Understanding the nature of the enemy is fundamental to successfully engaging that enemy, be it on the battlefields of metal and flesh, the battlefields of ideas, or the battlefields of information and communication. To this end, it is absolutely critical that the West – and the American public in particular – understand that, unlike the way the American political landscape so often appears, our terrorist enemies are often more willing to lay aside their fundamental and substantive differences for the purposes of engaging a mutual enemy. There is no greater example of this than the cooperation between Sunni al-Qaeda leadership and that of Shi’a Hizballah and their Iranian masters.
Yet, gracing the pages of the New York Times’ International Herald Tribune is a commentary, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, by a researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy which attempts to dispel the notion of al-Qaeda – Hizballah (and thus, Iranian) cooperation. That the attempt by Bilal Y. Saab and Bruce O. Riedel does so in an incredibly weak manner is beside the point.
The greater issue is that the average busy American reader and consumer of information in Kansas City or Cleveland will note the respectable credentials of the above authors and conclude that they are surely well-informed and therefore likely quite correct in their assessment. The authors' credentials are indeed respectable, as is the Brookings Institution. The unfortunate consequence of the commentary in question, however, is an incrementally more misinformed public on the epic conflict before us and an even deeper misunderstanding of the nature of our enemies.
In order for Saab and Riedel to “challenge” the “assumption that Hezbollah and Al Qaeda have a solid operational or strategic relationship and cooperate on matters pertaining to global jihad,” they offer four weakly supported points to support the conclusion that there cannot be any substantive cooperation between the Sunni al-Qaeda and Shi’a Hizballah terrorist organizations. Those four points are: irreconcilable theological differences, conflicting political strategies, strategic differences, and a physical state of war between the two entities.
Debunking The Irreconcilable Theological Differences Obstacle
In noting “irreconcilable theological differences,” cited are the murderous anti-Shi’a actions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi while he headed up al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the vehement denunciation offered by Hizballah. While there are very real theological differences between the two organizations, to presume that the bloodthirsty actions of a wild-card actor like Zarqawi completely erases or makes impossible al-Qaeda-Hizballah cooperation (past and present) is to ignore reality. The reality of al-Qaeda’s leadership fearing the divisive nature of Zarqawi’s attacks on Iraqi Shi’as is evident in the admonition communicated to him on just this accord. From a July 9, 2005 letter from al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri to Zarqawi, this is made abundantly clear.
And do the brothers forget that we have more than one hundred prisoners--many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries--in the custody of the Iranians? And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?
In this single statement, Zawahiri acknowledged that over 100 al-Qaeda operatives are ‘in custody’ in Iran. Further, he clearly did not at the time fear for their safety, but would fear such if Zarqawi’s attacks on Shi’a Iraqis began to anger the Iranians. This is fundamental and absolutely critical to note, as the al-Qaeda members in Iran have free reign to plan and coordinate attacks. It also leads directly into the final line in the above quote, where Zawahiri reminds Zarqawi that Iran and al-Qaeda need to “refrain from harming one another” while they share a common American enemy.
So while the schism between the Sunni Islamists of al-Qaeda and the Shi’a Islamists of Khoneinist Iran and Hizballah may indeed embody ‘irreconcilable theological differences,’ it is clear that those differences can be and have been sidelined by al-Qaeda’s top leadership for addressing another day while they share a common enemy with their Shi’a rivals. More to the point, citing ‘irreconcilable theological differences’ as a basis for concluding that al-Qaeda and Hizballah leaderships would not “cooperate on matters pertaining to global jihad” has been dispelled by the words of al-Qaeda’s own leadership.
Debunking The Conflicting Political Strategies Obstacle
The second point offered by the International Herald Tribune commentary is well wide of the mark regarding “conflicting political strategies” between Hizballah and al-Qaeda. Proffered is the notion that while al-Qaeda seeks to destroy non-Islamist Arab governments, Hizballah on the other hand “seeks to work within the Lebanese system.” Unfortunately, since December 2006 at best, the only thing Hizballah has been working within are the Lebanese borders.
Dismissed and omitted is any reference to Hizballah’s goal of destroying the Lebanese system from within and replacing it with an Islamist theocracy in the Khomeinist model of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Seeking to undermine the existing democratic system by withdrawing ministers from the government and laying a tent-city siege to Beirut’s governmental complex can hardly be viewed as any effort to “work within the Lebanese system.” Clearly, it is an effort to bring that system to its knees. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has overtly and publicly acknowledged this.
Further, also held out for observation is the view that based upon prisoner exchanges with Israel following terrorist attacks and abductions, “contrary to al-Qaeda, Hizballah can be engaged.” If that is the standard for engaging a terrorist organization – attack, demand and reciprocate - then the Spanish example merits inclusion and consideration.
Following the 3/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, days before the Spanish national elections in 2004, al-Qaeda made the very overt demand that Spain withdraw its troops in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With the subsequent surprise election of the anti-American socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as Prime Minister, Spain immediately reciprocated the al-Qaeda demands and promptly withdrew its forces from Iraq. Attack, demand and reciprocate. Al-Qaeda can be – and was -engaged.
Debunking The ‘Officially At War With Strategic Orbit’ Obstacle
In the three sentences cited above from the 2005 letter to Zarqawi in Iraq – straight from the lips of Ayman al-Zawahiri and not this writer – Saab and Riedel’s third and fourth points of al-Qaeda “officially at war with [Hizballah’s] strategic orbit” and a greater “physical state of war between the two entities” are reduced to erroneous and uninformed speculation.
While the writers address Hizballah and not their Iranian masters, to separate the two within this context is akin to attempting to separate the wheat from the bread. Iran created Hizballah in the early 1980’s and the Lebanese terrorist group is often referred to as Iran’s ‘Foreign Legion.’ This is not the product of invention or imagination. And, as explained without equivocation by Ayman al-Zawahiri in the captured communiqué, not only is there not a state of war between al-Qaeda leadership and the Iranian terror machine (including Hizballah), their significant differences are intentionally laid aside to be dealt with later.
If al-Qaeda were ‘officially at war’ with Iran (as Hizballah’s strategic orbit), the language used by Zawahiri seeking continued relative harmony with Iran would be much different. There is absolutely no hint whatsoever at an active state of war between the two. There is, however, an acknowledgment of this inevitability. To erroneously presume the two are currently at war with each other when in fact they are together at war with America would lead to the misallocation of finite resources and grave misinterpretation of gathered intelligence. In an intelligence war, the costs of such would be profound.
Debunking The ‘Physical State of War’ Obstacle
The fourth point of a “physical state of war between the two entities” appears to be an attempt to buttress what the blurred points 2 and 3 (“conflicting political strategies” and “strategic differences”) cannot bring to a logically closed loop on their own merits. To achieve this, the questionable group Jund al-Sham and their limited attacks in Lebanon are evidenced.
The al-Qaeda rocket attack from Lebanon into Israel referenced was not a ploy to give Hizballah blame, as is stated by Saab and Riedel. It was an attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq to demonstrate operational reach into the Levant. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed credit for the attack saying it was just the "beginning of a welcome operation to strike deep in enemy territory, at the instructions of Osama bin Laden." If they were in a “physical state of war with Hizballah,” why was al-Qaeda attacking Israel and Hizballah not attacking al-Qaeda within its own territory?
There were also reports around that time of Lebanese security forces rounding up al-Qaeda operatives in Lebanon. Yet, there were not reports of Hizballah – more militarily capable than the Lebanese Army – capturing al-Qaeda terrorists on their soil. Instead, at the end of the day, al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists attacked Israel and Hizballah captured IDF soldiers in an operation that led to the summer war between the IDF and Iran’s Foreign Legion.
And the reported 2006 plot “by a local Salafist group” to assassinate Hassan Nasrallah was, like so many other attacks and plots in Lebanon and Syria, foiled by Lebanese authorities. There is an interesting trend of failed attacks and those foiled at the last minute.
The operational independence of the disparate Jund al-Sham group mentioned – and other Sunni Salafist groups - is in serious question. Respected Lebanese terrorism analyst Dr. Walid Phares offers a very plausible conclusion in regards to the operation of such groups as the Jund al-Sham in Syria and Lebanon. Drawing on his own vast experience, he recently offered, "The seasoned experts on Syria knows all too well that the Assad Mukhabarat are in control of, or have "access" to the overwhelming Terrorist organizations in Syria and Lebanon. They've had thirty years of deep involvement to accomplish this take over. In addition to Shiia Hezbollah, Syria has a control, a remote-control of, or an access to Sunni Salafists groups, including networks that connects with al Qaeda."
Conclusion: Ignoring Past Cooperation Is Willful Blindness Revisited
In order to accept at face value the notion that Sunni al-Qaeda and Shi’a Hizballah (and, again, thus their Iranian masters) could never cooperate or coordinate in the global jihad, one would also have to dismiss fully Iran’s known support for both sides of the sectarian violence that raged and rages in Iraq. Also requiring whole-cloth dismissal is the fact that Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi organized the Islamic Arab Popular Conference in April 1991 in the aftermath of the American rout in the Gulf War. The aim was reaching a consensus that, in order to defeat the American infidels, these groups must put aside their internal religious and ideological differences and unite under a banner of Islam. Participants included such actors as bin Laden, Iran, Hizballah, Iraq, Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hamas and others.
There is a litany of details that would require dismissal, also including Hizballah’s training of al-Qaeda’s first suicide truck bombers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, al-Qaeda's fingerprints on the Saudi Arabian Hizballah bombing of the Khobar Towers and other Iranian support links to al-Qaeda. Or, that the original 1998 Justice Department indictment against bin Laden stated that al-Qaeda "forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezballah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West."
Had Mssrs. Saab and Riedel left their commentary at the very correct conclusion that “lumping al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in the same basket will only do disservice to the global counterterrorism campaign,” this would draw little if any criticism. It is very important to understand and distinguish both. However, to attempt to persuade the public that it is wholly illogical for the two theologically polarized terrorist groups to ever bring themselves to co-exist and cooperate is misinformed and dangerously misinforming commentary.
The fact of the matter is that while the two terrorist groups hate each other, they simply hate us more. We would be wise to acknowledge this and all that it entails. Ignoring past instances of cooperation, coordination and cross training for the convenient purposes of putting the two groups into neat little boxes of Shi’a terrorists and Sunni terrorists is to be willfully blind. We’ve traveled that path once before. We’d be wise not to repeat our own deadly errors once more.