Al-qaeda’s Ideological Hemorrhage

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 2

Al-Qaeda’s ability to bounce back from intense strikes and a level of sustained attrition that would have paralyzed other insurgent organizations has been well demonstrated. There has also been much discussion, and speculation, on the cell structure of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and their operational autonomy. This speculation is almost universally directed at the cells’ military capabilities or their resilience in retaining command and communications structures. However, behind the scenes, there is evidence that some more permanent damage is being done to the structure of al-Qaeda, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda’s activities in Saudi Arabia fall into three broad areas: military, media and the shari’a. Most are aware of the acts of violence and propaganda associated with al-Qaeda. Less high profile, but arguably more crucial to survival, is the ideological aspects of shari’a.

A perusal of al-Qaeda literature underlines this point. Within the on-line journals and printed pamphlets, there are more ideological discourses than military essays, reflecting the constant need to justify acts with reference to their religious propriety. The principal web-based journals Sawt al-Jihad (The Voice of Jihad) and Mu’askar al-Battar (The Al-Battar Military Camp) illustrate this well. The first is almost exclusively doctrinal, while the second interweaves large doses of doctrine, quotes from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Hadith, in among the military instructions. Religious propriety is clearly a pre-occupation. Witness the concerned questions of readers to the section Ask the Scholars — “I see others around me doing good works: yet is it really true that they are lost to Hellfire and yet I am saved?” [1]

There are also more weighty questions, such as The Verdict Concerning the Waging of Jihad in the Month of Rajab which discusses the prohibition of fighting in the sacred month [2], as well as numerous polemics with non-Jihadist imams and scholars. The authors also make efforts to keep ideological pace with breaking events. A Guide for the Perplexed on the Killing of Prisoners [3] came as a reaction to reports that Russian prisoners had been executed in Chechnya, while the essay The Error in Considering an Apostate Inviolable if he says the Shahada [4] discusses the problem of dealing with someone who has made a verbal declaration of the Islamic confession of faith.

Following the death of al-Qaeda leader Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Muqrin, the length of these on-line journals have decreased up to 50 per cent in some cases. But while the detailed military treatises have suffered most, there is little diminution in the crucial doctrinal material — anathematizations of infidels and hypocrites, warnings against mixing with them or diluting the jihadist ideology under their influence.

However, in the light of recent events, this material too may slim down a bit. The number of jihadist scholars has been steadily dwindling. The author of the above treatise on executing prisoners, Al-‘Ayyiri [5] was killed last year as a result of a clash with Saudi security forces. There have also been high-profile recantations broadcast on Saudi television. Following the May 12 Riyadh bombings and the arrest of high-ranking ideologues Shaykh Ali al-Khudayr, Shaykh Nasser al-Fahd [6] and Shaykh Ahmad al-Khalidi, Shaykh al-Khudayr publicly distanced himself from all his previous and highly popular jihadist fatwas in support of the struggle against the authorities.

The pressure on al-Qaeda increased this summer, when the military command was hit badly by the deaths of Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin and Faysal al-Dakhil. While there are conflicting accounts as to whether Muqrin’s successor survived a July 21 attack on his house, the blow to the cell’s shari’a committee was undeniable. During the raid, Shaykh ‘Isa al-‘Awshan was killed. The author of many essays of al-Qaeda ideological literature, al-‘Awshan’s importance to the movement was reflected in his position as number 13 on the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of the 26 most wanted terrorists. [7]

The most recent casualty of the Saudi security crackdown is Shaykh Ali al-Zahrani, one of three remaining clerics and number 11 on the most wanted list. [8] Arrested on August 6 in the Abu Khayal Mountains in the southern province of al-Abha, al-Zahrani had become more visible than ever after the killing of al-Muqrin. His capture clearly shook the mujahideen, judging from the consoling texts placed up on the internet and the positive gloss the editors attempted to put on the event. [9] Al-Zahrani’s capture is a real coup for the authorities. The ideological mujahid par excellence, he accelerated al-Qaeda’s response to the crackdown by Saudi forces by licensing their killing, while publicly rejecting the Saudi amnesty offer. [10]

One must keep in mind the warning of liberal Saudi thinker Ahmad al-Rab’i : “[I]t is important that the issue is not treated as a personal one but…to put on trial the entire way of thought that leads people to takfiri thinking.” [11] However, the robbing of the movement of their most important ideologues is an attack on what is essentially the movement’s Achilles Heel. Military minds and willing volunteers may well step up to the plate, but doctrinally trained mujahideen leaders are considerably more difficult to replace.


1. Sawt al-Jihad, Vol. 21, p.41.

2. Sawt al-Jihad, Vol. 21 p.38.

3. Hidayat al-Hayara fi Jawaz Qatl al-Asara, by Shaykh al-‘Ayyiri, which contains detailed chapters on such things as the permissibility in Islamic law of exchanging corpses of infidel in return for Muslim prisoners and the permissibility of beheading infidel captives. The interest in establishing, to the satisfaction of his readers, the legitimacy of the Mujahideen’s acts is evident in the longest treatment of the treatise, The Refutation of Those Who Maintain We Are To Keep International Treaties And Respect Human Rights.

4. Sawt al-Jihad, Vol. 19, pp.11.

5. Shaykh Yusuf bin Salih al-‘Ayyiri, known also as al-Battar (The Cutting Edge). As an al-Qaeda icon, he is illustrative of all three functions on which the movement depends. Having joined the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and rising to become a commander of a military training camp, al-‘Ayyiri subsequently transferred to Saudi Arabia. Here he set up more military training camps and directed his efforts to exploiting the internet as a vehicle to recruit new members and distribute pro-al-Qaeda propaganda. The propaganda is not exclusively political, but extends to doctrinal matters, such as the religious necessity of Jihad. The online military magazine Mu’askar al-Battar was named in his honor. Although most of his work is military in content, his essays are still re-published in the online magazines: Jihad Applies unto the Day of Resurrection: Sawt al-Jihad, Vol 21, p.25; and Jihad is not Dependent upon Individuals: Sawt al-Jihad, Vol 22, p.30.

6. Famous for his fatwa licensing the use of weapons of mass destruction, see the present author’s article in Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, Vol I, Issue 7.

7. Shaykh al-‘Awshan’s death was confirmed in a press release in Sawt al-Jihad, Vol 22, and is the subject of a ‘Conversation in Poetry’ in the same issue on p.44.

8. Ali Faris Al Shuwayl al-Zahrani, hitherto known as Abu-Jandal al-Azdi until his own name was revealed on the list of wanted suspects. He was highly trained in fiqh and was a graduate of the Shari’ah College of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University’s Abha branch.

9. Sawt al-Jihad, Vol 22, p.5.

10. His pivotal work, the The Researcher for the Verdict on Killing Members and Officers of the Intelligence Service was essentially a response to the early pressures mounted by Saudi security in November 2002, during which the Mujahideen fired on them for the first time. As the conflict exacerbated, he went on to write The Incitement of the Heroic Mujahideen Towards Reviving the Sunna of Assassination and other works designed to legitimize violence.

11. In the Saudi Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 20, 2003.