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POLITICS-EGYPT: Al Qaeda Faction Alters Course

Emad Mekay

CAIRO, Nov 20 2007 (IPS) - The ideology al Qaeda rests on to justify its activities suffered a major blow this week.

The Al-Jihad Group, partly responsible for killing former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and the nest for some of most aggressive smaller violent groups, has begun publishing a “review of its positions” in two Arabic language newspapers.

The leading al Qaeda faction – once led by al Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahri – has altered its traditional course by publishing this series of critiques of the religious justifications long relied on in calling for followers to take up arms against ruling regimes and foreign powers.

In the new “document”, al-Jihad Group’s founder and leading ideologue, Sayed Imam, renounces violent activities and calls for ceasing all armed operations in Egypt and in other Arab or Muslim countries.

Imam – al-Zawahri’s teacher and long time friend – is currently in custody at a high-security Egyptian prison.

Analysts here say that the Imam’s initiative – not directed at Egyptians, Arabs or even Muslims alone, but directed specifically at al Qaeda – derives its strength from the weight of its author.

“This al-Jihad initiative is very important, it is directed mostly to the outside world and more explicitly to the leaders of al-Jihad Group and al Qaeda because the author of those reviews is Sayed Imamal-Sharief, the very same person whose former writings are the point of reference for the al-Jihad members,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups at al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Imam was the first Amir, or leader, for the al-Jihad Group in 1968 and the first leader of an armed cell who ever decided to fight fellow Muslims.

Imam also authored, “The Principle Book for Preparations”, a reference book that al Qaeda uses to justify its operations and win new recruits on religious grounds.

Al-Jihad Group is responsible for one of the bloodiest campaigns against the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak in the1980’s and 1990’s that drew in hundreds of young recruits and cost dozens of lives.

For decades, Imam’s writings have also formed the backbone for the philosophical arguments touted by several other armed groups to validate their attacks.

But in the new review he now says his group “erred enormously from an Islamic point of view” by allowing “killing based on nationality, color of skin and hair or based on religious doctrine”.

“Those are actually the methods of secular revolutionaries and not the methods of Islam. There’s no such a thing as the goal justifies the means in Islam, even when the goals are noble are legitimate. Muslims worship God by using legitimate methods too,” he wrote.

Imam contends that those who target innocent people are working outside the parameters of the Islamic Sharia, or law.

“They place their own desires and will before that of Allah’s,” he argues in this new milestone study.

Imam says the Islamic rules for war stipulate that if Muslims are not certain about the true nature and make-up of the enemy “then it’s compulsory under the rules of Islam not to take up arms against them” for fear that innocent people might be included and harmed.

The review calls for an end to targeting of “all civilians”, and “tourists of all races”.

The al-Jihad Group and its offshoots have in the past targeted local police and military officers, foreign tourists and other Muslims who disagree with their philosophy.

Imam says he was prompted to write the review after noticing persistent “violations” by members of the al-Jihad Group in its decades-long fight with authorities that has included excessive bloodshed, random killings and targeting of civilians.

Al-Jihad Group has traditionally been the most militant of the Islamic groups, refusing for the past ten years to follow in the foot-steps of al-Gamaa al-Islamia (Islamci Group), another militant group that renounced violence ten years ago.

This change is a severe blow to al Qaeda, whose deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahri headed al-Jihad group in Afghanistan after his teacher, Imam, was arrested in Egypt.

Al-Zawahri is widely expected to come out strongly against the plan known as “the non-violent initiative”.

The documents that are being serialized simultaneously in a local newspaper and a Kuwait newspaper are also important because they are expected to rekindle a debate in the Muslim world that is likely to include academic scholars, religious scholars and political activists over the methods employed by some of the militant groups and the true meaning of armed Jihad in Islam.

“A huge debate will happen after those documents are finished,” said Kamal Habib, an independent expert on Islamic groups who was formerly a member of Islamic militant groups.

A member of al-Gamaa al-Islamia, Essam Derbala, said the initiative was welcome news for all active Islamic groups, especially those who took up arms in the past, because it helps Muslim groups “work peacefully to strengthen their societies” against what he called Western “attempts to dissolve the Islamic nation” and against “the state of occupation we are experiencing” – referring to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israeli occupation of Arab land.

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