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Al Qaeda’s Dissident
How the prison writings of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of al Qaeda's founders now labeled a turn coat, are doing more to expose the terrorist group's hypocrisy than anyone else.
If there’s one man on this list whose ideas are having a real-world impact, it’s Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, sometimes known as Dr. Fadl. He’s hardly a household name in the West. But among violent jihadists, this 59-year-old Egyptian inmate — one of al Qaeda’s founders and one-time mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri — is viewed as a turncoat, a back-stabber, and a liar. In a remarkable series of prison writings renouncing violence and attacking al Qaeda on Islamic theological grounds, Sharif has done more to expose the terrorist group’s obscurantism and hypocrisy than almost anyone else.
Sharif came of age within the crucible of modern jihadism: Egypt in the 1970s. Along with Zawahiri, he studied to be a doctor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine. The two became close friends, and Sharif soon joined Zawahiri’s group al-Jihad. After the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and subsequent crackdown on all jihadi cells, both became wanted men.
Sharif managed to slip out of Egypt, temporarily resettling in Saudi Arabia. Zawahiri was not so lucky and faced several hard years in Egyptian prison. The pair later regrouped on the front line of the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where Sharif developed a reputation among the mujahideen as a serious jihadi scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence. Zawahiri, discredited for having revealed his terrorist accomplices to Egyptian authorities and demoralized by prison, ceded the reins of al-Jihad to Sharif in 1987.
During this period Sharif completed two key texts, The Essential Guide for Preparation and The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge. Essential Guide, published in 1988, inserted a steel rod into the jihadi backbone. His ultra-extreme definition of jihad, focused exclusively on martyrdom and eternal warfare, made even the godfather of global jihadism, Abdullah Azzam, wince. Despite lingering reservations from certain jihadi corners, Essential Guide quickly became a new legal compass for the global movement.
The 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan allowed al-Jihad to turn its focus back on the Egyptian government. But the relationship between Zawahiri and Sharif soured. Sharif had grown tired of al-Jihad’s repeated operational failures and legal missteps in Egypt. In 1993, Sharif turned command of al-Jihad back to Zawahiri and officially resigned from the leadership. Their final break came over Sharif’s most rabid work, Compendium.
Compendium expanded the definition of what constituted a disbeliever in jihadi ideology. Not only could Arab governments be found guilty of disbelief, but now, according to Compendium, anyone who willingly adhered to those rulers and their laws was damned. Anyone who voted in elections or participated in any way in the advancement of a government that was not under Islamic law ought to be slain.
Compendium — which would be taught alongside Essential Guide in al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps — was the zenith of Sharif’s career as a jihadi apologist, but it also marked the beginning of the end. Zawahiri — who had taken a manuscript copy of the book before publication — altered it significantly, cutting sections that criticized groups whose favor he was courting. Frustrated with Zawahiri’s blind insistence on continuing attacks in Egypt, and irritated with al Qaeda’s lack of religious rigor, focus, and strategy, Sharif was put over the edge by Zawahiri’s edits. He wrote off the entire jihadi enterprise in 1994 and went back to practicing medicine anonymously in Yemen until he was arrested there in 2001.
Handed over to Egypt in 2004, Sharif remains in prison today. Since his incarceration, his writings have taken aim at the very heart of the ideology that he once helped build. According to Sharif, this represents no particular epiphany: He claims he came to realize that the haphazard use of violence by Islamist groups causes more harm than good with respect to Islamic law, an idea he had been pondering since he left terrorism in the early 1990s.
In 2007, Sharif went public with those qualms, issuing Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World, in which he argued that al Qaeda’s version of jihad was not in compliance with Islamic law and, therefore, unjustifiable. Jihad, he wrote, is still a duty for Muslims and can include use of violence. There are, however, strict legal constraints governing that violence, constraints that he now argues al Qaeda has violated. One of the most significant of those is ensuring that other Muslims are not injured in the process. But al Qaeda, he points out, has built its post-9/11 reputation on killing Muslims.
In 2009, Sharif added to his case for nonviolent jihad with Gaza: Waving the Bloody Shirt, an attempt to reclaim the Palestinian cause from violent hard-line groups such as Hamas, which he thinks have unnecessarily spilled Muslim blood. It is one more brick in the counterideological bulwark that he is building against extremist jihadi terrorism.
An important metric for how vulnerable al Qaeda feels about a given topic is how much its leaders publicly discuss it. Not only has Zawahiri responded to Sharif in multiple video statements and interviews, but in early 2008 he published an entire book on the Internet, titled Exoneration, in which he states that Sharif is blatantly lying and manipulating facts to suit the agenda of his captors. Other al Qaeda leaders, supporters, and surrogates have released their own attacks on Sharif.
Sharif’s recent writings have re-energized a community of former Egyptian terrorists who now stand against the use of violence. Coming from within the movement, he has been able to subvert it in a way no one else ever has.