Jihadi dispute points to deeper radicalism among youths

A leading jihadi theologian – and adviser to the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq – is under fire for ‘moderating’ his views.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    RADICALS: Jihadis were split over the violent tactics of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose death in 2006 made headlines worldwide (here, in Pakistan). Many jihadi youths turned against Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, for criticizing some of Zarqawi’s methods such as indiscriminate suicide bombs.
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In yet another fissure within radical Islamist networks, one of the world's most influential jihadi theologians is coming under fire from some former followers for allegedly moderating his views – a claim he denies.

The attacks on Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who was spiritual adviser for the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, are significant because of Mr. Maqdisi's longtime stature as a revered spiritual mentor who legitimizes violence with his religious interpretations of Islamic sacred texts.

For some outside experts, the bitter verbal dispute in jihadi online forums is alarming because it heralds the emergence of an even more radicalized younger generation of violent extremists.

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"There's a new radical generation growing today" and it "is a product of the American occupation of Iraq," says Murad Batal al-Shishani, a London-based analyst of Islamic groups.

This generation, which Mr. Shishani calls "neo-Zarqawists," includes veterans of Mr. Zarqawi's jihad in Iraq. Inspired by Maqdisi, the analyst adds, they now are "coming and saying that he is too soft."

Other analysts regard the back-and-forth between Maqdisi and his critics as an indication of disarray in a jihadi movement that is past its prime.

"Maqdisi is often forgotten by the Western media, but he's actually very important," says Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's international security program and moderator of jihadica.com, a blog that monitors jihadi Internet activity.

The attacks on his credibility come on top of other disputes that have already caused "fragmentation" within the jihadi community, Mr. Hegghammer says, adding: "I think we're seeing some kind of decline. We're past the peak.... We're at just the beginning of the decline."

The two assessments reflect a complex trend that analysts have been seeing for some time: Even as Al Qaeda has become a spent organizational force, and the wider Salafi-jihadi community has been weakened by a loss of public support and by internal disputes – in large part because of the violent excesses of Zarqawi in Iraq that killed so many Muslims – a new danger has emerged in smaller, independent, and more radical groups that are inspired by jihadi ideology and devoted to violence.

Zarqawi's "dream of a Salafi-Jihadist movement ... is coming to fruition with a new generation of militant youth," wrote Shishani in The Jamestown Foundation's "Terrorism Focus." And "though they are, in many cases, poorly trained and without direct contacts to al-Qaeda, this younger generation appears to be even more radical than their Jordanian predecessors." Another noteworthy development, this time in Egypt, was reported by Steven Brooke in this month's CTC Sentinel, published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.

Mr. Brooke, a Washington-based analyst, noted that while an organized jihadist movement "remains a remote possibility" for now, "a non-violent but especially stern ... brand of Salafist Islam has elbowed its way into Egypt's religious landscape."

This strain of Islam rejects political engagement, which puts it in opposition to the country's largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Egypt's authoritarian government welcomes this avoidance of politics, the Salafist strain is potentially problematic because of its tendency to see other Muslims and non-Muslims as inferior, a stance that disposes some to adopt violent tactics.

"While this trend is non-violent," writes Brooke, "their rigid conception of belief, occasionally antagonistic posture toward religious minorities, and tendency to withdrawal from society" have led some observers to warn of increased "social violence."

Brooke says that many analysts had put Egyptian society's increasing conservatism in recent years "at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood. But I think there are deeper dynamics going on.... And as America tries to figure out this Islamist dilemma, I think it's important to understand that there is a spectrum there."

Maqdisi inspired jihadis worldwide

But it is the Maqdisi dispute that has caught the most attention from experts following jihadi politics.

According to the Militant Ideology Atlas, a study of jihadi writings put out in 2006 by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, Maqdisi's writings inspired jihadis all over the world. He was respected not only for his intellect and learning, but also because he had spent time in prison. Released in March 2008, he is currently under house arrest in the Jordanian town of Zarqa.

Born in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Maqdisi grew up in Kuwait and studied in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He came to Jordan in 1992, where his preaching soon gained him many followers and where he became friends with Zarqawi, a Jordanian who emerged a decade later as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and nemesis of American forces.

In 2005, a year before Zarqawi was killed by US troops, Maqdisi wrote him a "letter of advice," criticizing his indiscriminate use of suicide bombs and attacks on Shiites and Christian civilians. He also stressed that Iraqis should lead their own battle against the Americans. Zarqawi shot back that Maqdisi's criticisms had sabotaged jihad in Iraq.

This clash was the beginning of disillusionment with Maqdisi among some of his followers who preferred Zarqawi's approach. Late last year, attacks on Maqdisi became stronger and more public.

Softening on apostates?

In October, Maqdisi and other prominent clerics in the jihadi movement who support him published an open letter warning followers to steer clear of a new group so radical that it considers all government employees, including mosque prayer leaders, apostates from Islam.

Shishani wrote that the letter was a response to criticism of Maqdisi from the new group "for what they call his 'softened' position against the Jordanian government since his release from prison on medical grounds last March."

According to jihadica.com, some of the most virulent attacks on Maqdisi have appeared on the jihadi web forum Madad Al Suyuf, where he was criticized for "ambivalence" on the issue of declaring other Muslims apostates.

Critics also charged that he was "revising" his radical views like another leading jihadi theorist, Sayyid Imam Al Sharif of Egypt, who has publicly denounced Al Qaeda's terrorist tactics.

It cannot be ruled out, Hegghammer says, that the attacks on Maqdisi are part of an intelligence agency's psychological warfare. If successful, they "would add an element of uncertainty for prospective recruits," who could no longer look to Maqdisi to "legitimize violence with reference to theology," he adds.

Maqdisi denies changing his views, and some longtime observers agree. "He has always stressed that suicide bombings are legitimate but has never called for their unlimited and indiscriminate use," Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, an expert on Maqdisi's writings, writes in an e-mail.

He also always advocated limiting the apostate label only to "rulers of the Muslim world," Mr. Wagemakers noted.

Fighters vs. scholars

Maqdisi probably "feels like someone whose ideas are being misinterpreted by all kinds of people who never fully understood them in the first place," writes Wagemakers. "You have to remember that many of al-Maqdisi's students are not very highly-educated and probably fail to understand the depth of his writings."

The Maqdisi dispute illustrates the "growing trend" that "the only people who can say anything sensible and useful about jihad are those actually taking part in it," Wagemakers adds. "Since they are the ones actually doing the fighting so why should they listen to others?

"The scholars, however, want jihad to remain true to its principles and reject certain practices among jihadis. This debate is related to questions such as 'Who is a true jihadi?' ... and 'Is everything allowed for the cause?'" he continues.

"These are interesting questions because they show that a new, mostly younger and less educated generation of jihadis is trying to wrest the initiative away from their elders and consider almost anything allowed if they believe it serves the cause. The damage they do to the image of Islam, however, is tremendous," he writes.

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