Ideological clash of two jihadi titans shakes Al Qaeda
A growing feud between Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, and Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, the jailed ex-leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, could weaken support for Al Qaeda.
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA
A bitter, year-long feud that has shaken Al Qaeda's ideological pillars grew even sharper last month. A former associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri accused him of working for Sudanese intelligence, wearing "women's garments" to flee Afghanistan, and spreading an incorrect Islamic theory of jihad.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Zawahiri "is only good at fleeing, inciting, collecting donations, and talking to the media," wrote Sayyed Imam al-Sharif in his latest attack on Al Qaeda's No. 2.
Sayyed Imam, serving a life sentence in Egypt, is an esteemed theoretician of jihad whose ideas helped shape Al Qaeda's ideology. But now he's decrying its stock in trade – mass murder – in a clash that is an example of how some once-fierce zealots of violent jihad are having second thoughts.
"It is really an argument about ... what means are militarily effective and Islamically legitimate," says William McCants, a Washington area-based analyst of militant Islamism. Imam, he adds, is saying that only "a guerrilla war conducted against enemy soldiers" is permitted.
Imam's prison writings were preceded by a series of books and commentaries from imprisoned members of Islamic Group, a group that waged a guerrilla war against the Egyptian government in the 1990s. Their so-called "revisions" renounced violence and some put forward ideas on how to peacefully create an Islamic society.
Terrorism experts disagree on the impact that Imam's scathing critiques of Zawahiri and Al Qaeda will have on the global jihadi movement, particularly since he writes from prison where he is believed subject to influence from Egyptian and US intelligence agencies.
But his writings have put Zawahiri on the defensive. And they come amid other pressures, including the disabling of several Al Qaeda-linked online forums – presumably by Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies – and an intensification of US military activity in Pakistan's tribal areas, where Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding.
"One shouldn't overestimate the impact of this [ideological feud] in the overall war on terror, but it is definitely going to divert some of Zawahiri's creative energy away from operations," says Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's international security program.