The emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa raised questions about the effectiveness of ideological revisions announced by many armed Islamist groups that have renounced violence in recent years.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are two new organizations that have drawn new young recruits into their ranks in recent years, despite revisions by groups such as the Islamic Group in Egypt and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that prohibited the use of violence.
Dr. Nageh Ibrahim, the ideological theorist of the Islamic Group in Egypt and a member of its Shura Council, said the revisions have been slow to reach the new generation of al-Qaeda recruits.
Still, Dr. Ibrahim said, the revisions of the Islamic Group – which was the first armed group to publicly renounce violence-- had a profound impact not only in Egypt, but in Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
The Islamist Group was accused of committing a series of terrorist attacks in Egypt and abroad in the 1980s and 1990s. It was among the first to renounce violence and issue ideological revisions in 1997, prompting an angry reaction at the time from al-Qaeda's second in command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Shorfa, Dr. Ibrahim, who wrote most of his group's revisions, talked about the impact they had in limiting the emergence of new groups and preventing youths from joining terrorist groups.
Al-Shorfa: More than nine years after you announced the ideological revisions, what is your assessment of the impact that this has had on the armed Islamic groups?
Ibrahim: The significance of the Islamic Group’s ideological revisions lies in the fact that it was the first group in the history of armed Islamic movements that announced the revision of its ideologies based on its own decision and initiative, and not in response to requests by some country or government as some people claim. We made mistakes, and we felt that it was our duty to fix what we corrupted.
The idea of making revisions has certainly presented itself to many armed organizations, especially in the 1990s, but there was no precedent that could be followed. This is where the Islamic Group is particularly important compared to the rest of the revisions subsequently made by armed Islamic organizations in the Arab countries.
Al-Shorfa: You are talking about two levels of impact, locally and regionally. Could you elaborate on this?
Ibrahim: Locally, this opened the door for local organizations to make the same courageous decision to revise their ideologies. The first one among them was the Islamic Jihad which made revisions in 2007, led by its theorist, Sheikh Sayyid Imam, known as Dr. Fadl, who is the religious mentor of Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.
The Islamic Group also helped in the revisions made by the so-called "Sinai Group", which carried out bombings in Taba (2004) and Sharm El-Sheikh (2005). Leaders of the Islamic Jihad explained the Islamic jurisprudential arguments found in the books of revisions inside the prisons, leading to their announcement renouncing violence and laying down their arms.
This, in turn, has been instrumental in ending the series of violent acts in Sinai one year after the arrest of the members of the group. This only partially demonstrates the significance and the strategic success of the revisions, which is the drying up of the sources of violent takfiri ideology.
As for the regional impact, it was strong and more effective than anticipated, in that the same experiment was duplicated with armed organizations in Yemen and Morocco, and also in Saudi Arabia where the government implemented the Munasaha rehabilitation programme for Islamists. This programme benefitted extensively from the ideas that came out of the revisions made by the Islamic Group. Last but not least, there is the LIFG announcement of its ideological revisions.
Al-Shorfa: But some are questioning the role that these revisions could have in general in terms of limiting the emergence of new organisations that embrace ideologies similar to those of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Ibrahim: First of all, it is not easy for any armed Islamic group to revise its ideology, as this is a long and complicated process, involving arduous negotiations and debates within the group that makes these revisions.
For example, compiling the ideological revisions of the Islamic Group in written form took 10 years, because it involved laying down an Islamic jurisprudential and philosophical framework that is able to correct the understanding of Islamic concepts and fatwas that were issued centuries ago, and which are related to various concepts such as the pre-conditions and rulings regarding jihad, governance (al-Hakimiyyah), etc.
As such, it can be said that all the revisions that were made during the recent years, starting with those of the Islamic Group to the LIFG revisions, have resulted in the formation of an extensive knowledge base that can be used to confront al-Qaeda’s ideology or any Islamist ideology that believes in resorting to violence in the forthcoming centuries. Gauging the extent of the impact that the revisions have had on armed Islamic groups will take some time.
Al-Shorfa: What are the indications that show the impact that the ideological revisions had in combating armed Islamic organizations?
Ibrahim: The revisions did have an impact on al-Qaeda organisation, because they struck at the core of its weak ideological construct, which is replete with errors from an Islamic jurisprudential viewpoint. In many instances, this has reduced its effectiveness in recruiting new members.
For example, the Islamic Group's ideological revisions have reached Malaysia and Indonesia in the past few years, and they became widely accepted among Muslim youth there, some of whom were contemplating joining al-Qaeda jihadist movements or other similar organizations that are active in that region.
Also, Western countries such as Australia have begun to adopt the ideas contained in the revisions made by the Islamic Group in order to convince some of the imprisoned Islamist elements to renounce violence.
At the same time, the ideological revisions of the Islamic Jihad, written by Sheikh Fadl, the religious mentor of Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, have had repercussions among the members of al-Qaeda at different levels for quite some time, as these revisions have revealed the major Islamic jurisprudential errors that al-Qaeda has made, especially with regard to the rulings and the pre-conditions of jihad.
Al-Shorfa: What has been the impact of these revisions on the new generations of elements belonging to armed organizations currently active in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa?
Ibrahim: Unfortunately, the revisions' impact on the new generations within al-Qaeda and other organizations is less effective. This is due to the fact that revisions that many Islamic organizations have made contain a critical weakness, which is the lack of communication with society. These revisions have not yet spread among the younger generation, and this is because they have been made quite recently.
Additionally, some Arab governments are still apprehensive of allowing the theorists and the leading figures of these organizations to mingle with the local communities, but this could be just a matter of time before it is resolved.
Al-Shorfa: As a theorist who is an expert in the ideologies of Islamist groups, what is your view regarding the ideological structure of al-Qaeda as it is now?
Ibrahim: Al-Qaeda’s ideology is extremely weak, and it is full of loopholes. The first is that it is a takfiri ideology, and this type of ideology is like a cluster bomb. For instance, the difference of opinion within al-Qaeda has to do with belief and disbelief in Islamic theology.
As for the second weak point, it is the fact that these groups are not involved with calling people to God himself and to embrace Islam. Instead, they are engaged in inviting people to join their organisation, and not everyone, but only zealous youths, so that they can exploit them in fighting, and this duplicity constitutes a major sin in Islam.
The third weak point in al-Qaeda’s ideology has to do with the foundation on which their ideology is based, which is "jihad for the sake of jihad itself".
In Islam, jihad is a means and not an end, and the fact that al-Qaeda has turned jihad into an end in itself is a very dangerous step, because it has tied Islam's existence to waging a perpetual war with non-Muslims or Muslims with whom they differ. By doing so, they have gone against the Islamic rulings pertaining to the pre-conditions and the rulings of jihad.
This is why al-Qaeda is waging war everywhere for the sake of war itself without realizing any particular objective. Their fighting has resulted in the death and humiliation of Muslims in many places around the world, and the blood of these people is on the hands of al-Qaeda. Similarly, their actions have reflected badly on Islamic countries.
The common factor in 90% of the bombings carried out by al-Qaeda is that they target civilians, and by doing so they have killed children, women, old people, monks and farmers. This is a major violation of Islamic principles, which prohibit the killing of these categories of individuals because they are not involved in waging war.
Al-Shorfa: Are you suggesting that al-Qaeda’s ideology is in a state of decline?
Ibrahim: Currently, the ideology embraced by al-Qaeda is going through a period of decline that it has not seen since its foundation. This is due to its multiple theological and strategic errors during the past years. In the 1990s there were no ideological revisions made by armed Islamist groups, so no one was aware of the theological errors in the ideology of al-Qaeda.
However, today al-Qaeda faces a war of ideas of massive proportions, and I believe that it will not be able to win it, which is why it is avoiding it.