Rumors of al-Qaeda’s Death May Be Highly Exaggerated

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 21

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

Whether said about the aging process or the implacable approach of writing deadlines, the old saw about “time flying” is certainly true. But seldom has it been truer than in the three weeks since this author last wrote for Terrorism Focus. At dawn on May 29, the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that said al-Qaeda was a major and gradually increasing threat to the United State was still valid; by late that afternoon, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had announced that Lebanese Hizbullah was now the “ ‘A’ team of terrorism” and that it made “al-Qaeda look like a minor league team” (Fox News, May 29). Then, on May 30, the CIA director said that al-Qaeda was strategically defeated in several important venues; that it was “facing setbacks globally,” and that, overall, the United States was doing “pretty well” against its Islamist nemesis (BBC, May 30). The next morning, the DHS secretary one-upped the CIA director by issuing a “don’t-worry-be-happy statement” that greatly downplayed the chances of al-Qaeda acquiring and using a nuclear device (AP, May 31).

To make things even cheerier, all of these glad tidings rode in on the back of other claims that al-Qaeda’s demise was, if not imminent, at least on the horizon. Three U.S. terrorism experts published two articles in the last days of May 2008 which asserted that that Osama bin Laden’s group is increasingly isolated in the Islamic world and alienated from Muslims because of criticisms and theological challenges—some of book-length—authored by repentant Islamic scholars. At least one former “al Qaeda mastermind”—Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, a.k.a. Dr. Fadl—penned a thoroughly damning anti-al-Qaeda tract, but happened to be locked away in an Egyptian prison at the time of publication and so was unavailable to talk to Western journalists. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank ask why former al-Qaeda allies have turned against al-Qaeda’s leaders:

“To a large extent it is because al-Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the doctrine of Takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a ‘true’ Muslim. Al-Qaeda’s critics know what results from this takfiri view: First, the radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing them. This fatal progression happened in both Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s. Its is now taking place even more dramatically in Iraq, where al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted simply for being Shia. Recently, al-Qaeda in Iraq has turned its fire on Sunnis who oppose its dictates, a fact not lost on the Islamic world’s Sunni majority” [1].

Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker adds:

“This August [2008], al-Qaeda will mark its twentieth anniversary. That is a long life for a terrorist group. Most terror organizations disappear with the death of their charismatic leader, and it would be hard to imagine al-Qaeda remaining a coherent entity without bin Laden. The Red Army Faction went out of business when the Berlin Wall came down and it lost its sanctuary in East Germany. The Irish Republican Army, unusually, endured for nearly a century until economic conditions in Ireland significantly improved, and the leaders were pressured by their own members to reach a political accommodation. When one looks for hopeful parallels for the end of al-Qaeda, it is discouraging to realize that its leadership is intact, its sanctuaries are unthreatened, and the social conditions that gave rise to the movement are largely unchanged. On the other hand, al-Qaeda has nothing to show for its efforts except blood and grief. The organization was constructed from rotten intellectual bits and pieces – false readings of religion and history – cleverly and deviously fitted together to give the appearance of reason. Even if [Dr.] Fadl’s rhetoric [recanting earlier support for al-Qaeda] strikes some readers as questionable, al-Qaeda’s sophistry is rudely displayed for everyone to see. Although it likely will continue as a terrorist group, who could still take it seriously as a philosophy?” [2]

Amazing. In the 21 days since this author last wrote, bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been transformed from Salafists and Wahhabis to nihilistic, kill-‘em-all Takfiris; have been demoted from veteran and talented insurgents to the level of the whack-jobs who manned the Red Army Faction; and have been defeated in a manner the world has not seen since “Mission Accomplished in Iraq” was declared in 2003. How to explain this stunning turn around? Well, the astounding claims made by senior U.S. government officials that al-Qaeda is reeling from American blows seem easy enough to explain. After the U.S. government was roundly damned for not destroying al-Qaeda before attacking Iraq, the spate of late-May pronouncements by top U.S. officials—if one is permitted to be cynical—may be intended to assure Americans that al-Qaeda is beaten if in the next few months it becomes necessary for U.S. forces to attack Iran.

The contention that there is a fierce debate occurring between and among al-Qaeda leaders and theoreticians and other Islamists is true enough, but hardly new. Passionate, learned, and personally stinging inter-group and even intra-al-Qaeda debate is standard operating procedure among Islamists. What is unusual in the current round of argument is that: (a) It is more public than usual and (b) many heretofore credible Western analysts are indulging in wishful thinking and giving great credence to the words of al-Qaeda critics, even though the two sources they most often and most fully cite are of rather doubtful credibility. One is a Saudi, Shaykh Salman al-Awdah, who wrote a public letter condemning bin Laden for taking the lives of many Muslims in al-Qaeda’s attacks [3]. The other is an Egyptian, the above-mentioned and legendary jihadi theorist Dr. Fadl, who, from an Egyptian prison, is publishing—through the Egyptian security service’s good offices—180-degree retractions of pro-jihad works he once claimed were sanctioned by God.

Al-Awdah was once a firebrand Islamist who preached jihad, mentored bin Laden, and spent five years in prison for opposing the U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula and suggesting the al-Saud family is un-Islamic. Today, Shaykh al-Awdah is a member in good standing of the official Saudi religious establishment. He has his own website (, hosts a television program and he is allowed to travel overseas to condemn violence conducted in the name of religion. Dr. Fadl, while still in jail, has access to a fax machine and is getting special treatment. “His son says he has a private room with a bath and a small kitchen,” complete with a refrigerator, newspaper delivery and a television set (New Yorker, May 26). Interestingly, Dr. Fadl lived freely in Yemen from 1994 until 2001, but it was only after he found himself in prison in Egypt, at some point after 9/11, that he was seized by genuine remorse for his older jihadi writings and felt motivated by God to recant his earlier radical beliefs (New Yorker, May 26).

There is no doubt that the statements and arguments of Shaykh al-Awdah and Dr. Fadl are splashed around all media venues and carry some weight with Islamists; they have and will provoke debate, both polite and bitter in nature. But their words would carry much more weight among Islamists and average Muslims—and would pose a much greater threat to the future of al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement—if it was not so starkly clear that both men are fully under the not-always-gentle thumb of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, and that each has personally benefited from his willingness to recant former positions by publishing anti-Islamist statements and treatises both regimes want published and widely distributed. The statements by al-Awdah and Dr. Fadl certainly will not help al-Qaeda; indeed, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya-al-Libi have both publicly said that they could deepen the defeatism which is so deeply engrained among Arabs, and which al-Qaeda has been trying to overcome since it was founded in 1988 [4]. Still, the statements are unlikely to rapidly kill off support for bin Laden and his group in an Islamic world where most Muslims recognize that nine times out of 10, such drastic recantations from previously held positions are prompted by monetary payoffs, threats to family and friends, or severe physical abuse.

More importantly, the theological challenges launched by al-Awdah, Dr. Fadl and others change nothing in regard to the fundamental motivation of al-Qaeda and its allies—the impact of U.S. and Western policies in the Muslim world; the presence of U.S. and Western military forces in the Arab region; and U.S. and Western support for tyrannical Arab regimes. As long as this status quo lasts, al-Qaeda and its allies will continue fighting and their efforts will continue to win broad and probably increasing public support, or at least acquiescence. In the face of this reality, individuals like Shaykh al-Awdah and Dr. Fadl offer Muslims nothing but defeatism, a willingness to see the rule of Arab police states prolonged indefinitely and supine acceptance of what is viewed by much of the Muslim world as a mortally anti-Islamic “Crusader-Zionist” hegemony. The always vituperative British journalist and author Robert Fisk described this reality neatly in the June 1 issue of The Independent. Although putting too much emphasis—as he often does—on the Western-oppression-of-Muslims theme, Fisk otherwise presents a valid and commonsense view of why al-Qaeda is not on the ropes and will not be anytime soon. “So al-Qa’ida is ‘almost defeated’, is it?,” Fisk began:

“Major gains against al-Qa’ida. Essentially defeated. ‘On balance, we are doing pretty well,’ the CIA’s boss, Michael Hayden, tells the Washington Post. ‘Near strategic defeat for al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qa’ida globally – and here I’m going to use the word ideologically – as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.’ Well, you could have fooled me… Yes, we’ve bought ourselves some time in Iraq by paying half of the insurgents to fight for us and to murder their al-Qa’ida cousins. Yes, we are continuing to prop up Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping and torture-practicing regime – no problem there, I suppose, after our enthusiasm for ‘water-boarding’ – but this does not mean al-Qa’ida is defeated.

Because al-Qa’ida is a way of thinking, not an army. It feeds on pain and fear and cruelty – our cruelty and our oppression – and as long as we continue to dominate the Muslim world with our Apache helicopters and our tanks and our Humvees and our ‘friendly’ dictators, so will al-Qa’ida continue …” (The Independent, June 1).


1. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “The Unraveling: Al-Qaeda’s revolt against bin Laden,” New Republic, June 11, 2008, p. 17

2. Lawrence Wright, “The Rebellion Within: An al-Qaeda mastermind questions terrorism,” New Yorker (Internet version), May 26, 2008.

3. Shaykh Salman Bin-Fahd al-Awdah, “Letter to Usama Bin Ladin,”, September 17, 2007.

4. “The Open Meeting with Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, Part 1,” Al-Sahab Media, April 2, and Abu-Yaha al-Libi, “I am not a deceiver nor will I allow someone to deceive me,” Al-Sahab Media, March 10.