Imprisoned Leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad Challenges al-Qaeda

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 23

Ayman al-Zawahiri

The Salafi-Jihadi ideology, the doctrine and constitution of al-Qaeda’s terrorists, is being re-evaluated by prominent Salafi-Jihadi ideologues. The same ideologues that previously sanctioned terrorist operations are now having second thoughts about the ideology behind many heinous terrorist acts. Last month Sayed Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif, a founder of the Egyptian Jihad organization and a prominent jihad theoretician better known as “Doctor Fadl,” released a new ten-part document called Tarshid al-amal al-jihadi fi misr wa al-alam (“Rationalizing the jihadi action in Egypt and the world”) (http://www.islamtoday.net, November). The treatise is expected to have a major influence on Salafi-Jihadi operatives in general and al-Qaeda in particular (aljarida.com, November 21).

The Path of a Jihadi

The 57 year-old Dr. Fadl was born and raised in the city of Bani Suwayf, 72 miles south of Cairo. He is married to two women and has four boys and three girls. Dr. Fadl’s family (who are—according to Dr. Fadl’s son Ismail—descendents of the Prophet Mohammad) was ardent in their religious faith. This was reflected in Dr. Fadl’s upbringing as a pious grade-A student who graduated from high school as one of the top students in Egypt in 1968, rendering him eligible to enroll in Cairo’s faculty of medicine. After graduating in 1974 he worked in the faculty’s surgical department. During his years in the university, Dr. Fadl devoted much of his free time to the study of Salafist literature, never quite trusting contemporary Islamic commentaries. Consequently, he formed his first jihadi group in 1968 with his friend, fellow physician Ayman al-Zawahiri (now second-in-command of al-Qaeda). In 1978 Dr. Fadl finished a graduate program in plastic surgery and worked at Suez Canal University until 1981.

After the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the consequent arrest of al-Zawahiri, Dr. Fadl fled Egypt to the United Arab Emirates, working there until 1983, when he moved to Peshawar in Pakistan in order to offer medical services to the mujahideen. Dr. Fadl was also tried in absentia in the Sadat assassination case but was acquitted in 1984. After their release, Ayman al-Zawahiri and several other Egyptian militants traveled to Pakistan and reorganized the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group (EIJ) with Dr. Fadl as the leader of the group (aljarida.com, November 27). Even though Dr. Fadl was the emir of the EIJ, he kept a low profile and led the group ideologically, whereas al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command, was more active in the group’s daily activities to the point where members of the group thought he was the actual leader and pledged allegiance to him (Almasry Alyoum, November 18). In 1993 the group had a major setback when Egyptian authorities arrested over 1,000 members of the group’s military wing, Tali’at al-fatah (“The Liberation Vanguard”). After the arrests, the leadership of the group moved to Sudan, except for Dr. Fadl, who refused to relocate in Sudan or accept responsibility for the group’s setback. As a result, he was forced to resign and al-Zawahiri took charge of the group. In 1993 Dr. Fadl moved to Yemen and worked in the hospital of Ebb. In 1999 Egyptian authorities again tried Dr. Fadl in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison on terrorism charges in a case known in Egypt as “The Returning Albanian Arabs” (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 9, 1999). After the 9/11 attacks, Yemeni authorities arrested Dr. Fadl and extradited him to Egypt to serve his life sentence.

Revising the Salafi-Jihadi Ideology

Prior to writing Tarshid al-amal al-jihadi fi misr wa al-alam, Dr. Fadl published, among other books, his influential 1988 document Al-omda fi eddad al-edda (“The Master in Making Preparation [for Jihad]”) under the name Abdul Qadir bin Abdulaziz. A comparison of the two works highlights the changes and retractions Dr. Fadl has made in jihadist ideology.

Al-omda fi eddad al-edda is considered a global manifesto for jihadi groups; since its initial publication it has been translated into English, French, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Kurdish, Spanish, Malay and Indonesian. The book treats, in detail, jihadi recruitment, training and the religious justification for conducting jihad. Written in Peshawar during the war against the Soviets, the book supplies a code of conduct for the activities of jihadis everywhere. In takfiri fashion, Dr. Fadl terms Arab-Islamic autocrats infidels if they fail to implement sharia law. Rulers who fail to bring in Islamic law should be overthrown by violent means, killing them and everyone that works for them. The near enemy of the Salafi-Jihadis is any Arab-Islamic country that does not rule according to Islamic theology.

In comparison, Dr. Fadl commences his new work by saying that some jihadis have misunderstood his first book and committed infringements on sharia. The main points of the new manifesto are as follows:

– Islam is mandatory for all. Islam is submission to sharia, which includes jihad as one of its divine precepts.

– Duty is dependent on comprehension and the ability to perform.

– There is a difference between disseminating the “science of sharia” and imposing fatwas (religious decrees).

– Piety is a duty, especially in blood and money feuds.

– Religious decrees must rely on sharia evidence.

Dr. Fadl reiterates that before practicing jihad (as with performing any other religious duty), certain prerequisites have to be met:

– The jihadist must be not only physically capable, but also financially capable. It is impermissible to practice jihad if the jihadi cannot provide for his dependents while performing this duty.

– The parents’ permission must be obtained by minors. God does not accept jihad without parental consent.

– The lives and property of Muslims must be preserved.

– Jihad against the leaders of Muslim countries is not acceptable.

– It is forbidden to harm foreigners and tourists in Muslim countries.

– It is treachery to kill people in a non-Muslim country after entering that country with its government’s permission (i.e., a legal visa).

– Single individuals should not try to conduct jihad by themselves.

– Using fraudulent means to fund jihad is a sin punishable by Islam.

Dr. Fadl also retreats from his takfiri ideology, citing the many constraints that should be considered before designating an individual as an infidel.

Reaction from the Salafi-Jihadis

One of the strongest criticisms of Dr. Fadl’s document came from Hani al-Sibai, a London-based Egyptian political refugee who runs the Almaqreze Centre for Historical Studies (http://hani.phpnet.us, November 18). Al-Sibai says “the so-called rationalizing Jihad document that was released with unprecedented media coverage lacks credibility because Dr. Fadl wrote it under duress in prison in return, perhaps, for visiting privileges or a reduction of his sentence.” Al-Sibai underlines many other reasons that render the document unreliable, such as Dr. Fadl’s repeated claim that he was not forced to write the document. Another strong reply to Dr. Fadl came from Muhammad Khalil al-Hukayma, leader of the al-Qaeda in Egypt group, who refutes Fadl’s arguments in numerated points (http://www.pal-hacker.com, November 29). Although Osama bin Laden hasn’t directly commented on Dr. Fadl’s document, sources say that al-Zawahiri directed Hukayma’s reply because Hukayma is closer to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri than al-Sibai; al-Qaeda also considers Hukayma the legitimate representative of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which split over Hukayma’s efforts to unite the group with al-Qaeda.

For weeks after the release of his book, al-Zawahiri attacked Dr. Fadl without naming him, sending a message that al-Qaeda no longer considers Dr. Fadl a legitimate ideologue (islamonline.net, November 20). In the same context, jihadi forum chatters posted short comments on the document. A chatter nicknamed Asad bin Hashim declared, “The Fatwa of the coerced is unacceptable”; another said, “It sounds like the Sheikh is forced to write the document or lacks accurate information. When did Muslims kill anyone because of his or her skin or hair color? May God free him from prison.”

In addition, a third chatter posted this question to Dr. Fadl: “Why didn’t you write this before 2004 when all the big events were happening such as the Manhattan attack and the occupation of Iraq?” Dr. Fadl’s answer came through a chatter nicknamed Abu Anwar al-Muslim, saying, “It’s not right to prematurely reject the document on the pretext that I’m in prison. I didn’t claim to be a religious authority nor do I impose my opinions on anybody. I also don’t claim to be religiously eligible to issue fatwas. I’m only an Islamic theology conveyer. Everything I wrote is based on Sharia attestation” (www.muslim.net November 19).

Conclusion

Regardless of all the negative responses to Dr. Fadl’s initiative by Salafi-Jihadi leaders, calls by Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiya leaders on bin Laden and al-Qaeda to seriously consider Dr. Fadl’s document are likely to have a major impact on al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the document will have a long-term influence on second-level and new generations of Salafi-Jihadi leaders because Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiya has always been a major ideological authority in the Arab and Islamic world. Osama bin Laden’s October audio and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s November announcement that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has joined al-Qaeda show al-Qaeda’s grim concern over Dr. Fadl’s ideological “deviation.” Rather than becoming involved in a public religious debate, al-Qaeda is expected to respond by releasing new publications that counter Dr. Fadl’s arguments.