During 2008, senior al-Qaida leaders "have devoted nearly half their airtime to defending the group's legitimacy," said senior U.S. intelligence official Ted Gistaro. "This defensive tone continues a trend observed since at least last summer and reflects concern over allegations by militant leaders and religious scholars that al-Qaida and its affiliates have violated the Islamic laws of war, particularly in Iraq and North Africa."
Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats -- the top U.S. intelligence analyst on terror groups -- spoke at a briefing organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and gave an assessment of the progress the United States has made in its fight against al-Qaida since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Gistaro said the group had "maintained or strengthened key elements of its capability to attack the United States in the past year," mainly because of the continuing safe haven it enjoys in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, where it "now has many of the operational and organizational advantages it once enjoyed across the border in (Taliban-controlled) Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller and less secure scale."
But despite its continuing operational capabilities, the group has been hurt on the ideological front, he said.
Al-Qaida "has suffered several setbacks among its key constituents," including the fact that its "brutal attacks against Muslim civilians are tarnishing its image among both mainstream and extremist" co-religionists.
Gistaro highlighted criticism of al-Qaida from former allies like Egyptian extremist leader Sayyid Imam Abd al-Aziz al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl, and other Islamic hard-liners like Saudi cleric Sheik Salman al-Oadah.
Analysts cautioned, however, that it was important not to make too much of these ideological divisions.
"It is a positive development," Stephen Ulph, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, told UPI, "but al-Qaida was born in controversy, in a pamphlet war (with other extremists) if you will. … They have had to defend their position and argue their case since the very beginning. … They're used to it."
"There is a bit more flak headed their way," concluded Ulph, "but they are hardly on the run."
Other analysts added that it was hard to tell what the impact of these critiques would be on al-Qaida's members and supporters.
"We don't know what effect this is having on recruitment," said Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute, who wrote a brief study of de-radicalization among terrorists earlier this year. "The reality is that counter-terrorism authorities do not have a full grasp on what type of impact these kinds of pronouncements will have."
Al-Oadah was one of the first religious leaders to preach against the presence of U.S. forces in the desert kingdom back in the early 1990s and was an early inspiration for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In an open letter to bin Laden in September 2007, the cleric accused him of having on his hands the blood of "at least hundreds of thousands of innocent people, if not a million."
"Are you happy to meet Allah with this heavy burden on your shoulders?" he asked.
And in a lengthy treatise, faxed to Arab media outlets from an Egyptian jail earlier last year, Fadl wrote, "We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that."
Al-Qaida leaders, and in particular the group's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have addressed these criticisms in a number of different ways, analysts say.
"Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?" asked Zawahiri in an al-Qaida video message after Fadl's fax appeared. "I wonder if they're connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines."
Lawrence Wright, author and longtime specialist on al-Qaida, said earlier this year, "This sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadl's manifesto … among al-Qaida insiders."
But, according to the Jamestown Foundation, Zawahiri also sought to deal substantively with Fadl's detailed critique, publishing a 188-page rebuttal of his thesis in March.
The rebuttal was "comprehensive," wrote Jamestown analyst Abdul Hameed Bakier, "using religious arguments and logic to refute and highlight weaknesses in the (Fadl) document."
"On the other hand," he continued, "the lengthy response demonstrates that al-Qaida is seriously alarmed by the possible negative consequences the document might inflict on their ideology and the Jihadi movement."
The following month, Zawahiri addressed a series of questions posed online by supporters and others, many of which dealt with the issue of the religious justification for attacks on civilian targets.
"We haven't killed the innocents," wrote Zawahiri. "If there is any innocent who was killed … then it was either an unintentional error, or out of necessity as in cases of al-Tatarrus" -- the taking of human shields by the enemy.
"We are confronting the enemies of the Muslim Ummah (community) and targeting them," continued Zawahiri, echoing the arguments often made by the U.S. military about civilian casualties, "and it may be the case that during this, an innocent might fall unintentionally."
As much as it might remain unclear what the impact on al-Qaida is of this continuing theological dispute, Ulph says there is one unambiguously positive aspect to these developments -- the growing understanding among Western counter-terrorist specialists that the battle for hearts and minds is key to any victory over al-Qaida.
"If a corner has been turned," he told UPI, "it's not within al-Qaida. It is our recognition that ideology is the battleground. … It is our consciousness that is being raised."
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