The Repentant Radical

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

A former extremist warns of a resurgent al-Qaeda. But who is this man, Maajid Nawaz?

The rag that the guards tied around his eyes stank of the fear and the sweat of other prisoners, and when the Egyptian secret police took off his metal handcuffs and tied his hands behind his back with another filthy strip of cloth, Maajid Nawaz knew he was about to descend into hell:

"Official procedures, like the handcuffs, were being left at the door." Whatever happened to him would be off the books.

So began four grim years in Egyptian torture cells and a desert prison for this young British radical dedicated to the destruction of existing regimes in the Muslim world and the creation of a new global order based on a vision of Islam. As a member of the international organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nawaz wanted to create a vast caliphate ruled by Muslim law. It would be armed, he hoped, with nuclear weapons. He saw the "clash of civilizations" from the other side, and from the inside, which is why it's so important to listen to him now.

Nawaz had arrived in Egypt the day before Sept. 11, 2001. He'd played no part in that. But when he heard the news of what had happened in New York and Washington, he was happy. He remembers wanting to say to the Americans, "Don't you think we've been crying too, like you are now, for years? Do you think we felt no pain as you raped and plundered our lands, and bombed our cities?" That is the way he saw things back then.

Yet, as you look at Nawaz today--34 years old with distinguished threads of gray in his hair, telegenic, urbane, and a sought-after star at international conferences--the image is hard to square with the young radical of 2002. We are having lunch in a five-star hotel in Central London, and he's taking epicurean pleasure in every bite, savoring his celeriac soup, and noting that he always enjoys the bread in this particular restaurant. ("You have a lot of Arabs and Pakistanis who come here," he confides, "and also a lot of people from the State Department.") Every so often, Nawaz texts someone on his iPhone with an expression of such delight it's obvious he's in love, although he doesn't want to reveal any details because he doesn't want to put anyone else in danger. We are a long way from the Egyptian prisons, and apparently a long way from the Maajid Nawaz that used to be. Now he is a poster boy for the fight against extremism, and always has in the back of his mind that he and those close to him could be targets for assassination by some of his former friends and fellow travelers.

Right now, Nawaz is worried that al-Qaeda is once again on a roll, despite the success the Obama administration has had blowing up the organization's leaders in Pakistan and Yemen. The attack by a group of al Qaeda wannabes on an American consulate in Libya last month that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans is just one example. "It's too early to say al-Qaeda has recovered," Nawaz told me, "but they are damn well trying." And there has been a tendency by the American administration to downplay the threat. When U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, that was President Obama's "Mission Accomplished moment," says Nawaz, and there's an understandable but dangerous reluctance to acknowledge portentous developments since.

"Al Qaeda is desperately seeking to achieve a resurgence, exploiting the security vacuum left over from the Arab uprisings," says Nawaz, drawing on information compiled by the Quilliam Foundation, the think tank he cofounded in Britain. Bin Laden's successor, the Egyptian ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other remaining leaders of the old al-Qaeda are working with a loose collections of affiliates and new aspirants, says Nawaz, "trying to create a secure zone in the Sahel from west to east," in the desert and semidesert landscapes that stretch across northern Africa from Nigeria to Somalia, and beyond. …