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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.

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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.

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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, 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.