In addition to security restrictions that it faces in many countries around the world, al-Qaeda has been facing another significant challenge for years from within the "jihadi" circles it tapped to recruit fighters. The challenge concerns the use of armed violence – and in many cases, indiscriminate violence –to achieve al-Qaeda's goals.
These disagreements are no longer limited to a particular group or country. They have expanded to include a wide mix of "jihadi groups" which have reviewed their ideas and ceased many of their past activities, which al-Qaeda is still carrying out.
The main rift within the circles of the so-called jihadi groups in the Arab world first appeared in the mid to late 1990s.
The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), which was the largest armed jihadi group in Egypt, surprised the jihadi movement in Egypt and abroad when it announced unilaterally in May 1997 that it would cease all its operations.
Al-Qaeda apparently did not appreciate the announcement that Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya made. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad – which is a smaller "jihadi" faction than Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya and a co-founder of the "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders" which was announced by Osama Bin Laden in February 1998 in Afghanistan – tried to convince Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya that it is not necessary for it to declare the cessation of fighting against the Egyptian government.
This group, led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, sent a message to the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya that what it was doing constituted a "cessation of jihad", and that this is not permissible in Islam because "Jihad has been prescribed until the Last Day".
However, what Al-Gamaa's critics did not understand is that the group had already been convinced of the wrongness of taking up arms in order to overthrow the government, and the wrongness of resorting to violence, and that it had recanted this position based on conviction and not to please the Egyptian government.
It is true that the leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya were imprisoned, but it is also true that they have been convinced of the wrongness of their taking up arms against the regime without any pressures.
These people, some of whom were the pillars that laid down the framework of the jihadi ideology, which legitimized taking up arms in order to overthrow the "apostate regimes", have reviewed their course of action from the 1980s, and they concluded that their policies have brought about havoc for the members of their group and their supporters, and for Egyptians in general.
They then discovered – as they explained in detail in studies they published– that their legal Islamic justifications for taking up arms and killing contained mistakes that are unacceptable in the Islamic religion. So, they announced their retraction and apologised for what they did and pledged to never resort to violence again.
The revisions of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya were made in conjunction with other setbacks suffered by jihadis across the Arab world.
In Algeria, violence reached its peak in the second half of the 1990s with the heinous massacres of thousands of citizens.
The actions attributed to the Armed Islamic Group led to the alienation of a large segment of jihadis who were fighting to overthrow the Algerian government under the pretence that it prevented an Islamist party – the Islamic Salvation Front – from assuming power after it annulled the election results in the beginning of 1992.
The jihadis who were displeased with the actions of the extremists in the Armed Islamic Group responded by engaging in secret talks with the government, which resulted in their announcement in the summer of 1997 ending all armed activities. The government responded by issuing a general amnesty to all individuals who would lay down their arms by the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000.
The same agreement was reached in Libya in the 1990s when the security forces of Colonel Gaddafi crushed a rebellion started by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in 1995.
When it was defeated militarily, the LIFG withdrew outside of Libya, and began reviewing the reasons that led to the setback it suffered.
It moved to Afghanistan, where it announced in secret – like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad did previously – the cessation of its operations inside Libya. However, this hiatus did not come out of conviction that resorting to violent action in order to overthrow the government was not the right thing to do. This situation persisted until after the "war on terror" which the United States declared after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In the aftermath of this, the leaders of the LIFG were finding out that they were falling one by one everywhere in the world, until they finally ended up in Libya's prisons.
There, the same thing happened to them as happened to the leaders of the Egyptian Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya.
The Libyan Islamists began reviewing their ideologies and concluded that they were wrong in taking up arms against the regime. They published jurisprudential revisions under the title "Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability, and the Judgment of the People" in which they laid down the principles that led them to that conclusion. Without naming names they criticised the use of violence against Arab regimes, which al-Qaeda and its affiliates are still advocating.
Before the LIFG published its revisions in 2009, it was preceded by the former emir of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Dr. Fadl, considered the "theoretician of the jihadis", because his books (such as The Essential Guide for Preparation (for Jihad) and The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge) were being taught since the early 1990s in al-Qaeda training camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Dr. Fadl, who was handed over to Egypt by Yemen in 2004, was highly critical of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, who replaced him as the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1993.
Sceptics of Dr. Fadl said he was "in captivity" in Egyptian prisons, and could have been forced to make this statement about his positions. However, he refuted this during media appearances and during prison visits where he tried to convince the jihadi prisoners to embrace his revisions that were first published under the title "Document of Right Guidance for Jihad Activity in Egypt and the World."
Between the revisions of Dr. Fadl and the revisions of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, many other Islamist scholars, including salafis, jihadis, ikhwanis have announced similar positions, criticizing what they considered radicalism in al-Qaeda ideology.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, once led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, received a significant share of criticism, as his actions brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Criticism was also directed against al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, which led a series of bombing attacks that caused public outrage and jeopardised national security in a country which took pride in the idea that its application of sharia law provided security to its citizens. Al-Qaeda's actions rocked the Saudis' sense of security.
Saudi authorities responded by launching an intense security campaign against al-Qaeda cells, accompanied by counselling sessions with those arrested in order to convince them to abandon what the government called "misguided ideology".
The influential religious establishment in Saudi Arabia proceeded along the same line and adopted firm positions forbidding even giving financial help to Al-Qaeda.
The actions of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb did not escape criticism, even from within jihadi circles, some of whom went public against the leadership of al-Qaeda and its actions, such as kidnapping for ransom and bombing attacks that kill innocent citizens.
Leading all these critics was Hassan Hattab, former emir of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which became the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2007.
Against this backdrop of revisions, al-Qaeda will sooner or later have to review whether its current policies are truly serving the goals it set for itself, especially given that a wide segment of jihadis who were once allies are today convinced Al-Qaeda has "gone astray".
Related articles by Camille Tawil: