By Lawrence Wright
13 July 2008
Osama Bin Laden walks with Afghanis in the Jalalabad area in this 1989 photo. Photograph: EPA
In May 2007, a fax arrived at the London office of the Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat from a shadowy figure in the radical Islamist movement who went by many names. Born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, he was the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad, and known to those in the underground mainly as Dr Fadl. Members of al-Jihad became part of the original core of al-Qaeda; among them was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant. Fadl was one of the first members of al-Qaeda's top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; al-Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting al-Qaeda's violence. 'We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,' Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.
Fadl's fax confirmed rumours that imprisoned leaders of al-Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. 'There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,' Fadl wrote, claiming that hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.
Two months after Fadl's fax appeared, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a video on behalf of al-Qaeda. 'Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?' he asked. 'I wonder if they're connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.' This sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadl's manifesto - which was to be published serially, in newspapers in Egypt and Kuwait - among al-Qaeda insiders. Fadl's previous work, after all, had laid the intellectual foundation for al-Qaeda's murderous acts. On a recent trip to Cairo, I met Gamal Sultan, an Islamist writer and a publisher. He said of Fadl, 'Nobody can challenge the legitimacy of this person. His writings could have far-reaching effects not only in Egypt but on leaders outside it.' Usama Ayub, a former member of Egypt's Islamist community, who is now the director of the Islamic Centre in Munster, Germany, told me, 'A lot of people base their work on Fadl's writings, so he's very important. When Dr Fadl speaks, everyone should listen.'
Although the debate between Fadl and Zawahiri was esoteric and bitterly personal, its ramifications for the west were potentially enormous. Other Islamist organisations had gone through violent phases before deciding such actions led to a dead end. Was this happening to al-Jihad? Could it happen even to al-Qaeda?
A Theorist of Jihad
The roots of this ideological war within al-Qaeda go back 40 years, to 1968, when two precocious teenagers met at Cairo University's medical school. Zawahiri, a student there, was then 17, but he was already involved in clandestine Islamist activity. Although he was not a natural leader, he had an eye for ambitious, frustrated youths like him who believed that destiny was whispering in their ear.
So it was not surprising that he was drawn to a tall, solitary classmate named Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Admired for his brilliance and tenacity, Imam was expected to become either a great surgeon or a leading cleric. (The name al-Sharif denotes the family's descent from the Prophet Muhammad.) His father, a headmaster in Beni Suef, a town 75 miles south of Cairo, was conservative, and his son followed suit. He fasted twice a week and, each morning after dawn prayers, studied the Koran, which he had memorised by the time he was 11. When he was 15, the Egyptian government enrolled him in a boarding school for exceptional students, in Cairo. Three years later, he entered medical school, and began preparing for a career as a plastic surgeon, specialising in burn injuries.
Both Zawahiri and Imam were pious and high-minded, proud and rigid in their views. They tended to look at matters of the spirit in the same way they regarded the laws of nature - as a series of immutable rules, handed down by God. This mindset was typical of the engineers and technocrats who disproportionately made up the extremist branch of Salafism, a school of thought intent on returning Islam to the idealised early days of the religion.
Imam learned that Zawahiri belonged to a subterranean world. 'I knew from another student that Ayman was part of an Islamic group,' he later told a reporter for al-Hayat, an Arabic newspaper. The group came to be called al-Jihad. Its discussions centred on the idea that real Islam no longer existed, because Egypt's rulers had turned away from Sharia law, and were steering believers away from salvation and towards secular modernity. The young members of al-Jihad decided they had to act.
In doing so, these men were placing their lives, and perhaps their families, in jeopardy. Egypt's military government, then led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, had a vast network of informers and secret police. The prisons were brimming with Islamist detainees, locked away in dungeons where torture was routine. Despite this repressive atmosphere, an increasing number of Egyptians, disillusioned with Nasser's socialist, secular government, were turning to the mosque for political answers. In 1967, Nasser led Egypt and its Arab allies into a disastrous confrontation with Israel, which crushed the Egyptian Air Force in an afternoon. The Sinai Peninsula soon passed to Israeli control. The Arab world was traumatised, and that deepened the appeal of radical Islamists, who argued that Muslims had fallen out of God's favour, and that only by returning to the religion as it was originally practised could Islam regain its supremacy in the world.
In 1977, Zawahiri asked Sayyid Imam to join his group, presenting himself as a mere delegate of the organisation. Imam told al-Hayat his agreement was conditional upon meeting the Islamic scholars who Zawahiri insisted were in the group; clerical authority was essential to validate the drastic deeds these men were contemplating. The meeting never happened. 'Ayman was a charlatan who used secrecy as a pretext,' Imam said. 'I discovered Ayman himself was the emir of this group, and it didn't have any sheikhs.'
In 1981, soldiers affiliated with al-Jihad assassinated the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat - who had signed a peace treaty with Israel two years earlier - but the militants failed to seize power. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, rounded up thousands of Islamists, including Zawahiri, who was charged with smuggling weapons. Before he was arrested, Zawahiri went to Imam's house and urged him to flee, according to Zawahiri's uncle Mahfouz Azzam. Imam's son Ismail al-Sharif, who now lives in Yemen, says that this never happened. In fact, he claims, Zawahiri later put Imam in danger by giving his name to interrogators.
During the next three years, these two men, who had once been so profoundly alike, began to diverge. Zawahiri, who had given up the names of other al-Jihad members as well, was humiliated by this betrayal. Prison hardened him; torture sharpened his appetite for revenge. He abandoned the ideological purity of his youth. Imam, by contrast, had not been forced to face the limits of his belief. He had slipped out of Egypt and made his way to Peshawar in Pakistan, where the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was based. Imam left his real identity behind and became Dr Fadl. It was common for those who joined the jihad to take a nom de guerre. He adopted the persona of the revolutionary intellectual, in the tradition of Trotsky and Che Guevara. Instead of engaging in combat, Fadl worked as a surgeon for the injured fighters and became a spiritual guide to the jihad.
Zawahiri finished his sentence in 1984, and also fled Egypt. He was soon reunited in Peshawar with Fadl, who had become the director of a Red Crescent hospital there. Their relationship had turned edgy and competitive, and, besides, Fadl held a low opinion of Zawahiri's abilities as a surgeon. 'He asked me to stand with him and teach him how to perform operations,' Fadl told al-Hayat . 'I taught him until he could perform them on his own. Were it not for that, he would have been exposed, as he had contracted for a job for which he was unqualified.'
In the mid-Eighties, Fadl became al-Jihad's emir, or chief. (Fadl told al-Hayat this was untrue, saying his role was merely one of offering 'Sharia guidance'.) Zawahiri, whose reputation had been stained by his prison confessions, was left to handle tactical operations. He had to defer to Fadl's superior learning in Islamic jurisprudence. The Jihadis who came to Peshawar revered Fadl for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Koran and the Hadith - the sayings of the Prophet. Usama Ayub, who was in Peshawar at the time, remembered, 'He would say, "Get this book, volume so-and-so," and he would quote it perfectly - without the book in his hand!'
Kamal Helbawy, a former spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist group, was also in Peshawar, and remembers Fadl as a 'haughty, dominating presence' who frequently lambasted Muslims who didn't believe in the same doctrines. A former member of al-Qaeda says of Fadl, 'He used to lecture for four or five hours at a time. He would say that anything the government does have to come from God, and if that's not the case then people should be allowed to topple the ruler by any means necessary.' Fadl remained so much in the background, however, that some newer members of al-Jihad thought Zawahiri was actually their emir. Fadl is 'not a social man - he's very isolated,' according to Hani al-Sibai, an Islamist attorney who knew both men. 'Ayman was the one in front, but the real leader was Dr Fadl.'
Fadl resented the attention Zawahiri received. And yet he let Zawahiri take the public role and voice ideas and doctrines that came from his own mind, not Zawahiri's. This dynamic eventually became the source of an acrimonious dispute between the two men.
In Peshawar, Fadl devoted himself to formalising the rules of holy war. The Jihadis needed a text that would school them in the proper way to fight battles whose real objective was not victory over the Soviets but martyrdom and eternal salvation. The Essential Guide for Preparation appeared in 1988, as the Afghan jihad was winding down. It quickly became one of the most important texts in the Jihadis' training.
The guide begins with the premise that jihad is the natural state of Islam. Muslims must always be in conflict with non-believers, Fadl asserts, resorting to peace only in moments of abject weakness. Because jihad is, above all, a religious exercise, there are divine rewards to be gained. He who gives money for jihad will be compensated in heaven, but not as much as the person who acts. The greatest prize goes to the martyr. Every able-bodied believer is obligated to engage in jihad, since most Muslim countries are ruled by infidels who must be forcibly removed, in order to bring about an Islamic state. 'The way to bring an end to the rulers' unbelief is armed rebellion,' the guide states. Some Arab governments regarded the book as so dangerous that anyone caught with a copy was subject to arrest.
On 11 August 1988, Dr Fadl attended a meeting in Peshawar with several senior leaders of al-Jihad, along with Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who oversaw the recruitment of Arabs to the cause. They were joined by a protege of Azzam's, a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The Soviets had already announced their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the prospect of victory awakened many old dreams among these men. They were not the same dreams, however. The leaders of al-Jihad, especially Zawahiri, wanted to use their well-trained warriors to overthrow the Egyptian government. Azzam longed to turn the attention of the Arab Mujahideen to Palestine. Neither had the money or the resources to pursue such goals. Bin Laden, on the other hand, was rich, and he had his own vision: to create an all-Arab foreign legion that would pursue the retreating Soviets into Central Asia and also fight against the Marxist government that was then in control of South Yemen. According to Montasser al-Zayyat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo who is Zawahiri's biographer, Fadl proposed supporting bin Laden with members of al-Jihad. Combining the Saudi's money with the Egyptians' expertise, the men who met that day formed a new group, called al-Qaeda. Fadl was part of its inner circle. 'For years after the launching of al-Qaeda, they would do nothing without consulting me,' he boasted to al-Hayat
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in 1989, Zawahiri and most members of al-Jihad relocated to Sudan, where bin Laden, who had fled Saudi Arabia after falling out with the royal family, had set up operations. Zawahiri urged Fadl and his family to join them there. Fadl, who was completing what he considered his masterwork, The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, agreed to go. 'Zawahiri picked us up from the Khartoum airport and took us to our flat,' Fadl's son Ismail al-Sharif told me. 'Zawahiri said, "You don't need to work, we will pay your salary. We just want you to finish your book."'
From Sudan, members of al-Jihad watched enviously as a much larger organisation, the Islamic Group waged open warfare on the Egyptian state. Both groups wished for the overthrow of the secular government and the institution of a theocracy, but they differed in their methods. Al-Jihad was organised as a network of clandestine cells, centred in Cairo; Zawahiri's plan was to take over the country by means of a military coup. One of the founders of the Islamic Group was Karam Zuhdy, a former student of agricultural management at Assiut University in Egypt. The group was a broad, above-ground movement that was determined to launch a social revolution. Members undertook to enforce Islamic values by 'compelling good and driving out evil'. They ransacked video stores, music recitals, cinemas, and liquor stores. They demanded that women dress in hijab, and rampaged against Egypt's Coptic minority, bombing its churches. They attacked a regional headquarters of the state security service, beheading the commander and killing a large number of policemen. Blood on the ground became the measure of the Islamic Group's success, and it was all the more thrilling because the murder was done in the name of God.
In 1981, Zuhdy had been caught in the Egyptian government's round-up of Islamists after the Sadat assassination, and for three years he lived in the same prison wing as Zawahiri, in the enormous Tora Prison complex. They respected each other but were not friends. 'Dr Ayman was polite and well-mannered,' Zuhdy recalls. 'He was not a military man - he was a doctor. You couldn't tell that he would be the Ayman al-Zawahiri of today.' Zuhdy remained in prison for two decades after Zawahiri finished serving his three-year sentence.
In 1990, the spokesman for the Islamic Group was shot dead in the street in Cairo. There was little doubt that the government was behind the killing, and soon afterward the Islamic Group announced its intention to respond with a terror campaign. Dozens of police officers were murdered. Intellectuals were also on its hit list, including Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who was stabbed in the neck (he survived). Next, the Islamic Group targeted the tourist industry, declaring it corrupted Egyptian society by bringing 'alien customs and morals which offend Islam'. Members of the group attacked tourists with homemade bombs on buses and trains, and fired on cruise ships that plied the Nile. The economy slumped. During the Nineties, more than 1,200 people were killed in terror attacks in Egypt.
The exiled members of al-Jihad decided they needed to enter the fray. Fadl disagreed; despite his advocacy of endless warfare against unjust rulers, he contended the Egyptian government was too powerful and the insurgency would fail. He also complained al-Jihad was undertaking operations only to emulate the Islamic Group. 'This is senseless activity that will bring no benefit,' he warned. His point was quickly proved when the Egyptian security services captured a computer containing the names of Zawahiri's followers, almost 1,000 of whom were arrested. In retaliation, Zawahiri authorised a suicide bombing that targeted Hasan al-Alfi, the interior minister, in August 1993. Alfi suffered a broken arm. Two months later, al-Jihad attempted to kill Egypt's Prime Minister, Atef Sidqi, in a bombing. The prime minister was not hurt, but the explosion killed a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
Embarrassed by these failures, members of al-Jihad demanded their leader resign. Many were surprised to discover the emir was Fadl. He willingly gave up the post, and Zawahiri soon became the undisputed leader of al-Jihad.
In 1994, Fadl moved to Yemen, where he resumed his medical practice and tried to put the work of jihad behind him. Before he left, however, he gave a copy of his finished manuscript to Zawahiri, saying it could be used to raise money. Few books in recent history have done as much damage.
Fadl wrote the book under yet another pseudonym, Abdul Qader bin Abdul Aziz, in part because the name was not Egyptian and would further mask his identity. But his continual use of aliases allowed him to adopt positions that were somewhat in conflict with his stated personal views. Given Fadl's critique of al-Jihad's violent operations as 'senseless', the intransigent and bloodthirsty document he gave to Zawahiri must have come as a surprise.
The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge, which is more than 1,000 pages long, starts with the assertion that salvation is available only to the perfect Muslim. Even an exemplary believer can wander off the path to paradise with a single misstep. Fadl contends that the rulers of Egypt and other Arab countries are apostates of Islam. 'The infidel's rule, his prayers, and the prayers of those who pray behind him are invalid,' Fadl decrees. 'His blood is legal.' He declares that Muslims have a duty to wage jihad against such leaders; those who submit to an infidel ruler are themselves infidels, and doomed to damnation. The same punishment awaits those who participate in democratic elections. 'I say to Muslims in all candour that secular, nationalist democracy opposes your religion and your doctrine, and in submitting to it you leave God's book behind,' he writes. Those who labour in government, the police and the courts are infidels, as is anyone who works for peaceful change; religious war, not political reform, is the sole mandate. Even devout believers walk a tightrope over the abyss. 'A man may enter the faith in many ways, yet be expelled from it by just one deed,' Fadl cautions. Anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic and deserves to be slaughtered.
Fadl also expands upon the heresy of Takfir - the excommunication of one Muslim by another. To deny the faith of a believer - without persuasive evidence - is a grievous injustice. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked, 'When a man calls his brother an infidel, we can be sure that one of them is indeed an infidel.' Fadl defines Islam so narrowly, however, that nearly everyone falls outside the sacred boundaries. Muslims who follow his thinking believe they have a divine right to kill anyone who disagrees with their straitened view of what constitutes a Muslim. The Compendium gave al-Qaeda and its allies a warrant to murder all who stood in their way. Zawahiri was ecstatic. According to Fadl, Zawahiri told him, 'This book is a victory from Almighty God.' And yet, even for Zawahiri, the book went too far.
When Fadl moved to Yemen, he considered his work in revolutionary Islam to be complete. His son Ismail al-Sharif told al-Jarida , a Kuwaiti newspaper, that Fadl cut off all contact with bin Laden, complaining, 'He doesn't listen to the advice of others, he listens only to himself.' Fadl took his family to the mountain town of Ibb. He had two wives, with four sons and two daughters between them. He called himself Dr Abdul Aziz al-Sharif. On holidays, the family took walks around the town. Otherwise, he spent his spare time reading. 'He didn't care to watch television, except for the news,' Ismail al-Sharif told me. 'He didn't like to make friends, because he was a fugitive. He thinks having too many relations is a waste of time.'
While awaiting a work permit from Yemen's government, Fadl volunteered his services at a local hospital. His skills quickly became evident. 'People were coming from all over the country,' his son told me. The fact that Fadl was working without pay in such a primitive facility - rather than opening a practice in a gleaming modern clinic in Kuwait or Europe - drew unwelcome attention. He had the profile of a man with something to hide.
While in Ibb, Fadl learned his book had been bowdlerised. His original manuscript contained a barbed critique of the jihadi movement, naming specific organisations and individuals whose actions he disdained. He scolded the Islamic Group in particular, at a time when Zawahiri was attempting to engineer a merger with it. Those sections of the book had been removed. Other parts were significantly altered. Even the title had been changed, to Guide to the Path of Righteousness for Jihad and Belief . The thought that a less qualified writer had taken → ← liberties with his masterpiece sent him into a fury. He soon discovered the perpetrator.
A member of Al-Jihad had come to Yemen for a job. 'He informed me that Zawahiri alone was the one who committed these perversions,' Fadl said. In 1995, Zawahiri travelled to Yemen and appealed to Fadl for forgiveness. By this time, Zawahiri had suspended his operations in Egypt, and his organisation was floundering. Now his former emir refused to see him. 'I do not know anyone in the history of Islam prior to Ayman al-Zawahiri who engaged in such lying, cheating, forgery and betrayal of trust by transgressing against someone else's book,' the inflamed author told al-Hayat . Zawahiri and Fadl have not spoken since, but their war of words was only beginning.