Michael Scheuer, some of whose pronouncements about al Qaeda since 9/11 you may be familiar with, was head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit between 1996 and 2005. In a piece titled The Zawahiri Era, he addresses the succession of al Qaeda’s leadership.
The question on everyone’s lips is whether new al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri is up to the job. My own bet is that al-Qaeda will survive, as it did after near economic ruin in Sudan (1994–96); after the pounding it took from the U.S.-NATO-Pakistan coalition (2001–02); and after the U.S. military helpfully killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq (2006), whose indiscriminate targeting of Muslims almost pushed al-Qaeda to the brink of defeat.
As proof that al Qaeda will endure, Scheuer cites the approach that al Qaeda used in dealing with al-Zarqawi’s excesses. He writes: “Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri agreed that the indiscriminate killing of Sunni and Shia Iraqis was wrong in Islamic terms, was not al-Qaeda policy and would not recur. … Forced by the al-Zarqawi-led brutality to clarify appropriate target sets” — Muslims deemed permissible to kill — “bin Laden and al-Zawahiri proffered their mea culpas … and delegitimized the Western narrative.” By which he means the “West’s incorrect, absolutist interpretation of Islamic law [which] forbids-the-killing-of-one-Muslim-by-another-in-all-cases-whatsoever.” (Emphasis added.)
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri correctly pointed out that there are Muslims on all continents and in all countries. … If al-Qaeda, its allies and those it inspires were going to wage their jihad effectively, they would have to kill Muslims. Thus, the remaining job was to define those Muslims who were religiously permissible targets.
Scheuer has never been one to shy away from bloodshed. Not long after bin Laden was killed, The New Statesman reported:
Scheuer has admirers on the left and the right. The former quote his views on the link between US foreign policy and the al-Qaeda threat; the latter point to his support for near-indiscriminate military action against terrorist groups, the use of “extraordinary rendition” and CIA special prisons, and his relaxed attitude towards “collateral damage”.
Returning to the National Interest article, he writes that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri defined — “splendidly” — exactly which Muslims were expendable.
In the Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islamic law, Muslims who actively support an apostate regime or an infidel occupier sacrifice the protection afforded by their faith; their lives and wealth can be taken. Soldiers, bureaucrats, security and intelligence officers, and elected or appointed government officials serving apostate regimes or foreign occupiers are therefore legitimate targets.
Remember, he’s not speaking about collateral damage, but of Muslims intentionally targeted by Muslims. Turns out, too, that, according to Scheuer, al Qaeda’s rationalization is working (emphasis added).
It is individuals in these categories who have been al-Qaeda in Iraq’s primary victims as it tries to recoup al-Zarqawi-caused losses, and there has been little to no negative reaction from Iraq’s Sunni community or other Islamic regimes and scholars outside Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s focus on these categories of Muslims as legitimate targets is likely to harden into an organization-wide policy … This leaves a reinvigorated al-Qaeda with an expanded and well-defined target set.
So many Muslims for Islamist extremists to kill, so little time.