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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Re-thinking an Iran-Hizballah-al-Qa’ida Axis

By Jeffrey Cozzens

Reports that Usama bin Laden’s son, Sa’ad, has been released from “house arrest” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) to organize “Islamist terror cells” in Syria and Lebanon should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Such a move could seriously undermine al-Qaeda’s (AQ) leadership of the largely Salafi global jihadi movement. The following analysis briefly examines why such a decision might be detrimental to AQ and the jihadi movement it leads.

First, anything that smacks of Salafi-jihadi subservience to the Shi’a regime in Tehran would create fissures in the wider global jihadi movement—possibly to the degree of undermining AQ’s credibility. Even though older AQ ideologues (namely, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) have acted with some amount of pragmatism and political acumen toward the Shi’a—almost certainly a reflection of their advanced learning, age, their ascendance from the fringes of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their appreciation for the “martyrdom” tactics of Hizballah—younger elements of the global jihadi movement generally reflect the radical, virulently anti-Shi’a “takfiri” worldview of the late Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and his mentor, Muhammad al-Maqdisi (also a Jordanian of Palestinian extraction). To give so much as the appearance of fighting “under the banner” of Tehran or Hizballah might therefore seriously alienate droves of the most ardent Salafis from AQ.

Second, by defaulting to the whims of the IRGC, AQ puts itself in a position of becoming yet another Sunni network co-opted by Iranian influence, similar to many of the Palestinian jihadi factions. Even though Sa’ad bin Laden is ostensibly being freed to organize Sunni militants (i.e. fragments of the Syrian jihadi movement and extant Sunni Lebanese jihadi factions) in support of Hizballah, his activities—no matter how they are parsed—would be subject to a degree of IRGC surveillance and/or interference. In the unlikely event the Die Welt report proves to be accurate, as one well-placed European source commented to me today, Iran might simply be acting out of concern for its own (IRCG) resources and well-being by “arranging for [Sa’ad] bin Laden’s martyrdom, which would free up considerable resources now being used to keep an eye on him. They’ll give him some sort of an ultimatum, then send him to Lebanon with knowledge that he won’t get out alive.” Either way, Iran is no friend of the global jihadi movement; it only shares a common enemy.

Third, this decision would undoubtedly rile the most militant of Saudi clerics, who give a degree of theological succor and legitimacy to AQ as credentialed scholars. Could one reasonably expect the ultra-radical Sheikh Nassar al-Fahd (infamous for his fatwa that attempts to legitimize jihadi WMD use) to support an AQ decision to operate under Iran’s influence, or broker a strategic alliance with Hizballah? Taken a step further, even the vast majority of Saudi Salafi scholars (most Salafis world-wide, for that matter) who are not friendly to AQ view the Shi’a as deviants from the Prophetic model. This is important because Salafism’s “reformist” trends form a “fertile field” of sorts from which its most militant strains grow. Why would AQ’s leadership risk alienating such an enormous pool of actual and potential supporters by agreeing to fight jihad based upon conditions set by Iran, or by committing to work side-by-side with Hizballah?

Fourth, we must contextualize al-Zawahiri’s much-discussed recent remarks. Certainly, his latest statement does appear to hint at supporting Hizballah’s fight in Southern Lebanon, but one must balance this with others he has made previously. For example, in a 2005 letter to al-Zarqawi, he wrote:

People of discernment and knowledge among Muslims know the extent
of danger to Islam of the Twelve'er school of Shiism. It is a religious school
based on excess and falsehood whose function is to accuse the companions of Muhammad of heresy in a campaign against Islam, in order to free the way for a group of those who call for a dialogue in the name of the hidden mahdi who is in control of existence and infallible in what he does. Their prior history in cooperating with the enemies of Islam is consistent with their current reality of connivance with the Crusaders.

The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later. This is the judgment of history, and these are the fruits to be expected from the rejectionist Shia sect and their opinion of the Sunnis. These are clear, well-known matters to anyone with a knowledge of history, the ideologies, and the politics of states.

In sum, al-Zawahiri has no love for the Shi’a (especially their leadership); they are a “danger to Islam” that must be dealt with at a later time. So then, just as AQ leaders railed against the sanctions imposed upon Iraq during the post-Gulf War 1 era, yet had no love for Saddam Hussein, and did so to provide an example of the “global conspiracy” of the “Zionist-Crusader Alliance” against Islam (which in turn “justified” an equally global program of jihad against these sources of Islamic “oppression”), al-Zawahiri’s recent statement should be read as another addressed to the ummah (Islamic nation), not necessarily to the Shi’a.

While there is no doubt that the IDF incursion into Southern Lebanon makes this area a viable “land of jihad” for an eclectic array of radical Islamists, any AQ decision—or the appearance of such a decision—to operate at the behest of, or in conjunction with Shi’a networks is a risky venture. After all, the Iraqi conflict has heretofore functioned as the center of jihad since 2003, and as a result, anti-Shi’a sentiment amongst militant Sunnis has reached a peak. Low-level tactical cooperation between the two camps remains a possibility—in fact, we know that AQ modeled its own tactical methodology largely upon Hizballah’s—but a strategic partnership, or any operation subservient to the Shi’a (including Sa’ad’s alleged activities) would represent an unlikely sea-change for bin Laden’s network. Plainly, it is hard to imagine that AQ core leaders would support a move that would potentially undermine its core constituency—the Salafi movement. And lest we forget Iran and Hizballah, is it in their strategic interest to facilitate al-Qa’ida operations? I think not.
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