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Al-Qaeda becoming moderate, others more extremist

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

The attack this month on al-Oradi Hospital in Sanaa, the existence of two al-Qaeda wings in Syria (ISIS and al-Nusra Front), the criticism of Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a former al-Qaeda preacher, to his comrades in arms and ideology, the killing of Abu Mansoor al-Amriki by Somalia’s al-Shabab organization, which used to consider him as an immigrant brother and appointed him as one of its leaders, all of the above are indications of a sharp division within al-Qaeda, and perhaps these incidents will lead some people to become moderate. Nevertheless, they also indicate the likelihood of more terrorism and killing.

Before we try reading al-Qaeda’s future, we should start by reading its history, or rather the history of al-Qaeda’s ideology and its gradual drop into violence, extremism and how it distanced itself from the Muslim community.

There are multiple interpretations for al-Qaeda’s history and ideology, many of which are used in political conflicts, providing erroneous explanations of its emergence and spread. Many confuse the names of advocates, scholars, leaders, movements and countries and link them to al-Qaeda and there is nothing wrong with that. Al-Qaeda emerged as a protest movement at the center of the Sunni world, ideology, movements and political Islam projects and the existence of some scholars on its ideological course cannot make them a target of blame, even if they have to reconsider their thoughts. They have contributed to the formation of al-Qaeda, but the tension, apprehension and the exchange of accusation –unfortunately– make this task impossible these days.

Al-Qaeda as a protest movement


Al-Qaeda rose as a protest movement and developed from the body of the political Islam as a result of a delayed victory – regardless of what that victory would mean to them – the failure of Islamist political movements, the regimes’ suppression and the torture in prisons. It all started as a political movement that can be compared to leftist movement that was “accompanying” it in the 1970s in universities and prisons, but needed jurisprudence and fatwas to justify its infuriated activities. The fatwa preceded the anger, and therefore it was necessary for it to search for someone who would conform to its rebel desire. So it found in Sayyid Qutb, who was also made in the prisons, the fuel to conduct insurgency, but Sayyid was not a mufti preacher. Thus, it started to search for preachers and found the Salafists; they are characterized by their ideological purity, determination regarding infidelity and faith, loyalty to the people of faith, and absence of infidels, because their fatwas are not blurry. Moreover, the Salafist movement is also characterized by its commitment to the clear meaning of the Quran and Sunnah, and this will prevent any sedition inside the Muslim community and amongst its leader. They institute strict controls for the Jihad and battles and prohibit blood and religious transgression.

However, the angry young men started to believe that they cannot change the regimes without violence or at least without using it as a tool for change. They wanted to raise the banner of “there is no solution except by jihad,” but the traditional Salafists had conditions for it, as for example the existence of an Imam and enemy who were subject to manifest disbelief.

Accusing others of apostasy appeared to be the solution and thus a rebel Salafist movement emerged and they agreed to call this “jihadist.” This movement was initiated in Egypt first. We can understand the change or regression in the jihadist ideology through tracking several positions in “jihadist” discipline, starting with the revolt against the death of an innocent little girl by mistake during the attempted assassination of Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sidqi in 1993, and then the search for a legitimate way that would save them from the greater sin of killing without any legitimate or moral control at the end of 1997in the Luxor operation, which was linked to al-Qaeda.


Similarly to the consequences of the shocking Luxor incident where the Islamist Group in Egypt had to review its choices invoking the clear meaning of the Quran and Sunnah according to the rules of the true Salafist, al-Zarqawi’s extremism in the Iraqi al-Qaeda and “commanders of the faithful” (Umara al-Mumineen), who violated Algerian civilians and villages, as well as the involvement of “Daesh” in the killing in Syria, and finally, al-Oradi hospital incident in Sanaa and the explicit targeting of non-combatant civilians, have all stirred controversy, division and conflicts that reached the extent of fighting.

Indeed, a member of al-Qaeda killed his comrade who allegedly split or cooperated with the enemy. This has happened in Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, and can happen in Yemen and Syria. It is an obvious consequence of the prophecy Hadith that stated that if someone takes religion with extremism he will be overcome.

Political vs Religious Jihadists


There are two types of al-Qaeda members, a political Jihadist, a religious jihadist. In both cases they are extremists. The political jihadist is strict, does not trust others and is very skeptical about treason. He tends to believe that someone is conspiring against him and his cause and that professional politicians will steal the revolution. However, at the end he is a politically affiliated member and might be ruled by pragmatism since he believes that the “war is just a trick.”

As for the religious jihadist, it is very difficult to deal with him because the “Takfirists” do not believe in others’ rights. Therefore, if someone is not within the “victorious religion,” their blood and money are a legitimate target. Such members reject democracy and pluralism, and outbid the political members on the religious level.

If the characteristics mentioned above were joined in one member, the political characteristic will often prevail, especially if the leader was wise, but if a politically affiliated member and a religious one met together, they will definitely fight each other since they do not believe in democracy but rather in reconciliation sessions, legal prosecution and exchanging accusations... then end up fighting again.

Al-Qaeda was supposed to die and get buried in Tahrir Square because the Arab Spring was an overdose of “freedom and elections” to it, but the hindrance of the Arab Spring in many places has brought al-Qaeda back to life. The irony is that totalitarian repressive regimes prefer to deal with al-Qaeda, and they call for it if it was not present because, at a certain point, the existence of one depends on the existence of the other. If chaos increases, al-Qaeda’s name and activity upsurge. The state of chaos will engender all forms of extremism, so al-Qaeda members will not tolerate each other anymore, and thus division and fighting will occur... The problem is that this is happening between us.


This article was published by al-Hayat newspaper on Dec. 21, 2013.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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