from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2008, Issue No. 92
September 22, 2008

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Al Qaeda is "imploding," a State Department counterterrorism official told the Associated Press last week, as a result of growing opposition in the Muslim world.

The implication that al Qaeda's demise may be imminent is almost certainly incorrect. But what is true is that "a severe intellectual conflict has emerged" within the jihadist movement, said Kamal Habib, a former official of the Egyptian Jihad Organization (Al Arab, September 14).

Over the past year, al Qaeda has been publicly criticized by several of its own former supporters and ideological leaders, most notably Sayyid Imam Al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, who once saved the life of Usama bin Laden.

"Sayyid Imam is viewed as the greatest and most important authority for all of the jihadist salafist groups," said Kamal Habib.

So when Sayyid Imam declared in a November 2007 book that killing non-combatant civilians, including Christians and Jews, is prohibited and that Al Qaeda's conduct of jihad against the west was illegitimate, it produced an ideological earthquake within Islamist ranks.

"Fadl's arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare," wrote Lawrence Wright in an illuminating article in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008).

"Al Qaeda senior leaders in 2008 have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group's legitimacy," observed National Intelligence Officer Ted Gistaro in an August 12 speech. "This defensive tone ... reflects concern over allegations by militant leaders and religious scholars that al Qaeda and its affiliates have violated the Islamic laws of war, particularly in Iraq and North Africa."

One of the major al Qaeda responses came in a book by bin Laden deputy Ayman al Zawahiri called "The Exoneration." The book is an attempt to defend the legitimacy of al Qaeda's tactics, including the killing of civilians, against the critiques of Sayyid Imam and other Islamic figures.

"Those who claim that killing innocent persons is absolutely forbidden are in a position of accusing the prophet, may God's peace and prayers be upon him, his companions, and the generation following them that they were killers of innocent persons, as they see it," wrote Zawahiri.

He noted that the prophet authorized the use of catapults, which do not discriminate between innocent and guilty, and he also killed all the males of a Jewish tribe "and made no distinction between one person and another."

"The Exoneration," which was published in January 2008, was translated a few months later by the DNI Open Source Center. The translation has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

"Zawahiri's strategic thinking and understanding of asymmetrical warfare and revolutionary violence is heavily indebted to vanguardism, a Leninist theory of revolution which posits that a small, revolutionary elite uses violence to rouse the people to fight against the government," according to a contractor analysis performed for the Department of Defense and obtained by Secrecy News.

"The potential problem with Zawahiri's application of the theory of vanguardism... is that terrorism usually diminishes the support of both the government as well as the terrorist organization," as appears to be the case today.

See "Zawahiri Tries to Clear Name, Explain Strategy," Transnational Security Issues Report, prepared for the Department of Defense by the International Research Center, April 21, 2008:

"Is Al Qaeda going to dissipate as a result of the criticism from its former mentors and allies? Despite the recent internal criticism, probably not in the short term," said analyst Peter Bergen at a July 30 congressional hearing.

"However, encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups like Al Qaeda are the seeds of their own long-term destruction: Their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don't offer a positive vision of the future; they keep expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn't precisely share their world view; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics," Mr. Bergen said.


In 1997, acting on intelligence that a Hizballah cell was preparing to blow up the American embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, a U.S. special forces team reportedly flew to the scene in several giant transport planes where it arrested the conspirators and prevented the attack.

If that episode happened as described (and it cannot readily be confirmed), it left no traces on the public record. It "is only one of many hidden battles" between Iran and the West, writes Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman in his new book "The Secret War with Iran" (Free Press, 2008).

The book, translated from the Hebrew and based on extensive interviews with Israeli intelligence officials and others, provides a wealth of insights, unfamiliar anecdotes, and telling observations regarding the three-decade-old confrontation with Iran. A few random examples:

Hizballah, acting as a proxy for Iran, temporarily refrained from taking American hostages between June 1985 and September 1986 in support of the arms sales deal between the U.S. and Iran that later became known as the Iran-contra affair.

Israel itself helped arm revolutionary Iran in an operation codenamed "Seashell" and described in the book. Earlier, Israel had also supplied advanced weaponry to the Shah, and "if Khomeini had not taken power as early as he did, he might have taken over a country armed with long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads... as well as a jet fighter that was supposed to be the best in the world."

Out of a list of some 500 opposition figures targeted by Khomeini, nearly 200 of them were killed by Iranian assassins in Europe between 1980 and 1997.

Writing from an Israeli perspective, Mr. Bergman does not delve deeply into Iranian grievances or aspirations. But neither does he flatter the competence, judgment or morality of Israeli intelligence and military officials.

Categorized by the publisher as "political science," the book is more of a work of intelligence history, with numerous strange tales of intelligence deeds and misdeeds, like the Israeli intelligence officer who was arrested for murdering his agent, and the Lebanese source who provided perfect warning of an impending attack only to be ignored in a turf battle between Israeli security agencies. The CIA is credited with "brilliantly" dismantling the Abu Nidal Organization, "sewing discord among its members by getting them to believe that they were being robbed by other operatives."

Mr. Bergman, an investigative journalist who writes for Israel's Yediot Aharonot, earned his doctorate under historian Christopher Andrew at Cambridge University. His dissertation explored Israeli intelligence operations in Africa.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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