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Ideological and Theological Divisions Harm al Qaeda, Experts Say

By Matthew Harwood

Critical ferment within the larger jihadist community is tarnishing al Qaeda's reputation and damaging its credibility among Muslims, two experts on the terrorist organization told a House Homeland Security subcommittee this morning.

Al Qaeda, the international jihadist terrorist organization that attacked the U.S. on 9-11, has angered its compatriots within the radical Islamist community by adopting the doctrine of takfir, which means it reserves the right to decide who is and who is not a true Muslim.

"Al Qaeda's Muslim critics know what results from this takfir view: First, the radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing them," testified Peter Bergen, an expert on al Qaeda and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

He said Muslims understand the consequences of takfir; which led to widespread death and destruction in Algeria and Egypt throughout the 1990s, as well as the slaughter of 10,000 Iraqis for nothing more than being Shia.

Such indiscriminate bloodletting, said Lawrence Wright, a journalist for the New Yorker and fellow at the Center for Law and Security, has led to a "popular philosophical backlash" against al Qaeda.

Adding credibility to the critique are radical Islamic scholars. Last year, Saudi religious scholar, Sheikh Salman Al Oudah, a hero of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, asked rhetorically on a popular Middle Eastern television show, "My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed ... in the name of al Qaeda?"

In another episode, chronicled in a long New Yorker article by Wright, al Qaeda's chief theorist has broken with the terrorist organization he helped found and has called al Qaeda's tactics counter to Islam. Sayyid Imam al-Sherif, known in jihadist circles as Dr. Fadl, currently resides in an Egyptian prison cell. Whether due to torture or a personal break with Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, or both, Dr. Fadl has renounced his former takfiri writings and now argues that the indiscriminate bombing violates Islam because it kills innocents, including Jews and Christians. He also says Muslims do not have the legitimacy or authority to condemn other Muslims as apostates. This matter, Dr. Fadl argues, should be left to Islamic jurists.

"This would be a sweeping critique by an al Qaeda insider under any circumstances," said Wright, "but it is all the more devastating because it is written by the organization's chief theorist and supported by his unquestioned scholarship."

In response to Fadl's critique and his organization's plummeting popularity in the Islamic world, Zawahiri released a video answering questions submitted to him online by Muslims around the world. Many of the questions were critical in nature, asking Zawahiri why al Qaeda engages in mass murder, which in most instances, kills other Muslims.

Bergen said Muslims have realized al Qaeda offers an incomplete vision of the future: "We know what they're against, we don't know what they're for."

While al Qaeda's credibility has been gashed, that doesn't mean it is no longer dangerous. The organization is anywhere from 200 to 500 strong, according to various intelligence reports, and is ensconced in its safe haven in the Pakistan tribal lands. It has also produced a record number of suicide attacks in Pakistan this year.

Wright argues that the next two months provide a lot of symbolic dates, which al Qaeda would love to take advantage of with a spectacular attack. On August 8, the Summer Olympics in Beijing begin. On August 11, al Qaeda will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Finally, there is the 7th anniversary of 9-11.

"If al Qaeda is unable to strike during this period, it will reflect on its ability to remain operational," he said.

Bergen also noted the long-term prognosis for al Qaeda is poor. "Encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups like al Qaeda are the seeds of their own destruction: Their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don't offer a positive vision of the future; they keep expanding their list of enemies ... ; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics," he said.

Both experts gave prescriptions for American policy to lessen the threat of jihadist terrorism and win back Muslim moderates.

One recommendation, specific to Wright, was to open a dialogue with moderate Muslims internationally. He said the United States has made a mistake by keeping moderate Muslims, like Tariq Ramadan, out of the country, which allows for cross-moderation between cultures.

The U.S. must once again be seen as "a model of change," Wright said. He said a great example of American modeling is what's currently occurring in the run up to November's elections, a demonstration of American domestic democratic vitality.
Both Wright and Bergen recommended that U.S. intelligence hire more language specialists and country experts. Bergen said funding at the Defense Language Institute should be increased so 5,000 students annually receive language training in valuable languages used by jihadists, including Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu, Bengali, Indonesian,  Urdu, and Punjabi.

The intelligence must also hire more Arab and Muslim American intelligence agents. Wright says the intelligence community still considers such people security risks. Other potential intelligence agents are denied employment because they lived in foreign countries, according to Bergen.

Monitoring the sale of industrial strength hydrogen peroxide should also be of particular concern to the U.S. government. Bergen said the chemical had been the weapon of choice for the 7/7 bombers that attacked London's transportation system as well as unsuccessful terrorist plots in 2006 and 2007 to blow up American airliners over the Atlantic out of London and attack a U.S. base in Germany.

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