Fri, 20 Feb 2009
updated Thu, 26 Feb 2009

In 2007, I conjured up the notion of a strategist who directs Islamist movements and mused on what his thinking might be:

Imagine that an Islamist central command exists — and that you are its chief strategist, with a mandate to spread full application of Shariah, or Islamic law, through all means available, with the ultimate goal of a worldwide caliphate. What advice would you offer your comrades … ? Probably, you would review the past six decades of Islamist efforts and conclude that you have three main options: overthrowing the government, working through the system, or a combination of the two.

I then concluded that a clever strategist would conclude that “overthrowing the government rarely leads to victory. In contrast, recent events show that working through the system offers better odds … But working within the system, these cases also suggest, has its limitations. Best is a combination of softening up the enemy through lawful means, then seizing power.”

This imaginary position of Chief Islamist Strategist does not exist, but Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, an Egyptian who goes by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl, comes as close to filling the bill as anyone. And, interestingly, he has drawn roughly the conclusion I sketched out for him, reports David Blair in the Daily Telegraph.

Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, an Egyptian who goes by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl.

he has launched a frontal attack on al-Qaeda’s ideology and the personal failings of bin Laden and particularly his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Twenty years ago, Dr Fadl became al-Qaeda’s intellectual figurehead with a crucial book setting out the rationale for global jihad against the West. Today, however, he believes the murder of innocent people is both contrary to Islam and a strategic error. “Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers,” writes Dr Fadl.

The terrorist attacks on September 11 were both immoral and counterproductive, he writes. “Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy’s buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?” asks Dr Fadl. “That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11.”

He is equally unsparing about Muslims who move to the West and then take up terrorism. “If they gave you permission to enter their homes and live with them, and if they gave you security for yourself and your money, and if they gave you the opportunity to work or study, or they granted you political asylum,” writes Dr Fadl, then it is “not honourable” to “betray them, through killing and destruction”.

Blair concludes: “Terrorist movements across the world have a history of alienating their popular support by waging campaigns of indiscriminate murder. This process of disintegration often begins with a senior leader publicly denouncing his old colleagues. Dr Fadl’s missives may show that al-Qaeda has entered this vital stage.” (February 20, 2009)

Feb. 23, 2009 update: MEMRI published today a 9,000-word summary of the Sharif book, At-Ta’riya li-kitab at-tabri’a (“Exposing the Exoneration”) by Daniel Lav. Lav notes that the founding figures of the jihadist movement today fall into three camps. 1) Al-Qaeda and its unconditional supporters; 2) jihadist scholars who are supportive of the global jihad, but critical of specific tactics and practices (e.g. Al-Maqdisi and Al-Tartusi); and 3) those who support jihad in theory, but are highly critical of Al-Qaeda and believe that most jihad operations should be stopped at present due to various contingencies (e.g. Sayyid Imam [al-Sharif, or Dr. Fadl]).