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On Reforming Islamic Militants

This seems in contradiction to my post below, which states that it is impossible for Hamas or Hezbollah to modify themselves into responsible political actors.   So before I get into this post I’ll clarify- it isn't impossible, at all, for people to reform, no matter how murderous or nihilistic or jihad-drenched they were; it is impossible for certain organizations to reform, because once their reason for being dies up, the do as well. 

OK, on to this!  A Financial Times editorial by former Bush Deputy Assistant Peter Wehner argues that “in large measure because of what is unfolding in Iraq, the tide within the Islamic world is beginning to run strongly against al-Qaeda , and this, in turn, may be the single most important ideological development in recent years.”   This seems to jive with the New York Times article discussed directly below, about how the cleric-fueled carnage in Iraq is turning youngsters away from faith.  But this blood-weary turning from religion by the people closest to its most violent extremes is not the same as a general discrediting of al-Qaeda, or militant Islam in general.

Wehner goes on to list some influential clerics, formerly some of jihad's great supporters, who have started to publish and speak about its ills.   Again, Wehner:

In November 2007 Sayyid Imam al-Sharif ("Dr Fadl") published his book, Rationalizations on Jihad in Egypt and the World, in serialised form. Mr Sharif, who is Egyptian, argues that the use of violence to overthrow Islamic governments is religiously unlawful and practically harmful. He also recommends the formation of a special Islamic court to try Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's number two and its ideological leader, and calls the attacks on September 11 2001 a "catastrophe for all Muslims".

Mr Sharif's words are significant because he was once a mentor to Mr Zawahiri. Mr Sharif, who wrote the book in a Cairo prison, is "a living legend within the global jihadist movement", according to Jarret Brachman, a terrorism expert.

Another important event occurred in October 2007, when Sheikh Abd Al-"Aziz bin Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa prohibiting Saudi youth from engaging in jihad abroad. It states: "I urge my brothers the ulama [the top class of Muslim clergy] to clarify the truth to the public . . . to warn [youth] of the consequences of being drawn to arbitrary opinions and [religious] zeal that is not based on religious knowledge." The target of the fatwa is obvious: Mr bin Laden.

I tend to think that among the most militant of the Islamists a man infused in the Saudi power structure wouldn't have much sway.   The House of Saud is one of bin Laden's main demons, and it is easy in his movement to discredit anyone associated with it.  

 But al-Sharif is a different story.   He is the former Emir of the Egyptian group al-Jihad, and was a mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri.   A legend in the jihadi community.  A new articleby Omar Ashour in the latest Perspectives on Terrorism gets into his role, who he was and what he is doing now. 

I’ll be brief, here, and let Ashour be long.   Al-Sharif is trying to convince young militants that the path of violent jihad is wrong.  Not just with morality, but with theology.  Who is he trying to convince?   Three different layers of militants.

The first layer is composed of a small core group that surrounds Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and receives direct orders from them. This layer is the least likely to be affected. Al-Zawahiri has already criticized al-Sharif and mocked the idea of revisions, publications and "fax machines" in Egyptian prisons. In his latest audio statement, he promises to release a counterargument to al-Sharif's Document , a pledge that shows that al-Qaeda takes the new literature seriously enough to bother issuing a counterargument. In addition, Bin Laden criticized the behavior of al-Qa"ida in Iraq after the media announced that al-Sharif was in the process of writing the Document, but before the Document's release. Bin Laden may have attempted to minimize the effects of the Document and send a preemptive message to his sympathizers that there would be changes in al-Qaeda's violent behavior and terrorist tactics.



The second layer is al-Qai"da's self-styled "branches" in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt. Of these, the Egyptian branch is most likely to be affected because of the weight of al-Sharif in Egypt, as well as the revisions of the IG. In the words of one of the IG's "de-radicalized" historical leaders, al-Sharif's Document is the final say in the "Islamic jurisprudence of violence" in Egypt. [14]



The third layer is that of the "Internet militants'. This group is mostly teenagers and young men inspired by al-Qaeda's rhetoric, but have no organizational ties or contacts with its network. In other words, this is a layer of "self-recruited members'. Probably aware that this layer has the weakest ties with the core of al-Qaeda, al-Sharif dedicated a large part of his Document to warning young Muslim men about the "Internet Sheikhs.' This layer is likely the one that will be affected the most, and its members could be discouraged from following Salafi-Jihadism in general and al-Qa"ida in particular because of the influence of al-Sharif's Document.

Now, we’ve seen this movie before, in Yemen.  Hamoud al-Hitar, a Yemeni cleric, ran an operation trying to persuade young militants that their jihad was un-Islamic, talking in prisons to those who weren't charged with violent crimes.  If they could convince him they had reformed, they were free to go (though presumably with an eye on them).  For a good look at his movement, read this Worldview article by Gregory Johnsen.

The program, which was touted in the West, isn't working as well as it once looked.  Recidivism rates are pretty high, and the program has been kind of pushed under the rug a bit. 

But I think what is happening in Egypt is different.  Al-Hitar, though a distinguished scholar, didn't have much sway with the militant Salafi community.  He was able, with his eloquence, intellect, and knowledge of the Quran, to persuade young militants that their path was wrong.   But some of them might have just pretended to believe, and other might have believed then but fell back into old patterns the next time a charismatic cleric talked to them. 

Al-Sharif, the Egyptian, is different.  He might be labeled an apostate, but his words carry more weight, especially in the Maghreb.   He is respected and admired.   The analysis of the article- the hope, maybe- is that such a man could change the tenor of the debate, so it isn't only Americans and secular despots and quislings telling the Islamists to cool it.  

But prison conversions aren't always accepted by those on the outside.   And, perhaps more important, al-Qaeda itself has spread out and become a less top-down organization, and has lowered its standards.   One doesn't exactly need to be an expert, or even someone mildly interested in, theology.   Just have some kind of anger and want to kill.  These kind of disputes can easily go over the head of a bored young man. 

That said, al-Qaeda can't last forever.  No revolutionary group ever does, no matter how eternal they project themselves.  Things fall apart.  I don't know how much of an impact top clerics decrying jihad will have in the short term, but if it changes the tenor of discussion in the long-term, than Islamism in any form will be weakened. 



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.