WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida increasingly faces criticism from once-loyal sympathizers who openly question its ideology and tactics, including attacks that kill innocent Muslims, according to U.S. intelligence officials, counterterrorism experts and the group’s own communications.
A litany of complaints targets Osama bin Laden’s network and its affiliates for their actions in Iraq and North Africa, their emphasis on suicide bombings instead of political action, and tepid support, or outright antagonism, for militant groups pressing the Palestinian cause.
The criticism apparently is serious enough that al-Qaida’s chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawahri, felt compelled to solicit online questions. He responded in an audiotape message released earlier in April. For more than 90 minutes, bin Laden’s second-in-command attempted to defuse the anger of many who wrote in.
Earlier this year, al-Zawahri also released a 188-page Internet book to rebut complaints, particularly those of an influential former jihadist who said that he and bin Laden should be held accountable for violence against Muslims.
Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, an Egyptian physician who is the one-time senior theologian for al-Qaida, is one of al-Zawahri’s oldest associates. The author of violent manifestoes over the past two decades, al-Sharif did an about-face while incarcerated in Egypt. Several other prominent Islamic clerics and former jihadists have similarly condemned al-Qaida.
Such rifts have been emerging for several years but have become increasingly contentious both in cyberspace and on the streets of some Arab countries. In addition to al-Zawahri, al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden himself, have gone on a public-relations offensive. In October, bin Laden asked followers for forgiveness for the deaths of civilians in Iraq.
Analysts within U.S. and allied intelligence agencies differ over whether the backlash poses significant risks for al-Qaida or if it is simply a public-relations problem. The organization is expanding its pool of hard-core recruits, according to one U.S. counterterrorism official. And Internet communications and other intelligence have shown that its anti-American message continues to resonate with extremists throughout much of the Islamic world.
But al-Qaida also has sought to use regional groups to become mainstream and expand its power base. It is within these groups where much of the conflict is occurring.
“We know that all of this matters to al-Qaida and that its senior leadership is sensitive to the perceived legitimacy of both their actions and their ideology,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, in a speech Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They care about their image because it has real-world effects on recruitment, donations and support in Muslim and religious communities for the al-Qaida message.”
Some counterterrorism experts say they suspect that criticism might have been planted on Web sites by Western intelligence agents or lodged by imprisoned radicals who have been coerced.
But Zarate and others said the dissent is real and widespread.
“There has been a growing rejection of the al-Qaida program and message,” said Zarate, who added that the U.S. and its allies have encouraged the backlash by exploiting rifts between it and others who object to its tactics.