Consider Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist intellectual who influenced bin Laden and others. Qutb was executed by Gamel Abdel Nasser’s dictatorship in Egypt in August 1966, in an attempt to reduce his influence. That tactic backfired badly. Of the 98 fellow Muslim Brotherhood prisoners with whom Qutb discussed his new confrontational ideology in 1964, 35 were strongly supportive, 23 strongly opposed and 50 hesitant. Despite his intellectual status and prestige, Qutb had failed to persuade the majority of like-minded inmates under conditions of repression.
However, no sooner was Qutb the intellectual executed than Qutb the grand martyr was born. His supporters soon numbered in the thousands, rather than the dozens, and he came to inspire generations, not just individual inmates. Moreover, Qutb was executed by an Arab Nationalist Muslim leader, whereas bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs. That makes a significant difference in the Muslim world.
Imprisonment, followed by recantation of violence, has become almost a trend in several jihadist groups, notably the 20,000-strong Egyptian Islamic Group, factions of the al-Jihad Organization in Egypt and smaller groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Leading figures in armed Islamist movements have not only abandoned political violence, but have also de-legitimized it as a means for social and political change after spending periods in prison. For example, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (aka Dr Fadl), an al-Qaeda ideologue for a decade, published several books denouncing armed activism, both theologically and on tactical grounds, after spending several years in prison.
The same applies to the Islamic Group, a movement implicated in violent acts in almost a dozen countries throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including armed insurgency in Egypt, bombings in Croatia, assassination attempts in Ethiopia and training camps in Afghanistan. In the 2000s, the imprisoned leadership of the group produced more than 25 books aimed at de-legitimizing political violence as a method for change.
Eliminating the “spiritual guide” (as opposed to the organizational leaders) of a militant group might be perceived as a political victory for a government in the short term, but it probably makes a comprehensive deradicalization process less likely, and it will not necessarily mean the end of the organization in question. For long-term results, capture is almost always more effective than killing.
Omar Ashour is a lecturer in politics and director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK.
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