The recent call by Libyan Islamist Noman Benotman to his former "comrade-in-arms" Osama bin Laden to halt al-Qaeda's armed operations throughout the world represents a new step in the "jihad" by this one time leader of the Islamic Fighting Group.
Benotman's "jihad" appears focused on responding to what he views as the distorted understanding of Islamic principles held by bin Laden's organization. Al-Qaeda's operations, he believes, are a primary cause behind the tarnishing of Islam's image, even though al-Qaeda sees its actions as defending the religion.
Benotman -- or, as he is known in Afghanistan, Abu Mohammad al-Libi -- is no stranger to this subject. He was a former mujahid in Afghanistan who joined the war against the communist government in Kabul and its Soviet backers in the 1980s. There, he joined the newly established Fighting Group founded by Libyan Afghans to fight the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and replace him with an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. In the context of his work for the Fighting Group, Benotman had a close relationship with al-Qaeda leaders during their stay in Sudan in the 1990s. The relationship continued when they were asked to leave Khartoum in 1996 and moved to Afghanistan.
The "jihad" waged by the Fighting Group against the Libyan government between 1995 and 1998 soon collapsed. The group was forced to retreat to Afghanistan, where bin Laden was trying to recruit other active jihadist factions to join him in his war against what he called "Jews and Crusaders", as reflected in his establishment of the World Islamic Front in 1998.
But Benotman and the leaders of his organization opposed joining bin Laden in such a global project to fight the United States. Their opposition was not based on support for American policy, but because they saw a proposed war as futile, an action that would bring calamities upon them and upon the rule of the Taliban movement, which was hosting al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadist factions.
In previous interviews with this writer, Benotman said he was fundamentally opposed to the war that bin Laden was planning to launch against the United States. He said he conveyed this stance when they met in bin Laden's home in Kandahar during the summer of 2000. But bin Laden did not listen to Benotman or to other jihadists in Afghanistan and decided to launch his attack on the United States on September 11th, 2001.
According to Benotman, what has transpired since that date confirms the extent of bin Laden's error in launching a global jihad.
In late 2001 the Taliban government, which was sheltering jihadists, was destroyed by the US military response.
Moreover, in doing this, bin Laden, the Libyan Islamist said, went against Taliban leader Mullah Omar's instructions to refrain from attacking the United States from Afghanistan. This allegation is of utmost importance. If true, it confirms that bin Laden broke the pledge he made to Mullah Omar to "hear and obey". This is unless the latter knew of the al-Qaeda leader's plans to launch the "invasion of New York and Washington" and agreed in secret -- something only Mullah Omar and bin Laden can confirm or deny.
In this regard, Benotman wrote, "You (bin Laden) spared no effort in transgressing Mullah Omar and disregarding his instructions, and decided to ignore his orders to stop provoking the United States because of the dire consequences that might result for Afghanistan. How can we reconcile your claim that you are waging jihad to create what you call the Islamic state while at the same time defying the guardian in that state to which al-Qaeda pledged allegiance as a legitimate state (wilaya)? You are encroaching upon its most important prerogatives, the authority to declare war and peace, and [this action] led to the fall of the Taliban."
In the letter, the Libyan Islamist named al-Qaeda leaders who opposed launching operations outside Afghanistan, such as Sharia Committee head Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (killed in an air raid in Pakistan) and Security Committee official Abu Muhammad al-Zayat (believed to be in Iran at present).
But Benotman said he is not only angered that Afghanistan is forced to suffer the consequences of al-Qaeda's actions. He is also enraged that al-Qaeda and its branches around the world continue to wage futile wars that bring Muslims nothing but calamities.
Muslims worldwide are now frightened by the actions of these groups, fearing that at any moment al-Qaeda-inspired militants might blow themselves up in public places on the grounds that the targets are "apostates" or "infidels", as has occurred in many Arab countries.
Moreover, the actions of al-Qaeda branches—such as the "Mesopotamia" branch under the leadership of its late emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—also demonstrate, in Benotman’s view, the type of Islamic regime this organization intends to establish. If asked to choose between this Islamic regime and the "apostate" dictatorships al-Qaeda claims it wants to topple, the majority of Muslims would undoubtedly prefer to remain governed by a dictator than by violent figures such as the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example.
In addition, Benotman believes al-Qaeda's actions have tarnished the image of Islam in the West. Muslims are now seen—especially in some right-wing circles—as a terrorist threat. Many Western governments have taken measures that Muslims interpret as targeting them. These measures likely would not have been adopted were it not for al-Qaeda's actions.
In this regard, Benotman asserts that the positions of bin Laden and his organization do not represent Muslims in the West, just as they do not represent Muslims in the Arab world. He believes that his criticisms of al-Qaeda's actions are shared by many, including the leaders of the jihadist groups. He alluded to the "revisions" made by significant numbers of jihadist leaders, who in recent years declared their opposition to the "extremism" in the interpretation of "jihadist" concepts by al-Qaeda and some of its branches.
The Libyan Islamist hopes his letter to bin Laden will bring al-Qaeda leaders to rethink their actions and realize they do not represent the views of Muslims, and that on the contrary, the majority of Muslims renounces their actions.
This is the hope of Benotman who now openly says, "Armed violence has reached its end."
But do his former "comrades-in-arms" in al-Qaeda share this view?
They may answer in the negative. But Benotman hopes they, including bin Laden, read his letter and think again about the consequences of their actions.