A succession of leading Muslim radicals has condemned the terror group’s tactics as its support in Islamic countries falls off dramatically. Is Britain following the pattern?
Read the original article in The New Republic here
During Friday prayers this weekend, Dr Usama Hasan stood at the pulpit of his Tawhid mosque in Leyton, east London, and delivered a sermon on the sinfulness of alcohol and drugs.
It was quite a sedate affair compared with some of the sermons the 36-year-old imam has given. He often uses his platform to rally his congregation against terrorism, condemning Osama Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri as unIslamic criminals.
This has earned Hasan death threats from some worshippers, while others have called him a “sell-out” and a “government stooge”.
Undeterred, Hasan has vowed to continue his fight against extremists. “It’s a hard struggle,” he said last week. “I’ve had people storm out in protest, but I’ve been involved in this mosque for 20 years so the vast majority of people still respect me.”
There is another reason why many of the young worshippers respect him: Hasan was himself once a jihadi. This has, he says, given him “street cred”.
In 1990, while an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he fell in with an extremist group which led him and three others to travel to Pakistan and then into Afghanistan.
There, Hasan says, he learnt how to use Kalashnikovs, M16s and hand grenades. He returned from his training after about two weeks and throughout the 1990s remained an admirer of Bin Laden.
After the 9/11 attacks on America, and especially since the 7/7 bombings in London, Hasan began to question Al-Qaeda. He was particularly horrified that a Tube train on the Piccadilly line was blown up. “To me the Piccadilly line was home, because my house in north London was near one of its stops,” he said. “I just could not understand why anyone would attack London.
“I realised that Muslims had to speak out against the extremists. We had to teach that jihad is a just war, but groups like Al-Qaeda have perverted it.”
His journey is a reflection of one which is being taken by a number of leading figures in the extremist milieu. An article published recently in The New Republic, the American journal, by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank – both respected experts on terrorism – outlined a radical change in thinking on Al-Qaeda’s strategy among some of the most respected thinkers in the Islamist world.
For the first time, they reported, men whose previous pronouncements had been used as a justification for jihad were speaking out against it. They were not embracing the West, by any means, but they were questioning the ideological basis upon which Al-Qaeda, as a scattered movement, relies. In the battle for “hearts and minds” the group appeared to have scored an own goal.
What is behind this change in thinking and what effect is it having on Al-Qaeda abroad and in Britain?
LAST week saw a prime example of why some radicals are turning against Al-Qaeda and its tactics. On Monday a car drove up to the Danish embassy in a suburb of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Its driver detonated a bomb which killed himself and five others.
Al-Qaeda quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was revenge for the publication of cartoons three years ago in a Danish newspaper that had caricatured the prophet Muhammad. Yet while the cartoons had inflamed the Islamic world, the reaction to the bombing was one of outrage. The reason: the victims had all been Muslims.
An Al-Qaeda attack on a wedding in the Jordanian capital of Amman in November 2005, which killed 60 people and injured more than 90, had provoked a similar reaction.
Add to these the daily reports of sectarian strife in Iraq and a number of former high-profile supporters felt compelled to speak out.
The most prominent attack on Al-Qaeda’s methods has come from Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, an Egyptian radical who has been called the “ideological godfather” of the group and who was a former mentor of Zawahiri.
The shift in his thinking is significant because it was Sharif – also known as Dr Fadl – who gave prominence to the doctrine under which Al-Qaeda justifies many of its attacks on co-religionists.
In the 1990s he promoted takfir, which says that Muslims who do not support jihad or who had participated in elections in the “puppet regimes” of the Middle East or in the West, had become kuffar, or infidel, and consequently legitimate targets of jihad.
Late last year came a remarkable change of heart. Sharif, who is languishing in a Cairo prison cell because of his terrorist activities, published a book which argued that the jihad waged by groups like Al-Qaeda was “blemished with grave sharia violations during recent years . . . Now there are those who kill hundreds, including women and children, Muslims and non-Muslims, in the name of jihad”.
Speaking to an Egyptian newspaper, Fadl went further. “Zawahiri and his emir Bin Laden are extremely immoral,” he said.
His words sent tremors throughout the jihadist world. Al-Qaeda does not have a central organisation and has been a movement based more on ideas, rather than concrete plans for political change. Here was one of its former theorists attacking those very ideas.
The reaction from Al-Qaeda was telling. It went on a big offensive. Zawahiri issued an audio recording lambasting Sharif and published a rebuttal that extended to 200 pages.
Zawahiri hinted that Fadl’s statements were made under torture. “Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells? I wonder if they’re connected to the same line as the electric shock machines,” he said.
While that argument might have some credence, it could not be used to refute another intervention that had come only two months before from one of Bin Laden’s mentors.
Sheikh Salman al-Oadah, a leading religious scholar from Saudi Arabia, addressed the Al-Qaeda leader in a television interview to mark the sixth anniversary of 9/11. “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt?” said Oadah. “How many innocent people, children, the elderly and women have been killed . . . in the name of Al-Qaeda?”
As a cleric, Oadah cannot be dismissed as a Saudi government stooge. He was instrumental in the fundamentalist awakening of Saudi society in the 1980s, known as the sahwa. His fiery sermons against the presence of US troops on Saudi soil after the first Gulf war helped to turn Bin Laden against America. He also signed a religious ruling in 2004 with 26 other scholars that gave Islamic backing to Iraqis fighting US forces. He has a mass following among young men and women throughout Saudi society and the Islamic world.
Former jihadis seem to be lining up to condemn Bin Laden. In November last year Noman Benotman, ex-head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which is trying to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gadaffi, published a letter which asked Al-Qaeda to give up all its operations in the Islamic world and in the West, adding that ordinary westerners were blameless and should not be attacked.
The evidence from opinion polls show that the Arab street is following the lead of these figures. Last week a survey by the Pew Research Center, a respected American polling organisation, showed that support for Bin Laden had come down considerably in Muslim countries. It found that while in 2003, 56% of Jordanians had confidence in Bin Laden “to do the right thing in world affairs”, today only 20% believed the same. Over the same period, support for the Al-Qaeda leader among Lebanese Muslims has plummeted from 20% to 1%.
The poll also revealed that in 2002, 33% of Pakistanis believed that suicide bombings were justified. The figure has now dwindled to 9%.
WHAT about in Britain?
There is no recent polling data, but anecdotal evidence suggests that support for Al-Qaeda is waning and that the recent intervention of the jihadi thinkers is significant.
Hasan said that when clerics of the stature of Oadah break ranks and criticise Bin Laden, it gives him more ammunition on the streets of the capital, dubbed “Londonistan” for its high concentration of extremists and its significance in the battle against terrorism. “We can tell our youths that even Oadah has turned against Bin Laden and they listen, because Oadah is revered among the young here. Whatever he says, they listen,” Hasan said.
A sign of Oadah’s popularity is that in 2006 he attracted 20,000 people to London’s Excel conference centre when he was a speaker at a rally organised by the Islam Channel, a satellite television station.
Hanif Qadir, another former jihadi sympathiser turned “deradicaliser”, who runs a mosque in Walthamstow, north London, claims that radical groups have been forced out of mosques and community centres. Instead, they preach on street corners and then invite individuals who show interest to safe houses.
Similarly, in northern cities such as Bradford and Leeds, home town of three of the four 7/7 bombers, Muslim leaders say they are noticing a decline in the interest in radical groups. Radicalism in these areas is considered more difficult to counter because they do not have the social or economic opportunities that metropolitan London can offer.
Azmat Ali, who works with youth groups across West Yorkshire, said: “Before 7/7, you go to any mosque and there would be people standing outside with their faces covered distributing extremist leaflets. But now you don’t see any of that. I think things have improved for the better now.”
West Yorkshire police, however, paint a different picture. Senior officers say they are concerned that in places such as Dewsbury, Islamic extremists are now targeting children as young as 13 in a bid to find new recruits.
Indeed, MI5 and antiterrorist police maintain that the threat from Al-Qaeda in Britain has not declined, with more than 2,000 individuals being monitored, up from 1,600 two years ago. They point out that there have been 40 convictions of people linked to Islamic terrorism in the past 14 months. A further 160 people are awaiting trial.
Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism specialist at St Andrews University, is also cautious. He says that while its policy of attacking co-religionists was “probably its biggest mistake”, Al-Qaeda does have the ability to strike again. “We must remember Al-Qaeda is not a mass movement and you don’t need that many people to hatch a plot – 9/11 only took 19.”
Yet some interested parties are displaying a new-found confidence. Having declared last year that Al-Qaeda was “resurgent”, Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, suggested last month that America was now doing “pretty well” in countering it.
He said that the group had suffered serious setbacks both in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. “Fundamentally, no one really liked Al-Qaeda’s vision of the future,” he said.
Brown’s terror troubles
LABOUR grandees, legal experts and up to 54 backbench rebels stand in the way of Gordon Brown’s plans to lock up terror suspects for 42 days without charge, writes David Leppard.
Lord Falconer, the former lord chancellor, said yesterday that even if Brown wins a critical vote on the issue in the House of Commons on Wednesday, he will lead a revolt in the Lords against the bill. He said the proposals were “unacceptable”.
Falconer is supported by Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney-general. Goldsmith said extending detention without charge from 28 to 42 days would “destroy the free society our ancestors fought hard to create”.
Sir Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions and the man overseeing terrorist cases in Britain, is also opposed and said recently that his prosecutors have “managed quite comfortably” within the existing 28-day limit. Under the proposed law Macdonald would personally have to approve each application to detain a suspect beyond 28 days up to 42 days.
To win over Labour MPs threatening to vote against the measure, Brown has taken to making what one insider called “desperate late-night phone calls . . . calling on tribal loyalty”.
Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has tabled concessions, promising increased parliamentary scrutiny and other safeguards.
Among opponents who have been won over is Keith Vaz, chairman of the influential all-party home affairs committee.
Nevertheless, the Tory calculations yesterday were that as many as 54 Labour MPs will oppose the measure, leaving the outcome of the vote on a knife edge.