Team of rivals
Are al Qa'eda's leaders - fuelled by resentment of Hizbollah's appeal - moving to rebrand themselves a "resistance" group? Nathan Field reports.
Nothing must aggravate al Qa'eda more than Hizbollah's enduring popularity in the Arab world. The leaders of al Qa'eda are forced to hide in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border, watching virtually every Arabic television station call them "terrorists" - while commentators compete to sing the praises of the "resistance" led by Hizbollah. No political group has more respect on the streets of predominantly Sunni countries like Egypt than Hizbollah. In a 2008 Zogby Arab Public Opinion poll, 27 per cent of Arabs chose Hassan Nasrallah as their ideal leader - putting him in first place. The Egyptian Sunni religious scholar Dr Abla Khadawy expressed the sentiments of millions of Arabs when she told the Egyptian paper al Masri al Youm in June that Nasrallah was the "hope of the Umma" and praised Hizbollah for returning "some of our lost dignity". >
Contrary to prevailing perceptions in the West, the Arabic media draws a sharp distinction between "resistance" and "terrorism", with marked impact on the reputations of Hizbollah and al Qa'eda. The "resistance" - which also includes groups like Hamas and insurgents fighting the US in Iraq - is celebrated for its defence of Arab interests. On pan-Arab satellite networks, it is not uncommon for guests and commentators to proudly pay tribute to the Muqawama.
Al Qa'eda, by contrast, are invariably dismissed as mere terrorists. One programme on al Arabiya, called The Death Industry, is devoted entirely to attacking the deeds of jihadists - who have, perhaps unsurprisingly, vowed to kill the show's presenter. The "terrorist" label is a major dilemma for a group whose explicit aim involves societal revolution - it forces al Qa'eda to the margins while other militant groups bask in glory, drastically reducing their base of passive supporters and damaging their attempts at recruitment.
Many Arabs sympathised with the attacks waged by al Qa'eda and its allies against American forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, but this began to change after the group's Iraqi affiliate, led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, devoted its efforts to massacring Shiites and killing fellow Sunnis deemed insufficiently pious. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the leadership of al Qa'eda Central recognises the severity of the problem, and intends to change course in an effort to "rebrand" itself as part of the resistance. The first step for al Qa'eda and fellow-travelling Salafi jihadists is to reinsert themselves into the cause that enjoys widespread Arab support: resistance against Israel. If they can pull it off - and this is far from certain - it will pose serious problems for the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately for the US, the line between "terrorists" and "resistance" is thin, and it may be a mere matter of targets rather than tactics: groups that attack local Muslims or western civilians are terrorists; groups that attack "occupiers" are resistance. A telling exchange on the May 5th episode of the al Jazeera talk show al Itijah al Muakis illustrated that for some, the line is so fine that you can be a terrorist one day and a member of the resistance the next. An Egyptian commentator pressed Mahsan al Awaji, a Saudi Salafi, to say whether he thought "Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Mohamed Atta and Khalid Islambouli" were "terrorists or fighters."
Al Awaji danced around the question, noting that the US considered Bin Laden a noble Mujahid during the 1980s when he fought against the Soviet Union. Forced to give a concrete answer, Awaji finally said that "when Bin Laden raises his weapons against the US occupying forces such as in Afghanistan he is a fighter, when he attacks civilians he is a terrorist." Over the last year, al Qa'eda's leadership has been heavily criticised from within for its indiscriminate violence. In late 2007, Sayyid Imam al Shareef, the former leader of the Egyptian militant group Tanzim al Jihad, and one of the chief ideologues of the militant jihadist movement, published a devastating attack against al Qa'eda. His criticism was considered sufficiently damaging that Zawahiri himself felt the need to respond and denounce Imam.
At the same time, it may be that attacks against the "Far Enemy" - the United States - have reached the point of diminishing returns. As part of a 10-part series on jihadists in Lebanon that ran in the Beirut paper al Akhbar, the author spoke to Salafi jihadists in the Lebanon's refugee camps, one of whom, Abu Sharif, admitted "we have sent our best youth to fight in Iraq since the beginning of the invasion. That has not stopped and it is not going to stop? But if we had the ability to go fight Jihad in Palestine, we would not have gone to Iraq."
For the first time, Salafi jihadists seem to be focusing their energies on Israel: Abu Sharif also told al Akhbar that "we are focusing on forming a military wing in Palestine. On September 2, the London-based al Hayat published a front-page story about the sudden appearance of an al Qa'eda linked group operating out of Gaza who emphasise a shared ideology with al Qa'eda but aim to fight Israelis. In 2006 the al Jazeera reporter Yousri Fouda produced a documentary on al Qa'eda in the Levant, in which Fuad Hussein, an expert on Islamist groups, maintained that al Qa'eda's goal in Iraq was to build a base from which to weaken security in Lebanon and Syria - for the purposes of laying the groundwork to operate in those countries against Israel, their ultimate goal.
But as their efforts to gain a foothold in Syria and Lebanon indicate, getting in position to carry out attacks on Israel is more complicated than announcing the intention to do so. For this brings the jihadists into direct confrontation with Hizbollah - not only does the Party of God have a monopoly over the hearts and minds of Sunnis from Amman to Morocco, they have firm control of the territory needed to launch attacks against Israel.
Hizbollah's stronghold in South Lebanon has allowed them to keep Sunnis away from the fight with Israel, which has long enraged Salafis. On the May 10 episode of al Jazeera's Open Dialogue, Da'ai al Shahel al-Islam, the founder of the Lebanese Salafi movement, complained that "We totally agree on the topic of resistance, but they don't allow us to participate? Why do they ban the people of Sidon and the Fajr Forces from practicing their right of resistance. Isn't this an insult?"
But the indications suggest that al Qa'eda has plans to overcome the Hizbollah roadblock in South Lebanon. In a September 23 article at Islam Online, the Jordanian writer Akram Hajazi argued that al Qa'eda intends to provoke Hizbollah into a conflict with Israel, which would "kill two birds with one stone." Hizbollah would weaken Israel, but would also be weakened, allowing Sunni jihadists to insinuate themselves into fighting positions. In the meantime, al Qa'eda hopes it can bait Hizbollah to turn its weapons against other Lebanese. Hajazi notes how Nasrallah implored his fighters not to get involved in fighting during the battles at Nahr al Bared, saying "do you want to give al Qa'eda an opening?"
The bigger challenge for al Qa'eda is to stain Hizbollah's reputation in the eyes of its millions of Sunni supporters throughout the region. Hejazi noted that in the predominately Sunni countries of North Africa and the Levant, respect for militant groups is based on their success against the Israelis. In this Hizbollah has excelled, while al Qa'eda has produced nothing. The leaders of al Qa'eda Central have avoided criticising Shia forces in Iraq, Iran, or in Lebanon on religious terms. Because the "masses" judge Hizbollah by its military prowess and not religious beliefs, al Qa'eda cannot criticise them as Shiites without looking as if they are trying to divide the Umma.
But al Qa'eda may have got some help from one of their most fervent opponents, the prominent Islamic scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi. In a September 9 interview with al Masri al Youm, he called the Shia heretics and denounced them for what he alleged was an attempt to penetrate Sunni societies. Qaradawi's remarks stirred a huge controversy, and he was criticised by prominent Iranian and Lebanese Shiite clerics. But many Sunnis, including scholars at al Azhar, defended him, and he did not back down.
Given Qaradawi's enormous influence, his comments are likely to further inflame rising sectarianism in the region - exactly what al Qa'eda needs to cut into Hizbollah's popular appeal. It is too soon to tell whether Qaradawi has presented al Qa'eda with the "game-changer" it needs to resuscitate its own reputation. But al Qa'eda is running out of places to fight. In the last year the group has been kicked out of Iraq. And recent reports emerging out of Afghanistan suggest that Saudi Arabia is trying to drive a wedge between the Taliban and al Qa'eda, severing its ties in that country. Turning back to that old standby, the fight against Israel, might be al Qa'eda's best strategy to regain credibility - but it looks increasingly like their only option as well.
Nathan Field is a journalist based in Cairo.
Updated: October 10, 2008 04:00 AM