Rejecting the terrorist vision
In a prison cell south of Cairo a repentant Egyptian terrorist leader is putting the finishing touches to 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-Qaida.It appears to be a voice for sanity and civilization in rejecting the violent religious bigotry of al Qaeda's leaders. Whether it will have any effect is not clear. I suspect that the al Qaeda types will try to murder him for making the statement. That is their MO with people who reject their bigotry.
Sayid Imam al-Sharif, 57, was the founder and first emir (commander) of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organisation, 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 9/11, interrogated by the CIA and extradited to Egypt where 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 colour of skin and the targeting of women and children, citing the Qur'anic 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."