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March 31, 2006


Iran Missile Test: Vagueness of Detail Leads to Wild Speculation

By Steve Schippert | March 31, 2006

There are many sources of coverage regarding Iran’s announcement of a successful test of something ‘ballistic’ and the rapid-fire speculation brought on by Iran’s vagueness ranges from a Katyusha enhancement to the Shahab family of missiles (from the Shahab-3 to the Shahab-6). See the varying descriptions from the Washington Post, Forbes and UK Times Online.

First, some things to consider.

This is likely by Iranian design and they are probably enjoying the frenzied show and speculation. General Salami's apparently cryptic words leave much to speculation and conjecture. This surely is not an accident.

Also, if it were indeed an ICBM MIRV test, as first interpreted by this observer, NORAD already knows and it would likely would have found its way into the press by this point in time, though not guaranteed. There is yet to be a report indicating NORAD (or theater-based) launch detection.

The Forbes-supplied AP report paraphrases Gen. Hossein Salami, the air force chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, regarding the ‘multiple warhead’ aspect, yet directly quoted him regarding its low radar signature.

"It can avoid anti-missile missiles and strike the target," Salami said.

He said the missile would carry a multiple warhead, and each warhead would be capable of hitting its target precisely.

Consider now the Washington Post report.

"This technology is completely new, without copying any other missile systems that may exist in other countries," he said, adding that the missile could carry multiple warheads.

Again, no direct quote. The only direct quote ThreatsWatch has seen yet, which seems to come from the same statement that the previous paraphrasing comes from, has been provided by a very early Reuters report.

"This missile, with the capacity of evading radar, can attack several targets simultaneously," he said, adding the missile was newly developed.

Now we are down to semantics and, necessarily, Farsi interpretation skills of unknown interpreters. Here’s why:

“Evading radar” can be achieved with the right coating material, paint if you will. To what degree it’s radar signature is minimal is unknown (as are a lot of details).

Again relying on interpretation, when General Salami says “This missile”, he may in fact be referring to the missile ‘system’ and not an individual ballistic device. This opens up the more likely scenario of an Iranian MLRS development rather than a MIRV ICBM development, which is significantly more difficult to achieve. Remember that the Chinese could not even develop this ability until they lifted the information from Los Alamos National Laboratories. We are to believe then that either Iran did this alone better than China or that China (or Russia) gave them the ‘Keys to the Ballistic Kingdom’?

An MLRS system can be (and American systems are) designed for each rocket in an MLRS volley to be independently guided post-launch. This would allow a ‘missile system’ to do what Salami said, which is simply to engage multiple targets.

See: Iranian MLRS Artillery Rocket Systems

Next is the over-analysis of Salami’s use of the word ‘ballistic’. From the UK Times article:

Iranian television described the new weapon as a "ballistic" missile, suggesting it was of comparable range to Iran’s existing ballistic rocket, the Shahab-3, which can travel 2,000 km (1,250 miles) and reach Israel and US bases in the Middle East. The Shahab-3 is also capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Others noted this as well, and experts were quoted in many articles regarding ‘ballistic’ missiles and concern about a potential new Iranian ICBM.

Again, there is no word from anyone in the region or NORAD of the detection of a launch of anything generally considered a ‘ballistic’ missile. Someone likely would have declared by now if that were the case.

Also, bear in mind that a 5.56mm NATO ball round is a ballistic projectile also, and they are launched from the M-16’s carried by nearly every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. So, again, it could be semantics. Any projectile that travels in an arced path is considered ‘ballistic’, though that term has a very specific meaning in missile and missile defense circles. That fact may not have been lost on General Salami when the term was used.

The guys at Q and O Blog probably got it about right early on in the day: For use against ships indeed. Remember that this apparent test came on the opening day of Iran's massive naval exercise in the Persian Gulf.

Essentially, until there is a verification of a ‘ballistic’ launch detection, this could be smoke without a fire, at least without a MIRV ICBM fire, as is being speculated currently. And, if they did produce such a missile, is Iran going to indigenously produce their first nuclear warhead small enough to fit several of them on one missile?

At this point, two things are needed: A full transcript of General Salami’s words and a ‘ballistic’ launch detection verification.

Believe such a missile exists when the test is detected. Not when an IRGC General loosely alludes to one.

March 27, 2006


Iranian Enrichment Progress Not a Surprise

By Steve Schippert | March 27, 2006

There have been few events of note occurring recently on the Iranian nuclear crisis front outside the predictable back and forth surrounding daily reports of no progress among the UN Security Council members toward reaching an agreed stance on Iran.

Of note last week, however, was a virtual firestorm of concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program, specifically in their announcement that they would be fueling a 164-centrifuge cascade in stepping up their enrichment. Vital Perspective was on top of the developments. This is certainly a troubling development.

However, it should not come as a major surprise that Iran is this far along in its nuclear development. In fact, in December, IAEA head Mohamad ElBaredei himself quietly offered the shortest known authoritative assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapons timeline, stating that the Natanz enrichment facility could be fully operational within two years and producing large quantities of highly enriched uranium. This was noted in this space at the time in The IAEA Tree That Fell and No One Heard.

This is not to pour cold water on the issue at all. This is to highlight the fact that if the head of the IAEA had offered up the shortest known authoritative Iranian nuclear timeline – mind you while attempting to ‘cool brinkmanship’ over the Iranian nuclear crisis – then all known timelines needed reassessment at that time. ElBaredei has been consistently dovish regarding Iran, going so far at times as to rebuke American and European firm stances against the deceptive Iranian posturing on their largely clandestine program.

ElBaredei’s stunningly short evaluation flies in the face of widely accepted timelines that run out as inconceivably far as ten years in America’s own National Intelligence Estimate.

First, what must be identified are some basic numbers behind what is needed to produce a highly enriched uranium bomb and what it is believed that Iran has on hand.

  • It is believed that about 1500 of the Pakistani-quality centrifuges Iran is known to have would produce enough highly enriched uranium per year for one bomb’s worth.
  • The IAEA estimates that Iran has about 1200 of these centrifuges.

Each of the above items are estimates and have varying degrees of flexibility, most notably any estimated equipment count by an IAEA that knows little more through their own investigations than what the Iranians want them to know. With near certainty, Iran has more equipment hidden, including centrifuges bought or built, than the IAEA has been allowed to see. To assume otherwise is a fool’s game.

Also, the better any Iranian nuclear design, the less uranium that would be required for an equivalent 20-kiloton yield. It should be noted that, whatever the Iranian bomb design, they would certainly not use less uranium and toy with the physics, but rather net a higher yield.

And, while it has been said that the biggest problem Iran has with their program is regarding the Pakistani centrifuge design, if they manage(d) a more effective design, it would require fewer operational centrifuges to net the same yield.

So what to make of all of this?

First, Iran is indeed pushing its program. Ahmadinejad himself nearly halved ElBaredei’s assessment - and shortened the NEI prediction by a factor of almost ten(!) – when he declared last week that Iran would fully go nuclear with the current Persian year.

Yet, it is unclear just how close Iran is to producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but considering the known factors, it appears it is not necessarily imminent (a very relative term).

But the prevailing perspective should be that, regardless of whether Iran is 3 months or 3 years from nuclear weapons production, neither can be tolerated and that the most urgent timetable should be assumed without hard evidence one way or another.

But, even more important to the debate is the acknowledgement that Iran is at war with the United States, is deeply involved in fomenting violence in Iraq, funds Sunni terrorist groups (Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) and Shi’ite terrorist groups alike (Hizballah and Islamic Jihad) and admitted to previous housing of (and almost certainly currently still houses) many of the top al-Qaeda leadership. Truly, wherever the arm of terrorism has its reach throughout the world, is the foremost state sponsor of global terrorism has few – if any – degrees of separation.

Whether the nuclear window is three months or three years, the regime must be defeated and eliminated, from within or without.

The nuclear crisis adds an critical exclamation point, but the regime itself warrants confrontation even without the added nuclear fear. While no one wants warfare, the conflict avoidance currently being employed at the UN and elsewhere will eventually result in an exponentially more painful conflict in the coming months or years.

March 17, 2006


Regime Change Syria: Khaddam's Alliance and Assad's Missing Base

By Steve Schippert | March 17, 2006

There is again a spike in talk of regime change in Syria, with Syria’s former vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, leading the chorus. He has organized the major opposition movements within Syria after his (supposed) democratic epiphany.

The irony - and the serious challenge to continuity after any successful dethroning of Assad and the Syrian Ba'athists – is that two of the largest contingents joining him in the room are decidedly not democratic. At least not beyond any first election, one which each would seek to win and keep, such as is the current elections schedule in the Palestinian Territories. Khaddam’s partners in his quest are largely communists and Islamists from the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood may pose the greatest threat to any potential of coexistent continuity, if they chose to resist power sharing, because of the influx of funds, weapons and men from around the Middle East and its various groups who would seek to extend the border of what they perceive as their developing caliphate. There would be no room for a secularist leader or a powerful communist faction.

The chief of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. John Abizaid, said in a Senate hearing that the current Assad regime had suddenly become helpful in stemming the tide of foreign terrorists streaming across the Syrian border with Iraq. But he rightly pointed out that this was not a reaction to US diplomatic pressure or the fear of US Marines poised at his doorstep.

"Why have they? Because the foreign fighters represent a threat to Syria, and they certainly don't want to have these organizations and groups operating within their own country that are ultimately going to be a threat to their own government," Abizaid continued. "So, out of self-interest, the Syrians have reacted in a way that has slowed the flow of foreign fighters."

This Islamist threat that Assad currently senses will be the same threat that any potential President Khaddam would quickly identify in the form of an unsatisfied Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, urged and prodded, if needed, by outside Islamist forces.

But the Iraqi border frontier is not the only place Assad has begun to dance a new tune. He also has suddenly become quite helpful (insofar as his public showing) to the UN's Hariri investigation. Among other things, he has actually agreed to be personally interviewed by the investigative team, a move unthinkable just a couple short months ago. Assad realizes that he needs to minimize his enemies, or at least minimize their aggression towards his regime. What better place to start than with the internationally high-profile Hariri investigation?

But Abdel-Halim Khaddam has made his own countermoves, cozying up to the same anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders he had no use or affection for while he held Syria’s vice presidency. Khaddam recently met with Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and assured him that Lebanon and Syria will be friendly neighbors under his leadership. Said Khaddam, "Demarcating the border is natural and necessary to serve the interests of both countries; this situation is existent between Syria and its neighboring countries and therefore it is natural to say that diplomatic representation is normal in relations between countries."

But, for whatever a Khaddam presidency may or may not bring - or how long it would or would not last - the tide is clearly shifting in his short-term favor. For, as he is gathering and growing his allies, Bashar Assad is left with little more than minimizing his enemies.

Nibras Kazimi illustrates this masterfully in The New York Sun, pointing out that, unlike Saddam Hussein and his staunchly loyal minority base of Sunni Iraqis, Assad clearly has no such base to bolster and protect himself with.

The regime survives by dint of their political lethargy.

The Syrian regime seems brittle, and after all this time, there may be too few people who can make sense of why it should continue. Syria under Bashar is a land of co-existing contradictions that allow embassies to burn, while wanting to be part of the world community, or whose stilted bureaucracy would thwart an effort as simple as recalibrating taxi meters. It is adrift and characterless: this dictatorship does not seem to inspire a base that would defend it. This is good news for the handful of local democrats pushing back at the regime to gauge the limitations of freedom, but also for shadowy jihadists, who may be preparing for a blitz of terror. The current regime will not sustain a challenge from either, and it is now a question of who rises to the challenge first.

Assad will soon be left struggling in vain to hold back the tide with few hands assisting. The tide is being gathered and will be loosed from a Parisian ball room, as all coups and revolts seem to be these days.

What takes the Assad regime's place is the type of speculation that shapes careers in foreign policy circles. But one thing is for certain: The fall of Assad will mark the beginning of the struggle, not its close. And hanging one’s hat on the hopes of Khaddam’s democratic epiphany is a gamble at the very least and a huge risk at best.

March 13, 2006

United States of America

'Rakan bin Williams' Claims of al-Qaeda's US Attack Plans

By Steve Schippert | March 13, 2006

On Friday, the Middle East Media Research Institute released a translation of a statement that appeared on the website of the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Not long after, SITE Institute released their version of the same. Not many made public note of the statement by ‘Rakan bin Williams’ (or ‘Willyamz’).

One of the first to note the MEMRI or SITE translations was Security Watchtower, who used part of the statement in their Saturday ‘Quote of the Day’. In the Sunday overnight, the blogosphere has generated something of a storm, with most of the heavy-hitters looking at the threats made by this ‘bin Williams’, from Instapundit to Michelle Malkin to Blackfive. The blogosphere is driving the discussion, with many lamenting the silence of the media on this.

It is important to be aware of the statement and others like it, but equally important to keep in mind that its veracity is as of yet undetermined. That said, whether the 'Rakan bin Williams' claim is in and of itself credible or not, other indicators suggest that it is time for renewed vigilance.

We at ThreatsWatch held off on any comment or re-publication while we tried to look into the history of this ‘Rakan bin Williams’ before lending any credence to his statement or aiding in the dissemination of what could be nothing more than the words of a zealous internet prowler seeking just that. Perhaps this has been the thinking of the major media outlets as well. We contacted a respected CT professional who informed us his team was working on what is known about the individual. We sat tight.

Now that the discussion of 'Rakan bin Williams' has commenced in earnest, here is some of what we think are key things to consider.

First, relying on MEMRI translation again, that the person making the statement by this name also made statements via the GIMF website back in November 2005. The second such threat was on or about 24NOV05, where ‘bin Williams’ made an explicit threat to assassinate Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. President George W. Bush, when the time comes, with a clear mention of the possibility of doing so after they complete their current terms of office. There have been no known terrorist attempts on their lives since and the statement itself is rather ambitious in its scope.

The GIMF site claimed in November that Rakan bin Williams “is a white Englishman who converted to Islam.” Yet, he refers to himself as ‘Al-Qaeda under cover soldier, USA.

Also, while ‘bin Williams’ claims to be awaiting orders from bin Laden, he sends a warning without a call to conversion to Islam, which even bin Laden has done in keeping with Islamic rulings that require both warning and conversion to Islam before an attack. Perhaps he is relying on bin Laden’s earlier call to conversion for this, thinking it already done. In his message, he gives warning, but rather than include a call for conversion, he includes a call to visit Islamist mujahideen websites and to watch al-Jazeera instead.

He also refers to ”a way for us to spill the blood of the occupiers and cut off the heads of the aggressors.” It should be noted that al-Zawahiri admonished Zarqawi for beheadings in Iraq, as they defeat the propaganda media effort’s purpose by instilling outrage in their enemies rather than intimidation and fear. This indicates some degree of separation between ‘bin Williams’ and al-Qaeda leadership, at the least from a rhetorical perspective.

Noted as well are the attacks of September 11, 2001 in America as well as the London and Madrid bombings. Recently, it has been reported that there have been no known al-Qaeda connections to the Madrid bombings. This conflicts with al-Qaeda claim of responsibility, supposedly from the military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al-Afghani.

Whether or not there are any clear links to al-Qaeda is of less concern, or should be, regarding responsibility, as it simply represents the transformation of al-Qaeda from a decentralized but structured organization into a movement. While bin Laden has long wanted this, the transformation is taking place less because of a swell of support on the Arab or Muslim ‘street’ that he desired than out of necessity, as what structure al-Qaeda has been systematically pursued and often dismantled and destroyed. For the context of the ‘bin Williams’ threat, it should simply be noted that he links the Madrid attacks.

Two things need to be pursued in parallel at this time. First, an effort to identify the individual behind the name in this threat. This has likely already been undertaken by a variety of agencies, both in the United States and abroad, dating back to at least November.

Secondly, the threat itself needs to be analyzed as if authentic until proven otherwise. The cost of not doing so is too great to assume otherwise, and certainly this is the approach being quietly taken.

Bearing this in mind, one thing stands out regarding the nature of this threat. It is not that there are two very large attacks supposedly ready for launching, but rather that (purely assuming credibility here) ‘bin Williams’ and al-Qaeda view them as virtually untraceable or unexplainable.

Despite the fact that the New York, Washington, Madrid, and Londonexpeditions have been carried out a few years back. The search for clues on how they were conducted in such a successful manner is still going on and reports upon reports are still being written about them. However, the next expedition might not find someone who can provide analysis for. The top intellects, strategists, and analysts, will be totally clueless as to how to explain what occurred.

It is prudent to take the last two sentences, step outside the box, and attempt to discern what conditions would make this possible in the mind of an al-Qaeda terrorist.

Today, The Counterterrorism Blog takes a look and also takes a step back and considers how likely it may or may not be that a major al-Qaeda attack on the United States is in the works, bin Williams' threat notwithstanding. Douglas Farah notes the current level of chatter is at or higher than that of pre-9/11 levels as well as the significance of bin Laden's re-emergence onto the scene, at least in audio form.

Several analysts I have spoken with believe the leadership of the historic al Qaeda would not raise expectations of an attack, especially at a time of intense competition with Zarqawi's operation for the mantle of carrying out international jihad, without something important afoot. The risk of losing credibility is too high. Zawahiri is already viewed as the person carrying out action, while bin Laden and Zawahiri have been left in the roles of elder statesmen, respected but no longer operational in the field of battle.

All analysis aside, the observable public reaction thus far to this threat has not been one of deep introspection as the author may have hoped, though surely did not expect. Similar to the reactions to the beheadings referred to above, the reaction to this threat has been one of defiance, similar to the reaction in London where people made signs and wrote internet postings saying simply, “We are not afraid”. This is important, as nothing can replace firm resolve in the face of threats.

To be certain, regardless of the veracity of the individual considered here and his claims, the time for alertness and vigilance is now. It is most important to acknowledge that the indicators of lessons past suggest this plainly.

March 9, 2006


Iran, Plutonium and Assessing the Threat

By Steve Schippert | March 9, 2006

With all of the discussion surrounding Iran's largely clandestine nuclear program concerning the enrichment of uranium, it is prudent to consider plutonium, which the Iranians have already produced quantities of by their own admission. A developing system of nuclear power plants, as Iran insists its goals are, has no use for plutonium. Alexandra has taken a look at the issue today at All Things Beautiful.

Regarding the general nature of the Iranian deception, she makes a critical observation that must be considered, especially by those who harbor any doubts as to Iranian intent.

Ali Larijani, the new secretary of the "Supreme Council for National Security" in Iran, went to a lot of trouble this week to convince the western press that Iran's intension is to gain nuclear capacity for peaceful use only. At the same time, his own brother, Mohammed Javad Larijani, who is also the head of the Physics Research Center in Iran, told an Iranian audience a completely different story. [TW: Emphasis added.]

During a speech he made at a conference on "Nuclear Technology and the Iranian people's will" on August 1st, Mohammed Javad Larijani told his audience that "It is our right to have nuclear defense and we will not be ready to give up this right..." and that "Iran's dispute with the West should have been over nuclear weapon production rather than over the nuclear fuel cycle...."

But doesn't it contradict Khamenei's famous Fatwa, which supposedly religiously forbid the non-peaceful use of nuclear technology? Well, trust Mohammed Javad Larijani to sort things out. According to his speech "When we say that the legislator tied our hands regarding the use of nuclear weapons, he means only that we are not to make the first nuclear strike..."

Iran, therefore, admits bluntly their intention to develop nuclear weapons.

Though not the sole example by any stretch, Alexandra has framed the above perfectly. Readers would do well to also consider the recent fatwa issued by Mohsen Gharavian.

Regarding the plutonium issue, she references a Ha'aretz article: Western sources: Iran has covert nuclear channel, which says, in part:

The Iranians admitted about three years ago to separating small quantities of plutonium, which is clearly associated with atomic arms development. (The materials needed to build an atomic bomb can be acquired either by enriching uranium or by producing plutonium.)

Inspectors who examined the plutonium concluded, judging from the amounts found, that the Iranians must have started creating the plutonium in the mid-1990s and not three years ago.

It should be considered that the inspectors would make such conclusions based upon their known sets, meaning the sites they knew of. That Iran has a covert system for nuclear research/production is clear. To assume otherwise is to unwisely assume that they have come fully clean, a position not even held by ElBaredei or Annan.

What we know is simply that the Iranians had a quantity of plutonium that was much larger than was expected. This, also, must be considered the quantity that they were shown, which may not be parallel with the quantity Iran possessed.

What we do not know is how Iran amassed such an unexpected quantity. The assumption that Iran must have started plutonium production far earlier than they claim is probably tied to the expected capacities of known facilities. But what of the potential of unknown facilities?

It should be clear that we do not know of all facilities. Iran has admitted or revealed little that was not first disclosed by outside sources. Iran may have produced a larger amount by simply having concurrent programs as of yet unseen. The potential North Korean source must also be considered.

If Iran were able to manage successful undetected shipment(s), this would also explain unexpected quantities. How much analysis the inspectors performed (signatures that ID source) on the plutonium shown is also not readily known, but it would be uncharacteristic of the Iranians to foolishly risk detection in such a manner.

There is much room for debate on how to deal with the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program.

There is precious little room (and increasingly less each day) for debate on simply acknowledging its clandestine existence.

To assess the nature of the Iranian Nuclear Threat, one should not focus on the weapons and their frightening consequences. Instead, the threat is defined by the nature of the regime which will control them.

March 6, 2006

Gaza Strip

Triangulating Hamas, Abbas and al-Qaeda

By Steve Schippert | March 6, 2006

With the latest release of yet another global message from al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is certainly much to comb over. On its surface, it appears primarily a repeat of calls for more jihad, with merely new causations and motivations.

What stands out as somewhat different, however, is the encouragement and, at times, instruction offered to Hamas in light of their electoral victory in the Palestinian Territories. Before looking at what Zawahiri specifically had to say to the Hamas leadership, context is needed to understand what effect if any it will or will not have on Hamas. It is important to attempt to understand how al-Qaeda is viewed by Hamas. This will be a determining factor as to the impact of Zawahiri’s words.

First, consider that Hamas’ Fatah rival has publicly acknowledged that al-Qaeda has some form of presence in the Palestinian Territories. This is not a new development, but the news value is in Abbas’ public discussion of this and his aims in such a disclosure. Since the Israeli pullout of Gaza, an al-Qaeda presence has been acknowledged by the Israelis, Jordan’s King Abdullah and a statement from a new al-Qaeda group calling themselves the ‘Palestine Frontier Jihad Brigades’. For al-Qaeda, Gaza truly is a new frontier.

Abbas’ intent in such public statements, made before the public release of the Zawahiri message, is likely, on one hand, genuine concern that al-Qaeda entering the mix in the West Bank and Gaza will bring nothing but more turmoil to the region and to the Palestinian people. But another intent is an attempt to corner and weaken Hamas and their open escalation of conflict with Israel.

As part of Zawahiri’s message, he said of hamas, "Reaching power is not a goal by itself ... and no Palestinian has the right to give away a grain of the soil." Zawahri is directly insisting that Hamas not moderate its tone toward Israel nor recognize its right to exist. Both Hamas and al-Qaeda believe that Israel exists on land stolen from Muslims and therefore should never be recognized, but rather, destroyed. To that end, Zawahiri went on to say, "The secularists in the Palestinian Authority have sold out Palestine for crumbs. Giving them legitimacy is against Islam." Here, Zawahiri is openly declaring that Fatah and its participation in negotiations is acting in an un-Islamic manner and should be rejected by all Muslims.

Again, while Hamas may publicly attempt to distance themselves from these statements, at their core, the statements made by Zawahiri are in line with Hamas’ thinking to date.

Hamas needs money. The traditional sources of funds into their newly acquired Palestinian Authority have either already been cut off (nearly $60 million per month via Israeli tax collections) or is in serious doubt (hundreds of millions per year from the US and from the European Union). Both Abbas and the Hamas leadership know that any open alignment al-Qaeda will be the final death knell for European and American monies that still happen to at least remain in doubt and short of definitively being severed. Therefore, Abbas’ statements regarding al-Qaeda in the Palestinian Territories, which is not a new development, was an attempt to push the issue with Hamas, already openly in bed with Iran, the premiere State Sponsor of International Terrorism.

Abbas’ public statements, roundly discussed in the West, set the stage for what would follow after Zawahiri’s message and helped dictate the public Hamas reaction to the al-Qaeda support and instruction. Khaled Meshaal responded by saying that Hamas has “its own vision” and makes its decisions independent of al-Qaeda. While this is certainly true, that he felt compelled to react at all publicly and state as much is more a reaction to the corner Abbas had painted him into than anything else. Meshaal was not the only Hamas leader to react publicly to the al-Qaeda message, but the tone from all was that of Hamas independence and distance from al-Qaeda. All the while, while various Hamas leaders dismissed Zawahiri’s words as “opinion”, his words remain consistent with Hamas rhetoric and direction to date, regardless of Hamas’ sudden attempt at public separation from the ideology not held by al-Qaeda alone.

In fact, as Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, reminds, there have long been ideological and political ties between al Qaeda and Hamas in Middle East, and they do indeed share a common ideology, regardless of attempts by Khaled Meshaal and others to cloud that issue. The difference between the two is more in the geographic scope of terrorist activity, not in vision and ideology.

Earlier evidence of links exists. In 2003, an Israeli ground unit in Gaza, seeking Hamas suspects, went into a school established by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Written materials that Israeli soldiers collected revealed the writings of a famous Saudi Wahhabi religious authority, Sheikh Sulaiman al-Ulwan. His ideological entry into the world of Hamas immediately raised eyebrows. After all, his name was featured in a famous Osama bin Laden video clip from December 2001, when the al Qaeda leader entertained his entourage on camera by re-enacting with his hands the hijacked aircraft slamming into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. […]
Also, in 2003 and 2004, Israeli forces found Hamas posters that were distributed in West Bank cities that extolled the war being waged by Islamic militants in the Balkans, Chechnya and Kashmir. At the top was the portrait of Hamas leader Yassin alongside the portraits of bin Laden and Chechen militant leaders like Shamil Besayev, who took credit for the bloody attack on a Russian school in Beslan.

Gore goes on to note the importance of the fact that Hamas itself, as clearly stated in their own founding charter, is an offshoot of the same Muslim Brotherhood that served as the Islamist foundation of Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. Article Two of Hamas’ charter reads explicitly, "The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine."

Abbas intends to weaken Hamas by pitting it further against the West. Hamas intends to allay any fears of an al-Qaeda linkage by publicly distancing themselves from Zawahiri’s message, lest any connection, real or implied, interfere with any existing chance Hamas has at securing the Palestinian Authority’s traditional sources of funding during its governance. Any acceptance at Hamas’ attempts to distance themselves from an already ideologically aligned al-Qaeda will be made at the West’s own peril.

March 1, 2006


Sectarianism, Violence, and the Future of Iraq

By Dan Darling | March 1, 2006

While the ultimate fall-out from the Askariyah bombing is still in doubt, the situation is by no means grave. With the death toll standing 379 and 1,300 over the last several days, it is entirely clear for supporters and critics of the US presence in Iraq alike to ask where the country is heading.

To begin with, it should be understood that the nation is probably not yet on the verge of civil war, as can be seen from the fact that despite all of the valid concerns that have been raised as to the involvement of the militias in the recent violence, the individuals and political factions to which these individuals owe their allegiance are still, at least publicly, devoted to the political process, including the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. As the Los Angeles Times notes, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry has recently requested that US ambassador Zalmay Khalizhad refrain from making recommendations concerning the composition of a new Iraqi government, an event that at the absolute least suggests that the two largest political factions within Iraq, the United Iraqi Alliance and the two major Kurdish parties, still intend to push forward with the creation of a new government rather than Balkanizing into separate camps and preparing themselves for a fight for control of Iraq. Indeed, it is the major Shi’ite and Kurdish groups, all of whom occupy prominent positions within the new Iraqi government, who almost certainly have the most to lose with respect to the outbreak of a civil war in Iraq, particularly one that might lead to the country’s dissolution and the intervention of neighboring powers.

A Debate Over Terms

There has been, to a certain extent, a debate over the definition of civil war as it relates to Iraq. If it is defined simply by body count, then the Sunni insurgency itself certainly qualifies as one on account of the number of Iraqis it has killed in attacks since 2003. If it is defined as a major outbreak of sectarian violence, then one is hard-pressed to explain why Iraq should be defined as being in a state of civil war but that India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan, all of which have endured ongoing and extremely costly sectarian violence, should not be. Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in Iraq is that it will lead to an annual cycle of sectarian violence similar to that found in the above-mentioned countries. Such an outcome would not be in the interests of either the United States or Iraq, but neither would it be synonymous with the dissolution of the Iraqi state along the lines that some observers have suggested.

Here again, the major difference between Iraq and other nations that have endured civil wars is that currently all of the major political factions inside Iraq are interested in continuing with some form of political participation, something that wasn’t the case in Lebanon following the events of Black Saturday or in Yugoslavia following the destruction of Ravno. In both cases, all of the major factions had given up on some kind of peaceful resolution and instead returned to their own power bases to prepare for the battle to control the country. If this begins to happen within Iraq (and it would be exceedingly easy for this to occur with most political parties controlling sizeable militias of their own), then and only then would it be appropriate to label the conflict as being a civil war, but not beforehand.

The absence of civil war, however, should not be seen as an absence of sectarian violence, and if such violence becomes commonplace in certain regions of Iraq or in conjunction with certain Shi’ite holy days, it will lead to a further weakening of the Iraqi state at the local and national levels as well as prolonging the existence and power of political or sectarian militias indefinitely, none of which will assist in the successful emergence of a democratic Iraq. Nor should the continuing existence of the insurgency, which has repeatedly targeted Iraqis of all ethnic groups and creeds, be seen solely through the lens of the Askariyah bombing or retaliation against the sectarian violence that followed: Zarqawi has been actively targeting Shi’ites since at least early 2004 if not beforehand.

The Myth of an Anti-Sectarian Iraq

One of the most unfortunate developments stemming from the Askariyah bombing is that it has prompted inadvertently prompted Western observers to inadvertently recite Saddam-era propaganda without being aware of how dated it is. One such aspect of this propaganda can be seen in the myth that sectarianism did not exist inside Iraq prior to the US invasion.

Yet as Dr. Anthony Cordesman makes clear on p. 1-2 of Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency, nothing could be further from the truth:

The politics of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988, were essentially the politics of ruthless repression. Political dissent of any kind became even more dangerous … Hundreds of thousands of Arab Shi’ites were driven out of the country, and many formed an armed opposition with Iranian support. While most of the remaining Arab Shi’ites remained loyal, their secular and religious leaders were kept under constant surveillance and sometimes imprisoned and killed. The marsh areas along the Iranian border were a key center of the fighting between Iran and Iraq, but still became a sanctuary for deserters and Shi’ite opposition elements.

Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, did more than further impoverish the country. Uprisings in the Shi’ite areas in the south were suppressed with all of the regime’s customary violence and then followed by a mix of repression and low-level civil war that lasted until Saddam was driven from power. While this conflict received only limited attention from the outside world, it often involved significant local clashes between Iraqi government forces and those of Shi’ite opposition movements based in, and backed by, Iran. The post-Iraq War discovery of mass graves of Shi’ite fighters and civilians are a grim testimony to how serious this “quiet” fighting could be.

… From 1991 until the Coalition invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein created further problems by encouraging tribal divisions and favoring those tribes and clans that supported his rule and regime. He exploited religion by increasingly publicly embracing Islam, and privately favoring Sunni factions and religious leaders that supported him while penalizing Shi’ite religious leaders and centers he saw as a threat, At the same time, funds were poured into Sunni areas in the West, government and security jobs were given to Sunnis, and scarce resources went into military industries that heavily favored Sunni employment. The result was to distort the economy and urban structure of Iraq in ways that favored Sunni towns and cities in areas like Tikrit, Samarra, Fallujah, Ramadi and other largely loyalist Sunni towns.

The fact that Iraqi sectarianism predates the US invasion in no way negates the seriousness of its major reemergence following the Askariyah bombings. Yet it is also a major mistake to attribute the recent violence solely to random sectarianism while ignoring the substantial role played by Iran and its proxies like Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army in the recent violence. As Michael Rubin notes, Iran is employing much the same strategy in Iraq as it did in Lebanon during the 1980s. And unfortunately, it is Sadr and by extension Iran who have profited the most from the recent violence.

Theories of Sadr’s or Iranian involvement in the Askariyah bombing aside, it is essential that Western observers not allow their concern over the rise in Iraqi sectarianism to prevent them from recognizing the very real and very dangerous Iranian designs at work in Iraq.

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