Published April 20, 2007
CAIRO, Egypt – One of Al Qaeda's top ideologues and the brother of Usama bin Laden's deputy are leading hundreds of other Muslim extremists jailed in Egypt in a "review" of their radical views to renounce violence and suicide bombings.
Sayed Imam Abdul-Aziz el-Sherif, 57, is leading the "review" which, if concluded with an unequivocal disavowal of violence, could lead to the release of some 3,000 members of Islamic Jihad, Egypt's most violent militant group, according to a lawyer familiar with the process.
In a wider context, the renounciation of violence by a key extremist group like Islamic Jihad would take a big chip off the ideological base of Al Qaeda, although the terror network has dismissed similar reviews in the past as meaningless on the grounds that they took place under the pressure of incarceration.
Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the younger brother of bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, is among the Islamic Jihad leaders advocating the review, according to Montasser el-Zayat, a prominent Islamist lawyer who is familiar with the review by the Islamic Jihad.
The younger al-Zawahiri has been on death row since 1999, but el-Zayat said his sentence was expected to be commuted following a second trial.
El-Sherif, A physician by training who also is known as Sheik Fadl, authored "The Essential Guide for Preparation" in the 1980s while fighting Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan.
The work, a military and political manual for Jihadist groups, contained some of el-Sherif's most extreme views and has been viewed as a main plank in the ideology of Al Qaeda.
In that work, he brands large segments of society -- judges, lawyers, armed forces personnel and police -- as "infidels" and labels democracy as a new form of idolatry.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, el-Sherif, one of Jihad's early leaders, wrote: "As long as America is an infidel enemy, terrorizing it is a duty."
In a statement posted on Islamic militant web sites, he once wrote: "Terrorism is from Islam and whoever denies that is an infidel."
Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, once Egypt's largest Islamic militant group that waged an insurrection against the government in the 1990s, reviewed its own ideology and published its "revisions" starting from 2002. Thousands of its members have since been freed from prison.
El-Sherif left Egypt in 1986 to go to Afghanistan. He later wound up in Yemen where he was arrested in 2001 and handed over to Egypt in 2004. He is serving a life sentence.
"He is the number one Faqih (chief Islamic scholar) for Al Qaeda and Jihadi groups," el-Zayat said of el-Sherif.
Earlier this week, according to el-Zayat, el-Sherif addressed Jihad members detained in a prison southwest of Cairo, telling them that he disavows suicide bombings that take place in Muslim nations. He also explained that "The Essential Guide for Preparation" was written under special circumstances that were no longer applicable, according to el-Zayat.
Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic militant groups, credits el-Sherif with laying down "the foundations for taking arms against the `infidel' ruler, and religious justification for violence." The review, he said, would deal a blow to Al Qaeda.
"It's unimaginable for Al Qaeda that someone like him will carry out this review ," he said.