Al-Qaeda: Beginning of the End, or Grasping at Straws?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 32

Since early September, there has been a flurry of media reports and commentaries suggesting that the Saudi religious establishment has turned against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda; that a split has occurred among the Taliban, Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden; and that al-Zawahiri has pushed bin Laden aside, sidelined him, and seized control of al-Qaeda. Hopefully this troika of al-Qaeda disasters is deadly accurate, but each merits consumption with a large grain of salt.

The issue meriting the least belief and most suspicion in the West is the reported development of anti-bin Laden and anti-jihad doctrines among the government-supported Islamist clerics, jurists and scholars in Saudi Arabia. On September 14, for example, the Saudi Salafi scholar Sheikh Salman al-Awda published a personal letter to Osama bin Laden—addressing him as “Brother Osama”—that is critical of the burdens placed on Muslims by al-Qaeda’s actions. Sheikh al-Awda enumerates virtually every problem currently faced by Muslims around the world and appears to place them at the feet of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Indeed, it only appears that he is placing them at bin Laden’s feet because Sheikh al-Awda’s criticism is not of the fire-breathing variety and he carefully avoids making any attempt to denigrate bin Laden’s character or even gingerly question his status as a good Muslim. “We are all humans,” Sheikh Awda said in reference to bin Laden. “No matter how much we disagree with any person regardless of his approach, we cannot remove him from the circle of Islam, unless he commits a sin of unbelief.” On this basis, it must be assumed that al-Awda has concluded that Osama bin Laden is continuing to act within the “circle of Islam,” which clearly dulls the sharp edge of al-Awda’s letter [1].

In addition, al-Awda delineates a version of Islamic theology in condemning al-Qaeda’s martial activities that not only decries war, but makes Islam and its Prophet appear to be pacifist in orientation. In rewriting Islamic history, for example, the sheikh comes up with the following claim: “The Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, conquered and subjugated the entire peninsula without any massacres. In fact, the number of those killed when the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, was alive performing his mission—23 years [in length]—was approximately 200 or less, and the number of Muslims among them could be many times as much as their enemies” [2]. This is simply not true, and one needs only to skim Martin Lings’ extraordinary biography of the prophet—Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources—to see the far greater casualties and deliberate executions resulting from the Prophet’s military campaigns [3].

There is every possibility that Sheikh al-Awda’s condemnation of bin Laden and al-Qaeda is part of the Saudi regime’s effort to disinform Western governments and publics, and to disguise the fading domestic authority of the country’s religious establishment. Saudi authorities clearly are engaged in a campaign to create a public record of anti-al-Qaedaism before al-Qaeda’s next attack in the United States. Coming as it does from a man who had been bin Laden’s theological role model, Sheikh al-Awda’s letter is meant to convince the West’s gullible political leaders and media that Saudi clerics have changed and now are effectively supporting the West’s anti-terrorism campaign. “Do we not hear the voices of the ulema,” al-Awda asks bin Laden in his letter, “the sincere, the believers, and the worshippers who always remember God shouting and saying the same as the Prophet, God’s prayer and peace be upon him, said when Khalid Bin-al-Walid, the supreme commander of the Muslim army, made a mistake, ‘O God, I dissociate myself from what Khalid did?…Many of these people, in fact most of them, now say: ‘O God, we dissociate ourselves from what Osama does, and from the deeds of those who work in his name or under his command” [4].

This, of course, is not true on three levels. First, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have long been waging an incrementally successful campaign to denigrate the honesty and integrity of what they refer to as “the scholars of the king,” those clerics who will condone anything the Saudi king wants whether or not it accords with the Quran. Al-Awda, once a pro-Islamist cleric, is now preeminently a “scholar of the king” and is regarded as such by both the Islamists and many of his own countrymen. Al-Awda served time after 1994 in Saudi prisons and thereafter emerged much more amenable to the wishes and policies of the al-Sauds, an affect that seems a common post-prison reality in much of the Muslim world. “My brother Osama,” al-Awda wrote in his letter, “brothers of yours in Egypt, Algeria and other Muslim countries have realized the consequences and dangers of this road [or jihad], and have found the courage to announce through books, programs, and internet websites that this road is wrong, and does not leave to the aim, and to ask God Almighty to forgive them. They have announced their repentance of what has happened” [5]. Sheikh al-Awda does not mention that all of these repenters did so after emerging from long residence in Egyptian, Moroccan and Algerian prisons, and offers no ideas about what caused—perhaps persuaded is a better word—these men to repent.

Next, the repentant words of Sheikh al-Awda and his now right-thinking clerical colleagues have little impact on either the Islamists or their supporters, and not much more on the general Muslim public. This is not because al-Awda and the others are not smart, distinguished and respected men. It is because they are under the control of the security services of such police states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan. Islamic law, history and tradition clearly show that clerics or leaders who repent previously strongly held theological positions while in or after leaving prison are regarded as having been coerced to do so. They are, therefore, not regarded as credible and authoritative leaders. Likewise, penitent statements by men living under the control of Islamic police states are also suspect. In short, al-Awda’s letter serves the al-Sauds’ disinformation purposes, but has very little impact on al-Qaeda, its Islamist allies and their supporters [6].

The second issue—a split among the Taliban and al-Qaeda factions led by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri—also stretches credulity. Stories to this effect have appeared in the London Sunday Telegraph and Newsweek, and are attributed to Omar Farooqi—who is identified as “a Taliban liaison officer with al-Qaeda”—and unnamed U.S. and UK intelligence officials [7]. Farooqi’s motivation for providing this information to Western reporters is not described, nor is his rationale for intentionally trying to damage his Taliban masters and their interests by disclosing the Islamists’ disunity to the West. While there currently is no way to evaluate the accuracy of Farooqi’s claims, realities on the ground in Afghanistan seem to belie them. In just the past month, for example, President Hamid Karzai’s hard-pressed regime has offered to negotiate with the Taliban; the Taliban and al-Qaeda felt secure enough to hold a conference in Tora Bora, near NATO’s strongest military positions; and Taliban attacks have accelerated in and around Kabul, including three suicide car bombings in the capital between September 28 and October 6. These on-the-ground facts do not suggest the Taliban and al-Qaeda are suffering from a debilitating three-way split [8].

The third issue—al-Zawahiri’s pushing aside bin Laden—was broached in the September 9 Washington Post article by Dr. Bruce Hoffman, probably America’s most incisive terrorism analyst. In his essay, Dr. Hoffman argued that “we need to drop our preoccupation with Osama bin Laden” and understand that America’s “most formidable nemesis is not the Saudi terrorist leader but his nominal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri” [9]. Dr. Hoffman claimed that “mounting evidence” shows that bin Laden had been shoved by al-Zawahiri into “premature forced retirement,” and that al-Zawahiri is now al-Qaeda’s main leader, operational strategist and “new public face.” As “evidence,” Dr. Hoffman cites the undeniable fact that al-Zawahiri has appeared with much greater frequency than bin laden in al-Qaeda audio and video tapes, and “Asian intelligence sources” who claim “it has been two years since bin Laden reportedly chaired a meeting of al-Qaeda’s Majlis al-Shura—the movement’s most senior deliberative body.”

As an initial response, one could argue that if the foregoing is accurate, the July National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was either troublingly ill-informed or disingenuous when it concluded that al-Qaeda is rebuilt, internationally potent, and operating with bin Laden at the helm. There is no basis for the NIE to have been as dire as it was if an al-Zawahiri-led coup had just taken place in al-Qaeda. Counting videos, moreover, hardly seems a sound basis for assessing the status of al-Qaeda leaders. If it was a reliable tool, then neither bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri would be in the running for al-Qaeda’s leadership because Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi has been seen in more videos in 2007 than either man. As the always precise IntelCenter noted in mid-September, “Abu Yahya al-Libi is now the most visible face of al-Qaeda” [10]. In addition, bin Laden for more than a decade has demonstrated that he knows something we in the West forgot long ago—the power of silence. The fact that his recent tapes dominated the media for most of a week shows that bin Laden remains a master at capitalizing fully on his long periods of silence.

Dr. Hoffman’s reference to “Asian intelligence” certainly is interesting, but one must, with respect, suggest one of four conclusions about its viability: (A) If it is true, U.S. and NATO forces should have been able to wipe out the Majlis al-Shura and much of al-Qaeda—though not bin Laden—based on Asian information about the timing and deliberations of the Shura’s meetings over two years; (B) If it is true, and the Majlis has not been destroyed, one of America’s Asian allies apparently did not share highly actionable data with Washington; (C) If it is true, and the Majlis has not been destroyed, Western authorities must have decided not to attack, perhaps because the Shura meets in Pakistan; and, (D) The information is not true.

Without the pertinent classified information, we cannot make a definitive evaluation of the “Asian intelligence” reporting. In addition to the NIE’s failure to mention what would inevitably be the damaging and perhaps fatal impact of al-Zawahiri’s takeover, we also have failed to see any comments from the many al-Qaeda members who have sworn personal allegiance to bin Laden and have intense personal affection for him. It is nearly inconceivable that such comments would not have surfaced if al-Zawahiri had forced bin Laden into “retirement.” In addition, al-Zawahiri is a sharp-edged and avuncular personality who is known more for his alienating intellectual inflexibility and arrogance, Egypt-centrism and imperiousness, rather than such attractive qualities of bin Laden as his combat experience and war wounds; his personal humility and inclusiveness; and his soaring almost poetic eloquence in the Arabic language. Al-Zawahiri’s personal prickliness was damagingly divisive when he was the chief of the all-Egyptian group known as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad—his unilateral decision to join al-Qaeda in February 1998 is only one of many examples—and these characteristics probably would cause a near-fatal fracturing of the multi-ethnic and multinational al-Qaeda faster than any other single factor.

Yet, as the saying goes, we should never say never and hope that Dr. Hoffman’s sources are correct. Al-Zawahiri’s ascendance from theologian-in-chief—which, as DNI Director Mike McConnell, said, he has long been—to al-Qaeda’s overall leadership potentially would be a major step toward its final destruction as an effective organization [11]. Aside from the intense animosities that al-Zawahiri’s harsh treatment of bin Laden would earn from the Saudi’s loyalists, his arrogance and Egypt-first orientation would decrease al-Qaeda’s focus on the far enemy, the United States.

On this point, it is difficult to find evidence to support Dr. Hoffman’s contention that it was al-Zawahiri who “more than a decade ago, defined al-Qaeda’s strategy in terms of ‘far’ and ‘near’ enemies. The United States is the ‘far’ enemy whose defeat…was an essential prerequisite to the elimination of the ‘near’ enemy,” the Muslim world’s police states [12]. Al-Zawahiri’s position always was that the ‘near’ enemy—in his case Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt—comes first; the EIJ’s motto, in fact, amounted to something akin to “the road to Jerusalem must first pass through Cairo.” In the contest between giving priority to the “near” or the “far” enemy, it was bin Laden who changed al-Zawahiri’s mind, not vice versa [13]. In this light, al-Zawahiri as leader—and the likelihood that he would favor al-Qaeda’s Egyptians for senior positions—would weaken al-Qaeda’s U.S. focus and reawaken the nationalist orientations of al-Qaeda’s constituent groups that bin Laden had never been completely successful in suppressing. This scenario would be undiluted good news for the United States and it should be ardently desired. There is no evidence at the moment, however, that we are seeing this delightful scenario play itself out, and we ought to keep in mind what Patrick Henry once warned against as “the phantom delusions of hope.”


1. Sheikh Salman al-Awda, “Letter to Osama bin Laden,” September 14, 2007,, and Turki al-Saheil, “Reaction to Salman al-Ouda’s Bin Laden Letter,” Asharq al-Awsat, September 18, 2007.

2. Al-Awda, “Letter to Osama bin Laden,” September 14, 2007, op. cit.

3. Martin Lings, Muhammad, His Life Nased on the Earliest Sources, Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1983.

4. Al-Awda, “Letter to Osama bin Laden,” September 14, 2007, op. cit.

5. Ibid.

6. The recent warning by the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, against allowing young Saudis to go to Iraq to fight the U.S.-led coalition and the Shiites is a case in point of the Saudis saying what the West wants to hear. If the Grand Mufti’s strictures were efficiently implemented by the Saudi regime, he and it would be regarded as anti-Islamic by the bulk of the population, and the country’s already numerous anti-al-Saud militants would multiply. A more accurate gauge of the Saudis’ kid-glove handling of jihadis is their recent decision to give $2,600 to each of the 55 Saudis who were returned by the U.S. from Guantanamo Bay and “temporarily release” them from custody so they could celebrate the end-of-Ramadan holiday with their families. See, “Saudi cleric issues warning over Saudi militants,” Reuters, October 1, 2007, and “Saudi to temporarily release 55 former Guantanamo detainees, give them money,” Associated Press, October 6, 2007.

7. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “Bin Laden losing control of al-Qaeda,” reprinted from Newsweek in Pakistan’s Daily Times, September 25, 2007, and “Zawahiri Replaces Bin Laden as al-Qaeda Chief, London Sunday Telegraph, September 16, 2007, reprinted in Ibid., September 17, 2007.

8. Matthew Fisher, “Afghanistan foes ready to tango?” National Post, October 1 2007, and John Ward Anderson, “Attacks by Taliban increase, approach Afghanistan capital,” Boston Globe, September 28, 2007.

9. Bruce Hoffman, “Zawahiri: The man who brought al-Qaeda back,” Washington Post, September 9, 2007.

10. Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, “Dots on the Letters,” IntelCenter, 12 September 2007.

11. “Zawahiri, not bin Laden, is al-Qaeda ‘intellectual leader’: intel chief,” Agence-France Presse, September 11, 2007.

12. Bruce Hoffman, “Zawahiri: The man who brought al-Qaeda back,” op. cit.

13. For a more complete discussion of who influenced who, see Through Our Enemies’ Eyes. Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. Revised Edition, Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006, pp. 182-186, and Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of al Qaeda, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006, pp. 75-80.