-Taken from 'The National' (extended version)
- Cairo - March 2009
As news of last Sunday’s deadly bomb blast in Cairo filtered down through local TV networks, one of the city’s 16 million residents had more reason than most to sit up and take notice. Over a year since he unleashed a stunning attack on the global jihadist leaders who once counted him amongst their number, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif – locked away in a prison cell just south of the Egyptian capital – was about to be propelled back into the limelight. In a week where the spectre of Islamic extremism returned to haunt Egypt, Imam’s status as the country’s most divisive former militant has thrust him once again into the heart of public debate.
Imam – better known by the nom de guerre ‘Dr Fadl’ – is not the first jihadist to turn on his former comrades, but he is one of the more colourful. Previously head of Islamic Jihad (EIJ), one of Egypt’s most notorious terror groups, Imam is also the author of two theoretical books on the concept of jihad which have been used by Al Qaeda’s top brass to justify violent tactics. “Imam is the ideological reference point for Islamic jihadists,” says Kamal Habib, one of the founding members of EIJ and now an expert on Islamist movements. “His words carry a lot of weight and his influence extends well beyond Egypt.” In the early 1990s Imam was a close associate of Ayman Zawahiri, now Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, and as late as 2001 he still maintained that terrorising the United States was a Muslim’s “duty”. As Nathan Field, a journalist who specialises in Islamic movements, observes, Imam is “a man with impeccable jihadist credentials”.
Imam’s revered place amongst the ideological titans of the jihadist movement in the 1980s and 1990s ensured that his surprise verbal assault on Al Qaeda in 2007 made headlines worldwide. Penned from Tora Prison, Imam’s home since 2004, Imam’s Revisions text subjected every aspect of Al Qaeda’s organisation and policy to withering criticism and pounded figures such as Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden with a series of personal insults. In it he argued that most forms of terrorism are illegal under Islamic Law and slammed those promoting violent jihad in the modern age. “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth whilst living ... in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country,” implored Imam in one passage. “They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.”
Although analysts were divided over the impact of Imam’s remarkable about-face on the subject of jihad, Zawahiri himself was sufficiently riled by Imam’s attacks to launch a 200-page riposte four months later. This in itself caused a stir; according to Diaa Rashwan, an analyst for the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it marked the first time the Al Qaeda leadership had responded in such a public way to internal dissent. Several commentators even went as far as to predict an imminent implosion within the global jihadist community. According to Habib, the rhetorical tussling between Imam and Zawahiri, “was not an event only for Egypt, it was something that all Islamists and men of thought in the Arab and Muslim world had an interest in. Naturally it had great authority, and I think most members in the major terror networks were influenced by it.”
Amidst all the excitement over the Revisions, however, there were quiet voices of scepticism. Some offered a negative appraisal of Imam’s actual writings, most of which criticised violent jihad in tactical terms but not on principle. According to Field: “The Revisions simply represent a more conservative interpretation of what constitutes legitimate jihadist tactics: progress, to be sure, but hardly a radical turn.” Others took issue with the credibility of Imam himself, pointing out that he had much to gain by writing a text which would appease his jailers. And those voices rose in volume when Imam produced his long-awaited reply to Zawahiri last November, a hate-filled and intensely personal diatribe which laid the responsibility for “every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq” at the door of the Al Qaeda leadership. Far from being the serious work of Islamic scholarship that critics of violent jihad had been hoping for, Imam’s latest set of writings (known as The Exposure) was seen as a sloppy re-hashing of his previous text. Habib dismissed it as “embarrassing” for Imam, adding “I don’t think he realises what this does for his image.”
Of more concern than Imam’s image was the fear that his new work might delegitimize a campaign already long underway in Egypt aimed at getting former jihadists to renounce terror. That process of ‘revising’ jihadist views has seen another of the country’s largest terrorist networks, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, formally reject violent jihad in 2003 and led to the release of more than 1,000 of its members from Egyptian jails. According to Montazer al-Zayat, a lawyer who has worked as a middleman between jihadist groups and the Egyptian government, one of the aims of the process was to provide genuine and intellectual alternative sources for potential militants to turn to when trying to explore the question of whether violent jihad can be justified. As the author of works which originally provided the ideological basis for violent jihad, Imam appeared to be in an ideal position to provide such new sources; instead, however, The Exposure was viewed by many to be a disgrace, one which al-Zayat believes had “tainted” the entire ‘Revisions’ operation.
It was in this context that Imam’s name began cropping up in the aftermath of this week’s explosions in Cairo’s Midan Husayn, which is flanked by the bustling Khan el-Khalili tourist bazaar. The attack left a French teenager dead and injured 24 others, and was the first time foreigners had been successfully targeted in Egypt in almost three years. Unsurprisingly it prompted domestic soul searching over whether the ‘Revisions’ process has floundered. Most commentators interpreted the amateur nature of the bombing as evidence that the dismantling of Egypt’s major terrorist networks had succeeded, as it appeared to have been planned by individuals with little organisational support. But the role Imam has played in this process remains contentious.
“The Husayn bomb was a small, individual incident, which just shows how much the mainstream Islamist movement has been influenced both by Imam’s Revisions and the steps taken by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya,” says Habib. “Nobody should imagine that violence will ever cease to exist completely, but what’s left in Egypt only comes from isolated sources and the Revisions have played a part in this development.” Others, however, think the bombing indicates the limited nature of Imam’s appeal within the jihadist movement. “We must not exaggerate the impact of Imam on the new generation of young jihadists,” argues Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “His message is targeted at those who believe in the path of violence, namely the Salafi jihadists, but the kind of people who carried out the Husayn attack are clearly still taking his earlier works to heart, not his ideas expressed in the Revisions.”
As Khan el-Khalili’s traders return back to work and Midan Husayn once again fills up with tourists, the one point of consensus amongst those following the saga of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif is that the Revisions on their own are not enough to stem the tide of violence. “Today Imam has very little credibility, importance or influence,” declared Abu el-Ela, who formed the breakaway party ‘Al Wasat’ out of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. His point is echoed by al-Anani, who believes that government repression of moderate Islamist movements is forming a vacuum which is being filled by a new generation of jihadists for whom Imam has little relevance. “I think the bombers were Egyptian Salafists and there have been warnings about the Salafists before,” says al-Anani. “Not all of them are extremists and some could be persuaded away from violence. Yet at the same time we have the government attacking the moderates; if it wants to fight the Salafist line of thinking it has to allow those moderates some legitimate space. They are not going to be able to fight terrorism without it.”