RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – A bitter, year-long feud that has shaken Al Qaeda's ideological pillars grew even sharper last month. A former associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri accused him of working for Sudanese intelligence, wearing "women's garments" to flee Afghanistan, and spreading an incorrect Islamic theory of jihad.
Mr. Zawahiri "is only good at fleeing, inciting, collecting donations, and talking to the media," wrote Sayyed Imam al-Sharif in his latest attack on Al Qaeda's No. 2.
Sayyed Imam, serving a life sentence in Egypt, is an esteemed theoretician of jihad whose ideas helped shape Al Qaeda's ideology. But now he's decrying its stock in trade – mass murder – in a clash that is an example of how some once-fierce zealots of violent jihad are having second thoughts.
"It is really an argument about ... what means are militarily effective and Islamically legitimate," says William McCants, a Washington area-based analyst of militant Islamism. Imam, he adds, is saying that only "a guerrilla war conducted against enemy soldiers" is permitted.
Imam's prison writings were preceded by a series of books and commentaries from imprisoned members of Islamic Group, a group that waged a guerrilla war against the Egyptian government in the 1990s. Their so-called "revisions" renounced violence and some put forward ideas on how to peacefully create an Islamic society.
Terrorism experts disagree on the impact that Imam's scathing critiques of Zawahiri and Al Qaeda will have on the global jihadi movement, particularly since he writes from prison where he is believed subject to influence from Egyptian and US intelligence agencies.
But his writings have put Zawahiri on the defensive. And they come amid other pressures, including the disabling of several Al Qaeda-linked online forums – presumably by Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies – and an intensification of US military activity in Pakistan's tribal areas, where Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding.
"One shouldn't overestimate the impact of this [ideological feud] in the overall war on terror, but it is definitely going to divert some of Zawahiri's creative energy away from operations," says Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's international security program.
"Zawahiri's support among jihadis is still strong, but he is losing the media battle to convince the public that Al Qaeda is winning," adds Mr. McCants, who monitors Al Qaeda Web activity at jihadica.com. "That, coupled with the US Predators attacks in Pakistan, put him under tremendous pressure."
Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and author of "Inside Terrorism," says he does not believe that Imam's writings are going to have a huge adverse impact on Al Qaeda's hard-core followers. If you are a hard-line militant, "are you going to listen to an elderly, geriatric guy in an Egyptian prison?" Mr. Hoffman asks. "It's not as if Zawahiri himself changed his mind."
Far more problematic for Al Qaeda, Hoffman says, is the sabotage of its online forums, some of which have not been working since September. As the principle means of communicating with followers and potential recruits, their loss "has been a serious blow," Hoffman says.
Imam, also known as Dr. Fadl, was a close ally of Zawahiri when Imam led Egypt's Islamic Jihad in the 1980s. His reputation as a top jihadi ideologue rested on his books, particularly his 1994 "A Compendium for the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge."
But Imam and Zawahiri disagreed about many things and grew estranged. When Imam stepped down as Islamic Jihad leader in 1993, Zawahiri took his place. Though Al Qaeda cited Imam's writings, he never joined the group.
In Nov. 2007, Imam released "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," a book that refuted Al Qaeda's terrorist tactics and ideology and was especially critical of Zawahiri.
After months of heated debate among militants on jihadi online forums, Zawahiri responded in March with a 200-page book called "Exoneration." He charged that Imam lacked credibility because he wrote from prison and was supervised by US intelligence.
Last month, Imam's reply to Zawahiri, a book titled "Denudation of the Exoneration," was serialized in Cairo's Al Masri Al Youm newspaper. It also was published at IslamOnline.net and in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, according to McCants, who posted English summaries of the Masri Al Youm installments on his site.
In the first, called "The Lies of Zawahiri," Imam claims that Zawahiri told him in 1993 that "he had to carry out 10 operations for the Sudanese in Egypt and that he received $100,000 from them."
Apparently aiming to play down Zawahiri's importance inside Al Qaeda, Imam asserts that "only three people knew of the 9/11 operation before it happened: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and a third person – not Zawahiri." The third person was only told 24 hours before the attack.
As for Al Qaeda's idea of violent jihad, Imam calls it "a corrupt, wayward school [of Islamic thinking] to justify excess in shedding blood." In order to sell it, the group launched "media propaganda to promote the corrupt idea that America is the cause of all the ills afflicting Muslims."
Imam's latest attacks on Zawahiri are so vituperative that some analysts say he has damaged his own credibility. "This is an embarrassment," former Islamic Jihad member Kamal Habib told Agence France-Presse in Cairo. "I don't think he realizes what this does to his image."
McCants argues that Imam's arguments will likely be most influential outside Al Qaeda's inner circle of die-hard jihadis. "We shouldn't be assessing the impact of Imam's book on jihadis but rather on neutral pious, educated Arabs, particularly high school and college-age youth, whom Imam considers his primary audience," McCants wrote on his website.
McCants also singles out Imam's "vigorous rejection of the victimization" theme in jihadist thinking.
"The cause of Muslims' problems is Muslims themselves," Imam writes. Noting that Muslims are killing Sudanese in Darfur, Imam asks: "What was the reason the US opened the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba for imprisoning Muslims? Bin Laden's stupidity…. Putting blame on others while not accepting it yourself ... is the school of Satan."
Some analysts say Imam's writings are not all that significant because he does not reject jihad per se, only Al Qaeda's tactics. But a total abandonment of jihad would be tantamount to rejecting a Koranic concept integral to Islam since its inception, leaving Imam with no credibility.
For centuries, jihad was embedded in the legal framework of Islamic law, or sharia, making it pretty much the prerogative of an Islamic ruler, that is, of the state. Sharia also imposed clear rules on jihad, prohibiting the slaughter of innocent civilians, for example. It is this legal framework that Al Qaeda has tossed aside in its glorification of jihad.
Perhaps Zawahiri's strongest argument against Imam is that he is a prisoner. Indeed, some passages in Imam's latest book seem made-to-order for intelligence agencies. For example, he writes, "Regardless of the legitimacy of their presence, the American forces did not kill a single Muslim in Saudi Arabia during their presence there after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990."
He does not mention Iraqi deaths caused by US forces during the war in Iraq. Instead, he focuses on Al Qaeda in Iraq, which he said "killed far more Iraqis than it killed Americans."