Indicting al-Qaeda’s Forefather
One counter extremist narrative used in Muslim-majority Southwest and Southeast Asian countries along with those in North Africa is that al-Qaeda and affiliate leaders lack religious and martial credentials. Militants are following incompetent leaders. For example, such a notion has been a cornerstone for the Saudi online prevention program as-Sakina, prison rehabilitation schemes in Indonesia, and publicised recantations from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Gama`a Islamiya, and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leadership.
Government counter-radicalisation campaigns—whether meant to prevent or demobilize—would be wise to take critiques of militant management a step further and indict al-Qaeda’s founding father.
Sayyid Qutb (popularly considered the forefather to al-Qaeda and the most influential modern violent extremist author according to a 2005 U.S. Military Academy study) was no theologian or ideologue. His ideas are not new but reformatted theories from the times of the Mongol invasion in simple and straightforward language and with modern idioms to reach a wide audience. In short, Qutb was a marketer and not an ideological or religious authority. Qutb lacks religious credentials, religious training, militant experience, a clear vision of his imagined Islamic utopia in his writings, and any semblance of originality in his books or essays.
Such an accurate critique is a condemnation of both the founding principles and founding fathers of al-Qaeda who adhere to Qutb’s promotion of absolute violence at all times under any circumstances. From Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri down to the recruiter on the streets of Paris and Port of Spain, Qutb is the lightning rod glue that helps to unite disparate affiliates and loan wolves.
Some might assume that criticising a historical giant like Qutb would be in vain. After all, Qutb was radicalised by subjugation to Nasser’s wrath and chose to die a martyr: he was no armchair “jihadist.” Qutb even came to power in the Revolutionary Command Council’s government from 1952-1954 when Nasser allowed the Muslim Brothers, of whom Qutb was one, to ride his coattails to the top. When the Muslim Brothers’ popularity and legitimacy it lent government ran its course, Nasser staged a dramatically fake assassination attempt as an excuse to rid himself of the Muslim Brotherhood. In prison, after witnessing his friends massacred and tortured relentlessly, Qutb wrote his most scathing texts (well after he took a conservative turn during his studies in the United States). He wrote his words with the smell of blood and agony—not from theory. When Nasser realised Qutb’s execution would make Qutb a martyr, he sent his vice president Sadat, in person, to offer Qutb a pardon and governmental position. Qutb publicly rejected the offer and decided to sacrifice himself in 1966. His execution made his image and writings legend to the generations of militants to come.
However, criticising Qutb, despite his larger-than-life influence, is not ill-advised. Indicting this Che-like figure could cause al-Qaeda marketers and talking heads to react defensively. And any reaction by al-Qaeda wastes its time and forces violent extremist leaders to discuss and further expose their irreligious and inhumane underpinnings and corrupt goal.
Al-Azhar and some recanted terrorists have already written scathing condemnations of Qutb’s writing. Plagiarizing—with or without proper citation—and translating these already formed arguments is one place to start.
As governments catch up to al-Qaeda’s marketing acumen, they will realize more and more that they must be risk acceptant and try any and all counter narratives—even risky messages that target the core of al-Qaeda’s ideology.