Al Qaeda increasingly faces sharp criticism from once-loyal sympathizers who openly question its ideology and tactics, including attacks that kill innocent Muslims, according to U.S. intelligence officials, counter-terrorism experts and the group’s own communications.
A litany of complaints target Osama bin Laden’s network and its affiliates for their actions in Iraq and North Africa, emphasis on suicide bombings instead of political action and tepid support for, or outright antagonism toward, militant groups pressing the Palestinian cause.
The criticism apparently has grown serious enough that Al Qaeda’s chief strategist, Ayman Zawahiri, felt compelled to solicit online questions. He responded in an audio message released this month. For more than 90 minutes, Bin Laden’s second-in-command tried to defuse the anger.
In March, Zawahiri released a 188-page Internet book to rebut complaints, particularly those of an influential former Islamic militant who said Zawahiri and Bin Laden should be held accountable for violence against Muslims.
Sayyed Imam Sharif, an Egyptian physician who once was a senior theologian for Al Qaeda, was one of Zawahiri’s oldest associates. The author of violent manifestoes over the last two decades, Sharif did an about-face while incarcerated in Egypt. Several other prominent Muslim clerics and former militants have similarly condemned Al Qaeda.
Such rifts have been emerging for several years, but they have become increasingly contentious lately, in cyberspace and on the streets of some Arab countries. In addition to Zawahiri, Al Qaeda 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 with U.S. and allied intelligence agencies differ over whether the backlash poses significant risks for Al Qaeda, or whether it is simply a public relations problem. The organization is expanding its pool of hard-core recruits, according to one U.S. counter-terrorism 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 Qaeda also has sought to use regional groups to become more mainstream and expand its power base. It is in these groups that most of the conflict is occurring.
“We know that all of this matters to Al Qaeda and that its senior leadership is sensitive to the perceived legitimacy of both their actions and their ideology,” Juan Carlos Zarate, the White House’s deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism, said 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 Qaeda message.”
Some counter-terrorism experts say they suspect that some criticism may have been planted on websites by Western intelligence agents, or lodged by imprisoned radicals who have been coerced.
But Zarate and others say the dissent is real and widespread.
“There has been a growing rejection of the Al Qaeda program and message,” said Zarate, who added that the U.S. and its allies have encouraged the backlash by exploiting rifts between Al Qaeda and once-supportive Islamic fundamentalists objecting to its tactics.
U.S. officials cite a variety of evidence, including intelligence, Internet traffic, statements from Al Qaeda leaders, polling data and even songs by popular Pakistani and Indonesian musicians.
Prominent Saudi cleric Salman Awdah sent an open letter to Bin Laden in September in which he condemned violence against innocents and said Al Qaeda was hurting Muslim charities by its purported ties to them.
“Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled?” wrote Awdah, who is believed to be independent of the Saudi government. “How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of Al Qaeda?”
“Who benefits from turning countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia into places where fear spreads and no one can feel safe?”
In London this week, former extremists launched the Quilliam Foundation, an organization dedicated to discrediting Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.
Zawahiri described his audio message as the first of several “open meetings” and answered complaints, many of them asking why Al Qaeda had killed innocents, including students on a passing bus who died in a bomb attack on the Algerian Constitutional Council in December.
“Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency’s blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?” asked one questioner whom Zawahiri identified as a geography teacher.
“Were we insane killers of innocents as the questioner claims, it would be possible for us to kill thousands of them in the crowded markets,” Zawahiri responded. The deaths of any innocents were the result of “unintentional error or out of necessity. . . . The enemy intentionally takes up positions in the midst of the Muslims for them to be human shields for him.”
Others asked about Al Qaeda’s legal authority, and questioned why Zawahiri criticizes the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which are fighting Israel, for their participation in politics.
Zawahiri’s often-rambling explanations referred listeners to his recently released book, “The Exoneration,” which primarily rebuts statements by Sharif, whom Zawahiri suggests was coerced into criticizing Al Qaeda. Sharif denies that.
Such criticism ultimately could undermine Al Qaeda, said Frank Cilluffo, a former White House counter-terrorism official who is director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“It has raised the bar in using violence to achieve its objectives, and people are starting to ask a lot of hard questions. It is losing popular support,” he said. “It is occurring within the strategic thinkers, but also among the rank and file.”
Some of the earliest manifestations of the dissent were in Iraq. The first leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, killed so many Shiite and Sunni Muslims that a 2005 letter allegedly from Zawahiri told him to stop.
The violence continued after Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in 2006, and angry Sunnis were driven to form councils of neighborhood volunteers with U.S. support to counter the foreign fighters that helped make up Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In North Africa, some radicals have rebelled against a merger with Bin Laden’s network, objecting to the wave of suicide bombings that have killed women and children since last April, as well as to efforts to send the group’s young men to Iraq.
Several prominent members of the Al Qaeda affiliate, including regional commander Benmessaoud Abdelkader, have charged that suicide bombings serve Al Qaeda’s global ambitions at the expense of their efforts to fight what they view as corrupt and anti-Islamist governments in Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa.
Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based counter-terrorism consultant born in Morocco, said some militants have alerted authorities to impending bomb attacks so they could be stopped. “They don’t mind hitting the government of Algeria, or France for supporting Algeria. But they do not want their kids to go off and fight in Iraq against the Americans.”
In Yemen, old guard Al Qaeda operatives have split with a newly emerging generation of fighters in the last year over the younger militants’ violent tactics, starting with a suicide bombing in July that killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemenis.
In Pakistan, recent polls suggest that Bin Laden’s popularity has suffered because of the widespread belief that Al Qaeda has been behind the killing of many Muslims there, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Cilluffo said that on a recent trip to the Middle East he interviewed fighters who had just returned from Iraq, many of them disillusioned. “People are saying, ‘I didn’t sign up to kill fellow Muslims,’ ” he said.
Fawaz Gerges, an author of two books on Islamic militants who has spent the last several years interviewing militants, cited evidence of “major fault lines” within Al Qaeda in chat rooms and other Internet venues. “Bin Laden’s statement and this one [from Zawahiri] really tell us about the gravity of the crisis.”
But several officials and experts suggested that Al Qaeda was mostly trying to do a better job of reaching out to more mainstream recruits.
“Using this Q-and-A is a way to legitimize Al Qaeda and seek input and increase their following, and not be seen as a hierarchical organization that is divorced from its followers,” said Farhana Ali, a counter-terrorism analyst at Rand Corp. “This is an issue of survival. They are trying to stay plugged in to Muslim opinion.”
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.