A senior Bush administration counterterrorism official said Tuesday that an analysis of public statements by al Qaeda in the past year shows that nearly half the verbiage is devoted to justifying the group’s legitimacy.
The terrorist group seems to be adopting a more defensive tone in its public pronouncements, indicating that its leaders may be concerned that criticism from former allies and the increasing civilian death toll from attacks are undermining support.
Al Qaeda senior leaders this year “have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group’s legitimacy,” said senior U.S. intelligence official Ted Gistaro. “This defensive tone continues a trend observed since at least last summer and 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.”
Mr. Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats and the top U.S. intelligence analyst on terrorist groups, spoke at a briefing organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and gave an assessment of U.S. progress in its fight against al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Gistaro said al Qaeda had “maintained or strengthened key elements of its capability to attack the United States in the past year,” mainly because of safe haven in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, where the group “now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in [Taliban-controlled] Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller and less secure scale.”
Despite its continuing operational capabilities, the group had been hurt on the ideological front, he said.
Al Qaeda “has suffered several setbacks among its key constituents,” including the fact that its “brutal attacks against Muslim civilians are tarnishing its image among both mainstream and extremist” Muslims.
Mr. Gistaro highlighted criticism of al Qaeda from former allies such as Egyptian extremist leader Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl, and from other Islamic hard-liners, such as Saudi cleric Sheik Salman al-Oadah.
Analysts cautioned, however, that it was important not to make too much of these ideological divisions.
“It is a positive development,” Stephen Ulph, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, told United Press International, “but al Qaeda was born in controversy, in a pamphlet war [with other extremists], if you will. … They have had to defend their position and argue their case since the very beginning. … They’re used to it.
“There is a bit more flak headed their way, but they are hardly on the run.”
Other analysts added that it was hard to tell what the impact of these critiques would be on al Qaeda’s members and supporters.
“We don’t know what effect this is having on recruitment,” said Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute, who wrote a brief study of de-radicalization among terrorists earlier this year. “The reality is that counterterrorism authorities do not have a full grasp on what type of impact these kinds of pronouncements will have.”
Sheik al-Oadah was one of the first religious leaders to preach against the presence of U.S. forces in the desert kingdom back in the early 1990s and was an early inspiration for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In an open letter to bin Laden last September, the cleric accused him of having the blood on his hands of “at least hundreds of thousands of innocent people, if not millions.”
“Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders?” he said.
In a lengthy treatise faxed to Arab media outlets from an Egyptian jail earlier last year, Dr. Fadl wrote: “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that.”
Al Qaeda leaders, and in particular the group’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, have addressed these criticisms in several ways, analysts said.
“Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?” al-Zawahri asked in an al Qaeda video message after Dr. Fadl’s fax appeared. “I wonder if they’re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.”
Lawrence Wright, author and longtime specialist on al Qaeda, speculated earlier this year that “this sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadl’s manifesto … among al Qaeda insiders.”
But, according to the Jamestown Foundation, al-Zawahri also sought to deal substantively with Dr. Fadl’s detailed critique, publishing a 188-page rebuttal of his thesis in March this year.
The rebuttal was “comprehensive,” wrote Jamestown analyst Abdul Hameed Bakier, “using religious arguments and logic to refute and highlight weaknesses in the document.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “the lengthy response demonstrates that al Qaeda is seriously alarmed by the possible negative consequences the document might inflict on their ideology and the jihadi movement.”