Turning their backs on jihad

Disenchanted with Osama bin Laden, former holy warriors are renouncing violence.


Britta Sandberg
July 16, 2008 2:45PM (UTC)

Noman Benotman walks into a restaurant on Park Lane, the exclusive, minimalist sort of place that is currently all the rage in London. People in business suits converse in hushed tones at nearby tables. Benotman, wearing an orange polo shirt and a gray checked blazer, fits in perfectly.

Benotman, a 41-year-old man from Libya, was once a jihadist. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and it was in those days, which some would later romanticize as heroic, that he met Osama bin Laden. Benotman says that he was once adept at using an AK-47, and that he remembers making out the faces of Soviet helicopter pilots before shooting them down.

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After the Soviet army withdrew in disgrace from Kabul and Kandahar, Benotman returned to his native Libya, where he became one of the leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The group, several hundred strong, sought to overthrow the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which they believed was corrupt and un-Islamic. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Benotman was an important figure in the expanding global network of terrorism.

Today he sits in a London restaurant and orders an espresso with a glass of water from a waiter dressed in a white uniform. He speaks with a flawless British accent.

Nothing short of spectacular

Benotman has just returned from Libya, where he is working on behalf of the Gadhafi regime, the same regime he hoped to oust only a decade ago. He has been assigned a very delicate task. His job is to convince imprisoned members of his former terrorist group to sign a peace treaty of sorts. He has traveled to Libya 25 times in the last 16 months, and his efforts are paying off. Now, he says, the document that will allow his former comrades to be reintegrated into society is as good as written -- and on the verge of being signed.

Under the agreement the terrorists, most of them in prison for many years, will renounce violence and the murder of civilians. It will also include a denial of recent al-Qaida claims that the LIFG has joined forces with the international terrorist organization. This is untrue, says Benotman, explaining that the Libyans distanced themselves from al-Qaida long ago. His new mission is anything but secretive. Arab television broadcaster Al-Jazeera recently reported on his trips to Libya -- a story about a former jihadist's attempt to bring about peace, after all, is nothing short of spectacular.

Libya is not the only place where efforts to part ways with al-Qaida and its founders are under way. Almost seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11 and 10 years after bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, founded the "International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," the organization is beginning to show cracks.

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If one imagines al-Qaida as experts have characterized it -- as a system of terror franchises with branches worldwide -- then there is clearly an uprising taking place among many branch managers. They are distancing themselves from the icons of terror, and from their goals and methods. So far, it apparently remains an internal process; disputes within the various groups that have been smoldering for some time are now rising to the surface. And there is little to indicate a causal connection between this development and the United States-led war on global terrorism.

His utmost to kill

Counterterrorism experts from Europe and the United States met in Florence in May to discuss the current state of affairs. Just how many terrorists remain engaged in the war against the West was a matter for debate. But most of the experts believed that bin Laden still exerts direct influence over a widely diverse group of terrorist organizations, both as a symbolic figurehead and as a financier of training camps and attacks around the world. And all at the conference agreed that bin Laden himself remains determined to do his utmost to kill as many people in the West as possible.

The al-Qaida leadership is still believed to be hiding out in the mountainous, inaccessible border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From their isolated location, bin Laden and Zawahiri compose periodic messages to their followers around the world, often seeking to portray the dissidents as creatures of the hated West. The Egyptian doctor Zawahiri, in particular, insists that renegades like Benotman have either been paid off by the West or tortured into compliance, and that Western intelligence agencies engage in propaganda to create divisions and uncertainty among his holy warriors.

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But Zawahiri's messages, delivered by video or broadcast on the Internet, appear to be losing their effectiveness.

In late May, India's influential Deoband religious movement issued a fatwa against terrorism. In a joint proclamation at a meeting in New Delhi attended by representatives of the country's leading Islamic organizations, the groups stated: "It is the goal and purpose of Islam to extinguish all forms of terrorism and to disseminate the message of global peace. Those who use the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to justify terror are merely upholding a lie.”

The supreme mufti of the Deobandis and three envoys signed the document. "In terms of its theological significance, this is roughly the equivalent of a ruling by the Supreme Court in Washington," activist Javed Anand later said. The Deobandis, whose name is derived from a small city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, once inspired and offered religious instruction to fighters in the Islamic world. Militant Pakistani groups, jihadists in Iraq and even the Taliban invoked the Deobandis for many years. But those days are now gone.

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Former militants who have renounced jihad often begin to proselytize among their former comrades-in-arms. In late April, a handful of former members of the militant Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded in Jordan in 1953 and eventually spread to about 40 countries, established a foundation to combat fundamentalism among Muslims in Europe.

Maajid Nawaz, 31, is the director of the new organization, known as the Quilliam Foundation. In his past, Nawaz helped develop secret terrorist cells in Pakistan and later in Denmark. He spent five years in an Egyptian prison, where he turned his back on radical Islam. The foundation was established in the British Museum, and when he gave his speech at the event, Nawaz was wearing a well-tailored Hugo Boss suit and his beard was neatly trimmed. "I turned away from Islamism," he said, "because I recognized it as the curse of Islam."

"Do not exceed the limits"

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This small rebellion within al-Qaida had its beginnings in May 2007, in the form of a fax received at the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. It was sent by one of the eminent authorities of al-Qaida, a man who was once bin Laden's mentor before he went from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to Afghanistan, and long before he became a shining light in the Islamic world. The man's name is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif. Like Zawahiri, Sharif is an Egyptian doctor, and he later competed with Zawahiri for bin Laden's favor. Sharif is better known under his nom de guerre, Dr. Fadl.

Ironically Dr. Fadl, 58, sent the fax from a prison in Cairo, where he has been serving a life sentence since 2004. He wrote that jihadism is reprehensible and that it violates the precepts of Islam and Shariah law. Killing people solely on the basis of their nationality is not in keeping with the Koran, he wrote, especially since the victims of such acts are often "innocent Muslims and non-Muslims." "Fight, on God's behalf, against those who fight you, but do not exceed the limits," the converted Dr. Fadl wrote.

A man once referred to as "al-Qaida's chief ideologue," and one of the organization's founders, disassociating himself with al-Qaida, bin Laden and Zawahiri? It was a sensation, a turning point for the terrorist network.

Part 2: "Things are slowly changing"

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"When I first read the fax, I thought that he must have been coerced," says Mohammed al-Shafey, an editor at the London-based Arab newspaper, which printed the document of renunciation. "Fadl was the brain, the think tank of jihad. Only later, when I read his new book, did I realize that he really meant what he wrote." Dr. Fadl wrote the book Shafey is referring to, in which he explains the reasons for his change of heart, in his prison cell and announced its completion in the fax he sent to London.

Dr. Fadl is not only seen as the brain of al-Qaida but is also considered one of Zawahiri's mentors. Both men are surgeons and attended medical school in Cairo together. Zawahiri was one of thousands arrested in 1981 after former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated. Fadl fled to Pakistan and settled in Peshawar, where he treated wounded fighters from Afghanistan.

After completing a prison sentence in Cairo, Zawahiri went to Peshawar, then a magnet for Islamists. At that time, it was clear to the two men that Dr. Fadl was the superior intellect. He was said to have encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran.

On Aug. 11, 1988, in Peshawar, Fadl and Zawahiri met for the first time with a young Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden and a Palestinian named Abdullah Assam. The four men would later found al-Qaida, "the basis," as a fighting alliance against infidels, the West and the United States, after the collapse of the world's other superpower, the Soviet Union. Bin Laden had money and followers, while Fadl and Zawahiri had dreamed up the ideological underpinnings for jihad.

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Fadl soon wrote something of a manual for jihadism. According to the document, holy war is the natural state of Islam and the "only way to end the domination of the infidels." With such a manifesto in his past, Fadl's renunciation of al-Qaida is not easily dismissed as insignificant.

Greatest trial in history

It is a heavy blow to bin Laden and Zawahiri when one of the founders of their network describes al-Qaida's ideology and the attacks of Sept. 11 as mistakes. "Dr. Fadl is fundamentally questioning their theological authority," says Lawrence Wright, who describes the history of al-Qaida in his book "The Looming Tower." In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Wright wrote, "Fadl repeatedly emphasizes that it is forbidden to kill civilians -- including Christians and Jews -- unless they are actively attacking Muslims." Wright believes that the terrorist organization faces the greatest challenge in its history.

Just how seriously Zawahiri took Fadl's pamphlet of renunciation is evident in the 200-page response he issued in March of this year, which was also published on the Internet. Zawahiri writes that he can only imagine Dr. Fadl's conversion to be the work of Arab intelligence agencies working in concert with the CIA, and that the document must have been written under duress.

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"If you claim that these operations were illegal," al-Qaida's number two man writes, addressing Fadl directly, "then this must also apply to all operations conducted in Palestine." According to Zawahiri, Fadl has never questioned Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Paul Cruickshank of New York University and terrorism expert Peter Bergen spent six months investigating the turmoil within al-Qaida. The two were the first to interview Noman Benotman, and they also spoke with other critics of the terror organization -- including Sheik Salman al-Oudah. On the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Saudi went on the television channel MBS to publicly demand of bin Laden how many innocents had already been killed in the name of al-Qaida. Oudah also wanted to know how bin Laden planned to face the almighty with hundreds, even thousands, of innocent lives on his conscience.

"Al-Oudah is neither in prison nor is he suspected of being a friend of the Americans or a tool of the Saudi government," says Cruickshank. On the contrary: In 2004, the sheik called on Iraqis to fight against the US occupiers in their country.

Cruickshank believes that, ironically enough, it was the Iraq war that delayed latent criticism of bin Laden and his concept of jihad. "What's emerging now has been simmering for a long time." The fact that American soldiers were occupying holy ground provided every major terrorist leader with a convenient justification for jihad in Iraq.

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There is no doubt that al-Qaida remains an unscrupulous and dangerous terrorist organization, even if it has lost some of its influence in Iraq. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, its core countries, it is enjoying renewed support. Allied with the newly strengthened Taliban, al-Qaida is doing its part to seriously jeopardize the regimes in Islamabad and Kabul. "In the long term, however, they will face problems as a result of the ideological debate," says Peter Bergen. "They are already having trouble finding recruits in Europe today."

Wearing a suit for Friday prayers

This shift in the general mood that experts like Bergen believe is happening in Europe is clearly in evidence at London's Al-Tawhid Mosque. Two of the presumed attackers who planned, and failed, to commit attacks in London and Glasgow in late June 2007 were frequent visitors to the mosque. "But now people have had enough of Islam constantly being equated with terrorism," says Usama Hasan, the mosque's 36-year-old imam.

These days Hasan wears a suit when leading Friday prayers. "I am a Muslim living in the West, and I want everyone to see it." Hasan, himself a former fighter in Afghanistan and member of a fundamentalist group, now preaches the renunciation of violence and condemns terrorism.

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"I have the feeling that things are slowly changing," says former Libyan terrorist Benotman, referring to the small series of prominent renegades. He was once so well known among jihadists that he dealt directly with bin Laden. That was in the summer of 2000, when roughly 200 people representing groups from many countries came together in Kandahar. Benotman was living in a guesthouse that bin Laden owned.

The Libyans, fearing retaliation against their own country, were opposed to the crusade against the United States that was discussed at such great length in Kandahar. According to Benotman, even Taliban leader Mullah Omar was in favor of attacking Israel instead of the United States. "We told bin Laden at the time that he could not force his strategy on all Arabs," the Libyan recalls today. "His response was that there was an operation under way that he could no longer stop, and that the fighters were ready to act." Bin Laden was referring to the attackers of Sept. 11.

After the attacks on America, the Libyans parted ways with al-Qaida. Several Libyan newspapers published Benotman's open letter to Zawahiri last year. He has been living in London in recent years. He says that he has never been in prison, neither in Libya nor anyplace else.

Then the elegantly dressed man, a one-time jihadist, walks out of the chic restaurant and disappears into the Green Park Underground station.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.


Britta Sandberg

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