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Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright on The Rebellion Within, the current fracturous state of al Qaeda

Saturday, May 31, 2008

HH: A special hour of the Hugh Hewitt Show, I’m joined again, and we’re glad to have him back, by Lawrence Wright, Lawrence Wright the author of The Looming tower, the very important genealogy, really, of al Qaeda, where did it come from, why does it believe what it believes, which won, rightly so, the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. He’s also the author of many other important articles on al Qaeda and the terror networks, including the Master Plan in the September, 2006, issue of the New Yorker, The Terror Web in the August, 2004, New Yorker, and now a brand new piece in the June 2, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, titled The Rebellion Within. Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

LW: Hugh, it’s good to hear you again.

HH: Let’s start with a little history on the assumption that some of our audience is walking in from off-stage, and they really don’t know much about this, so we can put the importance of The Rebellion Within into context. And I think we should probably start with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its leading theorist, Sayyid Qutb, when it got started, and Qutb’s contribution to it, Lawrence Wright.

LW: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood was the sort of the grandfather of all of the Islamist movements. They began in 1928 in Egypt. And Sayyid Qutub was one of its major ideologues. He had come to America in 1948, and hated America at a time when America’s standing in the rest of the world was really very high. And he spent two years in America, and went back and wrote some very influential articles. But the main thing that he did, the main thing he wrote, was a book called Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq, or Signposts Along The Road, which he published in prison. And in there, he denounced the Muslim rulers, and said that all of the Muslim rulers are infidels, and he called for a vanguard of Muslim youth to rise up and overthrow them, saying that Islam could not really be practiced in current times because of the conditions that Muslims were living in. And it was that philosophy in that very book that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy in al Qaeda, read. That’s the book that is at the basis of so much of al Qaeda’s philosophy.

HH: Is it sometimes translated as Milestones?

LW: Milestones, yeah.

HH: Or Signposts.

LW: Yeah.

HH: Also, could you give us sort of the brief sort of history of Europe after the king is overthrown, the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak approach to governing this massive Arab state, especially their relationship with fundamentalist Islam?

LW: Well, Nasser, when he came into power in 1952, he thought that he could broker a deal with the Muslim Brothers, and he worked with Sayyid Qutb. But they had such fundamentally different ideas about what they wanted, Nasser was essentially a secular socialist. And his interest was in creating this pan-Arab nation. Well, Sayyid Qutb had no interest in any of that. He was certainly not a secularist. He wanted to create a theocracy. Pan-Arabism didn’t mean anything to him, because Muslims are not necessarily confined to Arabs. He wanted to create a caliphate that would include all Muslims. And finally, he wasn’t interested in socialism. As a strict Muslim, socialism wasn’t really interesting to him. It’s not a part of their ideology. So they didn’t agree on anything. And in 1954, there was an assassination attempt on Nasser by the Muslim Brothers. And after that, Nasser rounded up thousands of them, put them in prisons. Qutb was one of those who was imprisoned, and later hanged in 1966. And that was a critical moment in our story, because a young man named Ayman al-Zawahiri started a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government that year, and he was fifteen years old.

HH: Wow. And for the benefit of people who are more closely acquainted with European history, I’ve been developing an analogy that I use with folks, and I’d love your reaction to it, Lawrence Wright, that Qutb is really the Marx of the Islamic fundamentalism of this generation, and that if you look at Azzam and bin Laden as the Lenin’s, you’ve got maybe Zawahiri as the Stalin, and your new article deals a lot with the guy who’s probably their Trotsky, Fadl.

LW: Uh huh.

HH: But it does have these generational…but the fountain is Qutb, and I think that’s the key thing.

LW: Right.

HH: …and that Zawahiri is radicalized. When does he meet Dr. Fadl, and can you tell people a little bit about Dr. Fadl at this point?

LW: Sure. They met in medical school in 1968. They were both teenagers, and they were both very precocious young men. As I said, Zawahiri was already involved in underground work in Cairo to try to overthrow the Egyptian government. And he met this young man, whose real name is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and he was probably somewhat ahead of Zawahiri in his skills and his devotion not only to his studies in medical science, but in the jurisprudence of Islam. Those were two things that he was very intent on learning. And eventually, Zawahiri drew him into his own little cell, and implicated him in the, they were rounded up after the assassination of Anwar Sadat after 1981. But Dr. Fadl got away before he was arrested.

HH: Now you write in The Rebellion Within about the astonishing capacity of Fadl. He has an extraordinary memory and an extraordinary grasp of the Koran, and of the Hadith, and is far the superior scholar to Zawahiri.

LW: Right.

HH: …and doctor, it appears from your article.

LW: Well, he was making quite a career for himself as a young doctor, as a plastic surgeon. He specialized in burn injuries. And by all accounts, he was a superb physician.

HH: Zawahiri goes to jail in the roundup after Sadat is assassinated in ’81, Fadl gets to Pakistan where he finishes the book, The Essential Guide For Preperation. Can you flash forward to ’88? Zawahiri is out, and we’ve got pretty much all of the jihadists are gathered in Afghanistan at this point, or Pakistan, perhaps, that region. And the big four get together, Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri and Fadl. Fill us in a little bit about Azzam and what comes out of that meeting.

LW: What we’re talking about is the creation of al Qaeda, which was twenty years ago. This August will be its 20th anniversary, which is a long time for a terror group to stay in existence. If you remember, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and nine years later, ten years later, they were essentially defeated, and they had announced their withdrawal. And it was bin Laden’s dream to round up these young men who had answered the summons to jihad that Azzam had issued, he was sort of the godfather of jihad. And bin Laden wanted to round them up before they went home and create a kind of Muslim foreign legion that would pursue the Soviets into Central Asia, and he would also employ them against the communist government that was then in control of Yemen. So essentially, he created this organization as an anti-communist militia.

HH: It relocates to Sudan, though, the following year.

LW: It was after 1992, that they go to Sudan. That was because bin Laden had fallen out with the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia. The cause for that was that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in 1990, and he was massing troops on Saudi Arabia’s border. And bin Laden had gone to this minister of defense and propose that he would defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with al Qaeda, which couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred guys at the time, and a hundred thousand unemployed Saudi youth, and the earth moving equipment of his father’s construction company against what was a two million man army with one of the largest tank corps in the world. And of course, he was laughed out of the office, but his real fear was that the U.S. and Western nations would come in to the holy land of Saudi Arabia, and that’s indeed what happened, half a million troops. And in his reading of Islam, there should be no non-Muslims in the entire Arabian Peninsula. This was a sacrilege. And that’s the basis of his argument with the Royal Family.

HH: And with about a minute to our break, we’re getting up to 9/11 here. But they go to Sudan, the whole group of them, and Fadl’s working on his second major book, The Compendium Of The Pursuit Of Divine Knowledge. But Zawahiri replaces Fadl as the emir, as you call it, of al-Jihad, the Egyptian-based terrorist group.

LW: Right.

HH: They’ve had a falling our by this point. Why?

LW: Well, they were always kind of edgy with each other. And although Fadl was the actual emir of the group, most of the members didn’t even know it. They thought that Zawahiri was their leader. And in the early 90’s, Zawahiri had begun to wage war in Egypt against the Egyptian government. And it was a complete catastrophe for his terror organization. The Egyptian government rounded up thousands of his followers, and threw them in prison. And you know, many people were killed, and the members of the terror organization called al-Jihad, which became the core of al Qaeda, they demanded their leader’s resignation. And they were surprised to find that their leader was Dr. Fadl, who willingly left, because he was bored with this kind of action by now, and he’d finished his life’s work, he though, in writing this book.

– – – –

HH: Lawrence Wright, after Dr. Fadl, really the fellow who developed the ideology beyond Qutb of al Qaeda, including I guess the doctrine of takfiri – is he the guy who comes up with that?

LW: Well, you know, this is really key to understanding al Qaeda. Takfir, essentially, the word means excommunication. And it goes, it’s an ancient heresy within Islam. There’ve been problems with Muslims declaring that other Muslims weren’t Muslims since the early days of the religion. But in modern times, it really started with Sayyid Qutb, who was in prison when the government assassinated twenty-something Muslim Brothers in the prison, in a cell. They just opened up the door and shot them down. And Sayyid Qutb was in the prison hospital when some of the wounded were brought in, and he asked himself what kind of Muslim would do this to another Muslim. And his answer was they are not Muslims. Now that’s what takfir means. He declared that they were not Muslims, that they were heretics, they were apostates, and that under Muslim law, they were deserving of death. Now Dr. Fadl picked that doctrine up in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he and Zawahiri and others were staging for the jihad against the Soviets. He expanded that in his second book to encompass any Muslim who, not just the leaders who were corrupt and were not enforcing Sharia as they believed, but any Muslim who lived under such a regime and didn’t engage in jihad against that ruler. In other words, practically all Muslims were infidels in his point of view. And it gave al Qaeda the warrant to kill anybody that’s in their way.

HH: And it led to atrocities like the Luxor massacre. Even though Fadl’s gone to Yemen, Zawahiri’s attempting though al-Jihad to overthrow the Egyptian government, and ’97 marks the Luxor Massacre. That’s takfir, is it not?

LW: Absolutely, yeah. Most of the victims were actually tourists, but about a dozen Egyptians were killed as well, and most of them were Muslims. So there was no discrimination in terms of who they were killing.

HH: Of course, Zawahiri goes with bin Laden now, Fadl’s been sidelined to Yemen, and the blind Sheik is in America, and in jail, and so the leadership goes to Afghanistan. But then 9/11 happens, and Fadl says al Qaeda’s committed group suicide. Did he disapprove of the action on a theological basis or because of its practical consequences?

LW: Well, actually, Hugh, this…the point of this argument is that there are two tracks.

HH: Yup.

LW: One is practical, you know, does it accomplish our goals. And in terms of 9/11, no. If you wanted to wound America and cause it to withdraw from the Middle East, the consequence is the opposite. You wounded America, but now we invade two Muslim countries, and we and the West are much more deeply engrossed in Middle Eastern affairs than we were previously. And then the second is theological – is this the correct Muslim practice? Are we doing the right thing? And what Dr. Fadl had sold in his previous books to young Muslims who were considering joining al Qaeda, is the philosophy that this is the only route to salvation. Islam has to be purified. No Muslim can go to Heaven without reestablishing the kind of pure Islam we stand for. And now, you know, one of his arguments, for instance, about 9/11 is indiscriminate killing is against Islam. And that was part of his reaction to 9/11.

HH: Now let’s update it to where we are today. In 2003, Fadl was arrested in Yemen, and shipped to Egypt secretly. And this past year, he wrote a new book called Rationalizing Jihad, primarily composed in the Scorpion, within Tora prison…by the way, the Scorpion sounds like about the last place in the world anyone wants to be.

LW: Yeah, it is. Well, Egyptian prisons are infamous.

HH: And in this 2007, Rationalizing Jihad, Fadl, the author of so much, writes, “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that, and there is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Lawrence Wright, this must have sent earthquakes through al Qaeda.

LW: Well, yeah, you can judge their reaction by the fact that Zawahiri has responded in repeated videos, and has written a 200 page book trying to refute Dr. Fadl’s arguments. And he’s not the only member of al Qaeda. They’ve brought out ever legion, you know, that they can to attack Dr. Fadl to try to dampen the argument that’s going on right now.

HH: Now the obvious question will be, how much coercion is in Dr. Fadl’s renunciation of his previous ideology? What do you think on this?

LW: Well, I don’t know. I mean, the honest answer is that he’s in an Egyptian prison, and they can do horrible things to him. On the other hand, he’s one of many voices, some of which have come out of the prisons, and others of whom are free. There was a movement that has started in the Egyptian prisons in the 1990s, on the part of another organization called Gama’a Islamiya, or the Islamic Group. And they had begun, after years, decades of being in Egyptian prison, to reexamine their violent views. Now this is long past the time when torture and that sort of thing might have been used on them. And they began to write a series of revisions. Now, a lot of these guys are out of prison, and I’ve talked to them. And they are no longer under the kind of subjugation that they were in the Egyptian prisons. It’s pretty clear that they have had a sincere rethinking of their previous views. And Fadl’s views track theirs very closely. So yes, as Zawahiri points out, how can you take it seriously, it comes out of the Egyptian prisons. As he said himself, when Fadl sent a fax out to a London newspaper about announcing his book, Zawahiri said well, I didn’t know they had faxes in the Egyptian prisons. I wonder if they’re connected to the electric shock machine.

– – – –

HH: Lawrence Wright, you taught at the American University in Cairo for many years, and one of the asides that I found so fascinating in The Rebellion Within is your sort of look at great intervals at what’s going on in Cairo, and it’s just getting worse and worse there.

LW: Yeah, it’s a miserable period for Egyptians. And you know, they’ve been suffering for a long time. And a lot of the causes of the radicalism that has come out of that region are simply the political repression that’s so characteristic of those regimes. Since Sadat was assassinated in 1981, you know, we’re talking 27 years ago, the country’s been ruled by one man, Mubarak…

HH: Hosni.

LW: Hosi Mubarak, right. And his son, Gamal, is standing in the wings. It’s…and it’s a place where food riots are going on now, the cost of living is increasing, people are feeling real despair. And the way the government responds to it is to round up, for instance, recently, 600 members of the Muslim Brothers, and throw them in prison for no reason at all, just to show, exercise their strength. It’s…the people are really demoralized, and I don’t know what might happen in the next few years there.

HH: What is the role of the grand mufti, am I pronouncing it right, Gomaa?

LW: Yeah, Sheik Ali Gomaa.

HH: Explain…he’s in this…in terms of destabilizing al Qaeda’s ideology, and at the same time, what does he represent in Egypt?

LW: Well, he is one of the top sheiks in the Islamic world. His job at, he’s with al-Azhar, the university, kind of the Vatican, if you will, of Islam, and his job is to issue the fatwas that govern Islamic life, and there are five thousand a week that come out of his office. So it’s a very time consuming job. But over the last decade or so, Sheik Ali has been going into the prisons and talking to the prisoners about their views of Islam, and pointing out to them the distortions in their thinking that have led to their violent actions. And so he’s been guiding some of the revisions. Now I want to point out, he’s essentially a government employee. And he’s got an incentive in steering them towards his, the government’s perspective.

HH: You also mentioned in The Rebellion Within the work of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia who issued a fatwa in October of 2007, forbidding Saudi youth to join the jihad outside of the country.

LW: And then al Qaeda tried to kill him. Saudi authorities rounded up a bunch of young al Qaedaistas after that. They stopped a plot.

HH: And Sheikh Salman al-Oadah, who is another former bin Ladenist whose now rebuked him on television, are these outliers? Or do they represent a sort of generalized revulsion against al Qaeda?

LW: Well, I think that you’re beginning to see a consensus developing not among moderate Muslims, but among radical ones, that first of all, these actions are not productive, and secondly, they are not Islam. They are indiscriminate violence, they…bin Laden and al Qaeda use principles that are opposed to the fundamental tenets of Islam. And this is an attack from within radical Islam itself, and that’s why I think it’s so significant.

HH: Have you read Michael Yon’s new book yet, Moment Of Truth In Iraq?

LW: No, I haven’t.

HH: He describes in great detail the Anbar uprising, or the Anbar awakening, where the brutality of al Qaeda did more to turn the Sunni sheiks and imams of that region against it, and it’s sort of a microcosm of what you talk about over the course of twenty years in The Rebellion Within. There’s a self-correction built into radicalism, almost.

LW: Yeah, I mean, for one thing, Dr. Fadl’s argument places the relevance of al Qaeda at question right now. Al Qaeda can’t exist without terror. That’s all it is. It can’t really very well defend its philosophy. It’s own philosopher has overturned the apple cart. And so the only thing that al Qaeda can do to demonstrate its relevance is to create some other radical, terrible, tragic action. And I think they’re under a lot of pressure right now to do something like that.

– – – –

HH: Lawrence Wright, Zawahiri did not take Dr. Fadl’s new book lying down. As we mentioned earlier, he responded with a 200 page letter. And was it coherent? Or was it contingent and argumentative, but not persuasive?

LW: You know, he makes some good points, but he’s really not a theologian himself, and so it’s very difficult for him to respond to the jurisprudential argument that Dr. Fadl makes. He’s not adept that way. He steers it mainly into politics. And his line is mistakes have been made, but mistakes were made during the Prophet’s time, but jihad did not stop. And you can see that he’s grasping at straws in some respects. For instance, he says well, you know, why blame us? Look at Hamas, for instance. They kill civilians indiscriminately with their missiles into Israel. Why don’t you attack them, which is of course, he knows that that’s a very touchy issue for a lot of Muslims who see the resistance movements in Palestine as having a kind of different moral standing.

HH: Two aspects of your summary of his letter struck me. One, his attempt to rationalize 9/11 as a response to the 1998 bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. That just, that can’t be persuasive, even to a radical jihadist.

LW: Well, you know, he says that the only difference between the bombing of, the American bombing of that pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum is that it was Muslims who died there. Of course, only one Muslim died there. Only one person died there. It was a night watchman. And in New York, it was infidels. And of course, many Muslims died in that attack. And what Dr. Fadl is pointing out is that it’s against Islam to kill people indiscriminately, and it’s against Islam to kill civilians. Zawahiri can’t respond to those arguments, because there’s no ground for him to do that.

HH: I was also interested in your summary, that he takes, Zawahiri does, time in his response to attack Hezbollah.

LW: Yeah.

HH: And this is, of course, there were some contingent operational agreements between Shia radicalism and Sunni fundamentalist radicalism, but Zawahiri’s not buying that anymore, is he?

LW: You know, it’s…he is being outflanked. I think that that’s what’s happening, is that al Qaeda is much less relevant now than it has been. And Hezbollah has really put itself forward as a major player in the region in a way that al Qaeda’s simply been unable to do. And I think that there’s probably some envy built into those remarks.

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about, though, where it goes from here. I’m reading from the last couple of pages of your article, is al Qaeda finished? “It is, of course, unlikely that Al Qaeda will voluntarily follow the example of the Islamist Group and Zawahiri’s own organization, Al Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear that radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to. Radical Islam began as a spiritual call to the Muslim world to unify and strengthen itself through holy warfare. For the dreamers who long to institute God’s justice on earth, Fadl’s revisions represent a substantial moral challenge. But for the young nihilists who are joining the Al Qaeda movement for their own reasons-revenge, boredom, or a desire for adventure-the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.” Expand on that, Lawrence Wright. What are the relative numbers here?

LW: Well, you know, when we talk about al Qaeda, al Qaeda central, the core of al Qaeda, a member of Egyptian intelligence puts a number at fewer than 200. American intelligence says they estimate between three and five hundred. But it’s not a very large organization. It’s much reduced from what it was. On the other hand, al Qaeda is a movement, and there are many affiliates that are connected to some extent with al Qaeda central, and then there are a lot of wannabes that are al Qaeda sympathizers. Those people, and I think especially among the wannabes, there are a lot of nihilists who are only in this for action. There’s been some interesting European studies, especially a Dutch study, of this third generation of al Qaeda. And they’re so much less focused politically than their forbearers in that group. They have very poorly formed ideas about what they’re up to. They’re just striking out. And for them, I don’t think they’re going to care about what Dr. Fadl has to say.

HH: And so what is the, in that Dutch study, or in the other reading that you’ve done, how to combat that?

LW: Well, I think that one thing that we’ve done, I think the best thing that we’ve done since 9/11, is to model the behavior that we’re doing right now with this magnificent election we’re having, where we’re really talking to ourselves about who we are and what kind of country we want to become. And I can tell you the Muslim world is fixated on it, because it’s such an example of what they don’t have, the opportunity to change their governments, to really reform their own countries. This has been a lesson that America has given to the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world, that I think is very valuable. And that’s one way, I think the most productive way, that we can address this problem.

HH: You know, Robin Wright was a guest on the program after she wrote Shadows And Dreams. And I took away from that that I don’t see much evidence of any kind of political opening in any of these Arab states. Have you seen any indication that there’s political progress being made in any of these states, Lawrence Wright?

LW: Well, there was a period of time in 2005, really, when the Bush administration had put a lot of pressure on different Arab governments. And if you remember, there were votes in Iraq and Lebanon, Afghanistan, you know, it felt like a big change was coming. But that door closed. And also, we’re not pushing on that door anymore.

– – – –

HH: I want to thank Lawrence Wright for spending this much time with us again, the author of The Looming Tower has a brand new article in the June 2, 2008, New Yorker, which I very much recommend to you. It is called The Rebellion Within. I’ve linked it at Lawrence Wright, I want to finish by talking about Iraq. Obviously, there’s word out of Mosul this week that even though there are some suicide bombings, that al Qaeda has lost its very last stronghold after a series of devastating blows between the United States military and the Iraqi Security Forces, and they’ve put up on some of their websites basic hand-wringing over how did we lose Iraq, et cetera. How important is it to the destruction of radical jihadism that Iraq be stabilized, and become sort of that emblematic, if not a democracy, at least a non-repressive, I don’t know, alternative to either Mubarak or Syrian strong men, or Saudi Arabian absolutism and moncharists? How important is Iraq now?

LW: Well, you know, there are two really important intellectual centers in the Arab world. One is Egypt, the other is Iraq. And the idea behind the invasion of Iraq, which I was opposed to, was to set up this model democracy that would then become a beacon for reform all over the region. It’s going to be really hard to achieve the goal that we had set out, although now, I am in the awkward political position of being opposed to withdrawing. I think we should stay there as long as we can to try to hold this entity together until they are able to remain stable, create a fairly reliable electoral process, police force, and that kind of thing, and take care of themselves. I don’t know if we can achieve that, but it’s hopeful to see that Iraq has been, you know, I don’t want to say that they’ve been put to death completely in Iraq, but they certainly are in retreat. And that’s critical, because if al Qaeda won in Iraq, who knows how far it would go.

HH: Lawrence Wright, last question, what are you working on next? You know, I always look for your byline, and obviously, these are complicated pieces. Are you ever going to grow weary of charting this very extreme and dark side of the world?

LW: Yes, I am (laughing). I am weary of it many times. And I’m taking a little break. I’m doing a screenplay for Ridley Scott, and I’ve been working on a play about the making of the movie Cleopatra in 1962. So you can see that I’m trying to put a little distance between myself and the terror world.

HH: Well, you deserve it. You’ve done such great work. Thank you again for this piece, and for an extra hour of insight into it. Lawrence Wright, always a pleasure. Maybe we can talk about your screenplay sometime, Cleopatra. Thanks for spending time with us.

End of interview.

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