of a gripping tome of Mr al-Shareef’s called “The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge”. But Mr al-Shareef’s religious scholarship is respected and he commands a following big enough to rattle the relatively uncredentialled Mr al-Zawahiri. That, says Mr Wright, may be why al-Qaeda’s number two felt the need in December to answer a shower of pointed questions on the internet asking why al-Qaeda killed innocent Muslims while claiming to defend Islam.

Mr Wright concludes that radical Islam is facing rebellion from within. The same verdict is reached in the New Republic by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, also respected analysts, who chart a swelling tide of former jihadists now critical of al-Qaeda’s promiscuous violence. Such critics, they say, have joined mainstream Muslim leaders in “a powerful coalition countering al-Qaeda’s ideology”.

There is no denying that al-Qaeda has damaged its own cause by killing so many Muslims. That is why even Sunni Arabs in Iraq have for now joined the American side. A report from Simon Fraser University in Canada notes an extraordinary drop in support for terrorist groups in the Muslim world.

Too good to be true

And yet the impact of this on global terrorism may, alas, be small. Al-Qaeda has compensated for its strategic setback in Iraq by creating a sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. As for its ideological problems, these may well be outweighed by the continuing current of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world. Besides, the organisation has a simple remedy. It just needs to kill more Westerners and fewer Muslims. For this it does not have to attract millions of people to its cause: a small number of disaffected souls in the right places is all it takes.

Does it have them? In Britain the domestic intelligence services reckon that up to several thousand people stand ready to carry out violent acts on Islam’s behalf—people who are unlikely to change their minds because of a recondite debate on the proprieties of jihad conducted from an Egyptian prison. Better still, from al-Qaeda’s cynical point of view, would be to mount a big attack on Israel, against which it has so far done little but has lately directed a spate of blood-curdling threats. Sadly, even dissenting jihadists might welcome a bit of that.



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