Israel and al-Qaida

Five years after September 11, how do al-Qaida, Hamas and Hizbullah influence each other, and what does their relationship mean for Israel?

mombasa bombing 298 (photo credit: AP)
mombasa bombing 298
(photo credit: AP)
The path of jihad begins in a cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From there it takes a dizzying spin through Iran, wends its way through the Middle East, and then settles, inevitably, in Israel. From Osama bin Laden's hideout to the cafes of Haifa and Jerusalem, that path undergoes many transformations, and relies on shifting alliances. Start with al-Qaida. In the early 1990s, bin Laden met with Hizbullah's security chief, Imad Mughniyeh, and forged a relationship between the two organizations that included joint training in Lebanon and Iran. Today, says Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al-Qaeda, "Iran hosts a number of highly capable al-Qaida leaders - Saif Al Adel, the head of security and intelligence, Abu Mohomed al Masri, head of training, Abdul Aziz al Masri, head of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and Suleiman Abu Gaith, head of media. The quality of the al-Qaida leaders in Iran is much higher than those operating on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border." Bin Laden has returned the favor, too. "Despite justifying the attacks on the Shi'a population [of Iraq] for collaborating with the coalition in Iraq, al-Qaida has commented positively on the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the growing Iranian influence," Gunaratna points out. It's interesting that the al-Qaida leader would team up with Shi'ite Iran, notes Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst for CNN who was the first to interview bin Laden for television in 1997, because the Sunni bin Laden "privately thinks the Shi'as are heretics." What brings the two together, then? More than anything, a burning hatred of Israel. "There is a degree of integration at a strategic level between the Shi'a and the Sunni with regard to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Saudi royal family," explains Gunaratna. (In the run-up to the first Gulf War, bin Laden denounced the royal family for allowing American troops to set up bases on holy Saudi soil, and was expelled to Sudan for doing so.) "Western leaders have often said that al-Qaida has no political aim," continues Gunaratna, but this is not true. "The strategic goal of al-Qaida is two-fold: first, to destroy Israel; and second, to wrest control of Saudi Arabia." On this, at least, Iran and al-Qaida agree. But their interests converge in Iraq as well, which is "on the front doorstep of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries hosting the three holiest Islamic sites," says Gunaratna. In 1998, bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined other jihadist leaders in signing the Fatwa for Jihad Against Zionists and Crusaders, pledging death to Americans for supporting Israel. Meanwhile, as al-Qaida and Iranian agents stir up trouble for the United States in Iraq, they are content to have Hizbullah attack Israel from the North. But if bin Laden hates Israel so much, why not attack the Zionists directly? "I have always puzzled over this," Bergen admits, "because Osama bin Laden is without a doubt a pathological anti-Semite. "What I have come to realize," he explains, "is that these guys really believe their own propaganda: that the Pentagon is staffed by Jews, that New York is an entirely Jewish city, etc. So in a sense, attacking America is attacking Israel. "Besides," he adds, "al-Qaida has attacked Jewish targets abroad - the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002, the bombings on Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003, the bombings of Istanbul synagogues a few months later, the targeting of Israeli tourists in the 2004 Sinai attacks... " The latest war with Hizbullah, Gunaratna states, has also served as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida in a way that the September 11 attacks couldn't. "Al-Qaida believed that 9/11 would galvanize the jihadist groups and Muslim communities alike. The spectacular attacks, though, galvanized the jihadist groups but not the Muslim communities," he says. "The impetus for mobilizing the Muslim world was Iraq and, certainly, the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. Although they were initiated by the killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, the international media reporting was able to sway international public opinion against Israel. "It is too early to conclude the degree of impact of emotive images of death and destruction in Lebanon in the Muslim world," he concludes, "but al-Qaida is playing on it." SO AL-QAIDA has a symbiotic terror partnership with Iran, and both have a similar relationship with Hizbullah. In turn, that organization has developed close ties to Hamas. Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, the former director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is an internationally recognized expert on all three terror groups. Each one, he notes, is capable of inspiring the other. "I will always remember the victory speech that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made in Bint Jbail after the Israel withdrawal in 2000," Ranstorp recalls. "'Look what we achieved,' he said, 'not through negotiations, and not through the Oslo process. Ours is the only road to victory.' "Since that day," Ranstorp adds, "cooperation between Hizbullah and Hamas has only grown stronger. I remember when I was in Gaza: I saw organizations cropping up, completely emulating Hizbullah, even to the point of adopting its logo." In its rocket barrages on Haifa this summer, Hizbullah no doubt was eager to score a direct hit on one of the fuel or chemical facilities in the city. Such a strike would have been a successful version of Hamas's failed attempt in 2002 to blow up the Pi Glilot gas and fuel storage facility near Tel Aviv. "They may indeed try for that again," says Ranstorp. Hamas, though, is the weak link in the jihad chain around Israel's neck. "In all the trips I ever made to Israel, whenever I lectured to the IDF," Ranstorp says, "it seemed that no one was that concerned about Hamas because they had them in a box. They knew exactly where every Hamas leader was, and every senior operative too, because Hamas operates in a hermetically sealed environment." The arrest or targeted killings of Hamas members - including the assassinations of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi in the spring of 2004 - have decimated the organization's leadership, Ranstorp notes; alongside Western and Egyptian intervention, they have combined to encourage Hamas to focus its energies on political struggles within the Palestinian Authority. "I was watching in amusement when Sheikh Yassin and Rantissi were assassinated," Ranstorp says, "because there was obviously no security reason for their elimination. They were merely opportune times to force Hamas into the political structure. And it has worked." Over the past five years, Israel has managed to carry out against Hamas the "four D" approach that US President George W. Bush has struggled to execute against al-Qaida: defeat, deny, diminish and defend. Ranstorp wonders whether Israel could achieve a similar level of success against Hizbullah. "To be brutally frank, although the situation would get worse in the short term, I think the peace process would be strengthened if Nasrallah were to disappear. To take out him and the organization's top 30 leaders would create a vacuum, sowing disarray," he says. "Of course, there would be someone to immediately fill the ranks, but... " Stopping short of endorsing a major assassination campaign against the Party of God, Ranstorp allows himself an academic's conjecture that "It would be interesting to see the Hamas model applied to Hizbullah." Even more interesting would be to see the Hamas model applied to al-Qaida. Since October 2001, the organization has lost more than 3,000 members. In Iraq, commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June and, this week, the reigning No. 2 man there was captured. In Afghanistan, also this week, NATO forces killed well over 200 fighters of the Taliban regime that was in league with bin Laden. Decimating al-Qaida, obviously, is not so simple. But after all, the path to jihad that ends in Israel is linked like a series of dominoes, being pushed by zealots bent on toppling the Zionist entity. And who's to say that Israel can't push back?