In a prison cell south of Cairo a repentant Egyptian terrorist leader is putting the finishing touches to a remarkable recantation that undermines the Muslim theological basis for violent jihad and is set to generate furious controversy among former comrades still fighting with al-Qaida.
Sayid Imam al-Sharif, 57, was the founder and first emir (commander) of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organisation, whose supporters assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later teamed up with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet occupation.
Sharif, a surgeon who is still known by his underground name of “Dr Fadl”, is famous as the author of the Salafi jihadists’ “bible” – Foundations of Preparation for Holy War. He worked with Ayman al-Zawahiri, another Egyptian doctor and now Bin Laden’s deputy, before being kidnapped in Yemen after 9/11, interrogated by the CIA and extradited to Egypt where has been serving a life sentence since 2004.
Sharif recently gave an electrifying foretaste of his conversion by condemning killings on the basis of nationality and colour of skin and the targeting of women and children, citing the Qur’anic injunction: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits; for God loveth not transgressors.” Armed operations were wrong, counterproductive and must cease, he declared sternly.
Zawahiri, evidently rattled, rounded sarcastically on him in a video message broadcast after Sharif’s statement – faxed from Torah prison to an Arabic newspaper – announced not only his change of heart but a book-length repudiation endorsed by hundreds of other former militants, and which is due to be published soon.
“Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?” Zawahiri asked. “I wonder if they’re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines [used to torture prisoners],” dismissing the exercise as propaganda warfare by Hosni Mubarak’s security services.
But Egyptian and western experts, government officials and former jihadis agree that Sharif’s shift is both genuine and highly significant. “People will say things to stop being tortured, but this is the result of a long process of reflection and debate,” insists Muntasir al-Zayyat, a lawyer jailed for Islamic Jihad membership in the 1980s. “When the book comes out there will be a furious reaction from Zawahiri and the global jihadi movement. It is clear that Sayid Imam will call a halt to killing operations in Egypt and abroad.”
Diaa Rashwan, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says: “I have no doubt that this is genuine. It will be a real shock and cause a lot of confusion. Jihadis will see hundreds of their former brothers criticising their most fundamental ideas. That’s why Zawahiri is so bothered by it.”
No one is predicting that the book will stop suicide bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan, but interest is so intense that several Arabic newspapers are competing to buy the 100-page work, entitled: Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World.
Sharif’s recantation has emerged from an Egyptian government counter-radicalisation programme which has successfully “converted” and rehabilitated members of the Gama’a Islamiyya (Islamic Group), once the largest jihadist organisation in the Arab world, and which mounted countless armed attacks starting in the 1980s until calling a ceasefire after massacring 62 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997.
Its top ideologues, mostly now freed, have written 25 volumes of revisions in a series called Tashih al-Mafahim (Corrections of Concepts). These tackle key doctrinal issues such as the concept of “takfir” – declaring a Muslim an apostate and therefore permissible to kill; attacks on civilians and foreign tourists; and waging jihad against a Muslim ruler who does not apply sharia law.
“If you want to rob these people of their cover you have to take away their legitimacy,” says Ashraf Mohsin, an Egyptian diplomat dealing with counter-terrorism. “The way to deprive them of their ability to recruit is to attack the message. If you take Islam out of the message all that is left is criminality.”
Like the Gama’a before them, Sharif and other Jihad prisoners have been allowed by the interior ministry and state security to meet and consult each other in prison and have held religious dialogues with clerics from al-Azhar, the fount of mainstream jurisprudence in the Sunni world. “Of course the Egyptian government is benefiting from this,” Zayyat agrees. “But it’s not done for their benefit, or for the Americans.”
Past “revisions” have included apologies to the victims of terror attacks, recognition of them as “martyrs”, and the annulment of fatwas as misguided. But these are not an Islamist version of The God That Failed – the 1949 anthology written by disillusioned communists – but rather a reasoned rejection of theological misinterpretations. Their authors are neither secular nor liberal: their self-criticism includes observations that the wrong path to jihad benefits only the Jews, the US and Egypt’s Christian minority. “The Egyptian state is holding all this out as a huge triumph,” says a foreign diplomat. “But the views these people preach are still pretty sinister. The state has to some extent accommodated itself to the Islamists.”
Global phenomenon Yet for Rashwan, Egypt’s de-radicalisation work has helped keep violence at bay: the proof, he suggests, is that there has not been a jihadi incident in the Nile Valley since Luxor.
“Now this is a global phenomenon,” says Rashwan, suggesting that an effort that emerged from Egypt’s own security needs could provide lessons for others waging the battle for Muslim hearts and minds – as relevant in Luton and Lyon as in Casablanca and Kabul.
“Security measures alone cannot defeat terrorism,” argues Fouad Allam, a former state security general – the guards outside his Cairo home testimony to decades spent hunting down armed Islamists. “Terrorism has to be fought with a broader strategy in which the political issues that fuel extremism are dealt with so that these sort of ‘revisions’ will have some effect.”
Egypt’s counter-radicalisation programmes are the most extensive of any Arab country, but jihadists are also rehabilitated in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan. The Saudi effort, involving 2,800 “deviants”, is lenient with those who fought in Afghanistan but less so with returnees from Iraq or anyone attacking the Saudi state – which insists it has the sole authority to authorise jihad. Saudis in al-Qaida are still more likely to be killed than undergo psychological profiling, “revise” their views or debate sharia law with approved clerics. Yemen’s “dialogue committee” sends Muslim scholars into prisons. In Jordan, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, a Salafi jihadist thinker, has condemned sectarian killings of Shia Muslims and the suicide bombings pioneered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “If Afghanistan is a university for jihadi terror,” says one expert, “Iraq is post-doctorate level.”