The London attacks are the symptoms of an internal war among two Islamic trends, and may be a sign of growing desperation by one group.
Clearly the London explosions indicate that al Qaeda is still capable of carrying out well-planned attacks in the heart of London, one of the most secured European capitals. The operation surpassed in magnitude any attack carried out by the IRA in Britain for past five decades. The bombings were designed to punish the most loyal ally of the United States for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But why now?
The answer goes beyond the G8 summit, which coincided with the explosions, and lies instead within an ongoing conflict between two Islamic trends. The first trend, largely represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 in Egypt, calls for peaceful political participation to bring about a society based on Islamic principles. The other one, largely represented by al Qaeda, supports any means necessary, including violence, to achieve similar goals.
The “cold war” between these two groups, as some Arab commentators call it, started in 1970s in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood rejected other former Brotherhood members—mainly young students who were severely tortured by the Egyptian government—upon their release from prison. By calling for the use of violence against the government, these students had become too radical for the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood also rejected the teachings of Said Qutub, a former Brotherhood member whose prison writings provide the ideological foundation for most radical Islamic movements.
Kamal Habib, an Islamic scholar who appears on Al Jazeera’s Web site, writes that the young students formed the nucleus of the Egyptian radical Salafi and Takafiri trends, the ideological foundation of al Qaeda. Radical Salafism is an extremist interpretation of how Islam was practiced in the time of the Prophet. Takfirism claims the right to declare others infidels, including Muslims, thus sanctioning their punishment or murder.
Habib explains that the war between the Muslim Brotherhood and these two trends was played out in Egypt in Al Azahar, Alexandria and Cairo universities. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve tangible results in fighting corruption and changing the Egyptian government helped these radical groups win many students to their side.
The radical Salafi trend criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for, in their view, compromising the principles of jihad and accepting subjugation to infidel regimes closely associated with the U.S.
Radical students, including al Qaeda top lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, once a leader in the Egyptian Jihad organization, declared Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat an infidel, and assassinated him in October 1981. Several hundreds of these radicals were imprisoned and eventually sent to Afghanistan to fight the former Soviet Union. The Egyptian government hoped that they would die there.
In Afghanistan, not only did al-Zawahiri deviate from Muslim Brotherhood head Abdullah Azzam, the charismatic leader who was able to recruit young Arab men to fight against the U.S.S.R., but he also convinced the successful financier Osama Bin Laden to leave Azzam and join him in what would become the most lethal radical Islamic organization, Al Qaeda.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks achieved great success for the two men in gaining legitimacy, which was evident in the amount of attention that Bin Laden’s and Al-Zawahiri’s speeches were receiving in the Muslim world. Things had changed, however, by the time al-Zawahiri gave his latest speech on May 18 of this year.
The thrust of al-Zawahiri’s speech, aired on Al Jazeera, was to criticize the recent and groundbreaking peaceful demonstrations in Egypt that were largely organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. “Driving the invading Crusader troops and Jews from Islamic countries cannot be achieved through demonstrations and chanting slogans in the street,” al-Zawahiri said. “We can achieve reform and drive the invaders out only through fighting in the cause of God.”
But this did not cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to reverse its April decision to join the Egyptian social movement “Kefayah” (”change”), which is led by the Christian Egyptian George Ishak and includes communists, leftists, secularists and nationalists.
Al-Zawahiri also criticized the new position taken by Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood organization that, since the election of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed to a “cooling off” period, refrained from suicide operations and participated in municipal elections. “I salute my brothers, the lions of Islam, who are garrisoned on the holy frontiers of Islam in the environs of Jerusalem,” al-Zawahiri said. “I beseech them, invoking the name of the Almighty God, not to renounce their jihad; not to lay down their arms ... and not to allow themselves to be dragged into the game of secular elections under a secular constitution.”
But senior Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahar recently told Al Jazeera television, “resistance does not have to be armed,” which is the opposite of Hamas’ past policy line: “What was taken by force can only be taken back by force.” Even before Hamas’ new stance, their attacks against Israeli civilians were rationalized as a defensive jihad, and not based on a Takafiri stance.
This in turn follows many reports in Arab media about an “American-Islamic dialogue” between Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, and retired U.S. government officials.
The London bombings, in this view, look like an attempt by Al Qaeda to regain momentum and respect in the Muslim world at a time when many Islamic figures are renouncing violence and turning toward politics. Most recently, on July 8, Abu Muhamad al-Maqdsi, the spiritual leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, criticized the targeting of Shiite mosques and citizens in Iraq. The U.S. is pressuring Egypt to end its ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and to stop detaining Brotherhood leaders. This is a Bush administration attempt to correct the historical mistake in which U.S. support for secular Egyptian regimes in their oppression of Brotherhood leaders only radicalized these leaders and empowered their ideology.
Jalal Ghazi monitors and translates Arab media for New California Media (a project of PNS) and Link TV. ?