Tue, Jul 31, 2007 - Page 9 News List

The author of the `jihadist bible' recants

An apparently sincere revisionist message from a prison cell in Egypt has shaken al-Qaeda figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri

By Ian Black  /  THE GUARDIAN , CAIRO

In a prison cell south of Cairo a repentant Egyptian terrorist leader is putting the finishing touches on a remarkable recantation that undermines the Muslim theological basis for violent jihad and is set to generate furious controversy among former comrades still fighting with al-Qaeda.

Sayid Imam al-Sharif, 57, was the founder and first emir (commander) of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, whose supporters assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later teamed up with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet occupation.

Sharif, a surgeon who is still known by his underground name of "Dr Fadl," is famous as the author of the Salafi jihadists' "bible" -- Foundations of Preparation for Holy War. He worked with Ayman al-Zawahiri, another Egyptian doctor and now bin Laden's deputy, before being kidnapped in Yemen after Sept. 11, interrogated by the CIA and extradited to Egypt where he has been serving a life sentence since 2004.

Sharif recently gave an electrifying foretaste of his conversion by condemning killings on the basis of nationality and color of skin and the targeting of women and children, citing the Koran injunction: "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits; for God loveth not transgressors."

Armed operations were wrong, counterproductive and must cease, he declared sternly.

Zawahiri, evidently rattled, rounded sarcastically on him in a video message broadcast after Sharif's statement -- faxed from Torah prison to an Arabic newspaper -- announced not only his change of heart but a book-length repudiation endorsed by hundreds of other former militants, and which is due to be published soon.

"Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?" Zawahiri asked. "I wonder if they're connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines [used to torture prisoners]," dismissing the exercise as propaganda warfare by Hosni Mubarak's security services.

But Egyptian and Western experts, government officials and former jihadis agree that Sharif's shift is both genuine and highly significant.

"People will say things to stop being tortured, but this is the result of a long process of reflection and debate," insists Muntasir al-Zayyat, a lawyer jailed for Islamic Jihad membership in the 1980s.

"When the book comes out there will be a furious reaction from Zawahiri and the global jihadi movement. It is clear that Sayid Imam will call a halt to killing operations in Egypt and abroad," he says.

Diaa Rashwan, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says: "I have no doubt that this is genuine. It will be a real shock and cause a lot of confusion. Jihadis will see hundreds of their former brothers criticizing their most fundamental ideas. That's why Zawahiri is so bothered by it."

No one is predicting that the book will bring an end to suicide bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan. But interest is so intense that several Arabic newspapers are competing to buy the 100-page work, entitled Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World.

Sharif's recantation has emerged from an Egyptian government counter-radicalization program which has successfully "converted" and rehabilitated members of the Gama'a Islamiyya (Islamic Group), once the largest jihadist organization in the Arab world, and which mounted countless armed attacks starting in the 1980s until calling a ceasefire after massacring 62 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997.

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