The franchise that Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri would most like to develop is a Palestinian one, preferably in alliance with the Hamas movement.
With its record of resistance to Israel, including dozens of martyrdom attacks, Hamas has more credibility as a Sunni jihadist movement than any other organisation in the region. Hamas has serious reservations about such a relationship, however, as the comments of its late founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Yassin, indicate.
Asked about al Qaeda after his release from prison in 1997, following a botched Mossad assassination attempt in Amman, Yassin responded: "We support and sympathise with any movement which defends the rights of its people to enjoy self governance and independence but we are not prepared to seek an alliance with those movements."
At the same time, there is evidence of operational links between the two groups. In 2004-05 Hamas operatives apparently helped an al Qaeda cell in the Sinai carry out attacks on Israeli and Western targets in the Sharm al-Shaykh and Taba holiday resorts. Upon uncovering these connections, Egypt's intelligence service was furious with Hamas for bringing terrorism to the country's booming tourist centers. Although the extent of these connections is very unclear, some contact is certain, particularly between the military wing of Hamas and al Qaeda.
Nonetheless, Hamas jealously guards its independence from outsiders, well aware of the sorry fate of Palestinian movements that align themselves with Arab patrons and become pawns in the inter-Arab political conflict of the Middle East. Hamas has only developed close relations with Syria and Iran in recent years, out of need for military assistance and increased economic aid. Publicly, most Hamas officials have been careful to distance the organisation from al Qaeda violence, especially outside of Iraq or Afghanistan, and it has joined the electoral process in Palestine with great success.
For its part, al Qaeda has been increasingly critical of Hamas participation in the electoral process and its success in winning a majority in the last Palestinian parliamentary elections. Since Hamas is a descendant of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda has regarded it with suspicion from its birth. Zawahiri is particularly wary of its connection with the Brotherhood, and both he and bin Laden have warned Hamas not to let political power and government jobs seduce it into abandoning or scaling back the jihad against Israel.
Zawahiri had harsh words for Hamas on hearing of its March 2007 agreement to form a national unity government with Fatah, especially as the deal was brokered in Mecca by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Hamas, he sadly claimed, had "fallen into the quagmire of surrender," and the leadership had "sold out" to the king: "The leadership of Hamas has committed an aggression against the rights of the Islamic nation by accepting what it called respecting international agreements [a code word for the Oslo process]."
Extending his condolences to this Islamic nation, Zawahiri emphasized that "nobody, be he Palestinian or not, has the right to relinquish a grain of Palestinian soil." He was particularly upset to hear Hamas had negotiated with Fatah security chief Mohammed Dahlan, whom al Qaeda regards as a spy for Israel and America. In a May 2007 video interview, Zawahiri criticized Hamas yet again, pointing to maps of Palestine illustrating Israel's increasing control over the country from 1948 to today and accusing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood of doing too little to fight this expansion.
In response, Hamas has denied any moderation in its commitment to the Palestinian cause: "We are a movement of Jihad and of resistance...We in the Hamas movement remain loyal to our positions and dream of dying as martyrs. We assure Dr al-Zawahiri and all those who remain unwavering in their attachment to Palestine that today's Hamas is the same Hamas you have known since its founding."
Since this exchange, Hamas has in fact abandoned the Mecca process and in the three-day war in June 2007 evicted Fatah from Gaza, creating in effect at least a temporary three-state outcome to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How long this uneasy state of affairs — an Israel with a Fatah West Bank on one side and a Hamas Gaza on the other — will last is unclear.
Interestingly, al Qaeda's criticism of Hamas's flirtation with the political process and acceptance of a truce with Israel reveals some important and fundamental concerns about al Qaeda's long-term sense of its own vulnerability. The Palestinian "cause" is the centerpiece of al Qaeda's narrative about Western Crusaders' aggression against the ummah. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the creation of the British Mandate in Palestine set in train the events that would lead to the creation of Israel after World War II. For Zawahiri, this has been the West's most evil act, making the "Zionist entity...a foothold for the Crusader invasion of the Islamic world. The Zionist entity is the vanguard of the US campaign to dominate the Islamic Levant. It is a part of an enormous campaign against the Islamic world in which the West, under the leadership of America, has allied with global Zionism."
As Zawahiri argues, "After the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate a wave of psychological defeatism and ideological collapse spread" throughout the Islamic world. This defeatism made possible the Zionist victory in the 1948 war, which Palestinians consider to be the great disaster of their history, the naqba, or catastrophe. For Zawahiri, the issue is profoundly personal as well: he began his career in terror as a junior participant in the 1981 plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel.
Thus any sign that the Palestinian movement is turning away from jihad, however tentative, is a concern for al Qaeda. It worries that movement toward a peace agreement will undermine a critical plank of its narrative and alienate it from the ummah. Bin Laden provided two revealing commentaries via al Qaeda's propaganda machine on the 60th anniversary of Israel's creation in May 2008. In one he said to Americans, "The main root of the conflict between our civilisation and your civilisation is the Palestine question. I stress that the Palestine question is my nation's central issue. It was, therefore, a key factor that has, since childhood, provided me and the free 19 men (the 9/11 hijackers) with an overwhelming feeling of the need to punish the Jews and those supporting them. This is why the incidents of September 11th took place."
In the second message on the sixtieth anniversary, bin Laden urged the Muslim world to overthrow the corrupt regimes that have made peace with Israel, especially Egypt, and join in helping the Palestinian struggle, especially in Gaza. He laments again that "the Ottoman state — its big faults notwithstanding — was protecting the ummah from the Crusader Western wolves" until it was betrayed by the Hashemite and Saudi families.
Finally, he even attacks the Shia Hezbollah group for not being tough enough in fighting the Crusaders in Lebanon and accepting a cease-fire with Israel. Al Qaeda has also accused Hezbollah of spreading the false rumor that Israel was really responsible for the 9/11 attacks as part of a secret pact between the Shia and Israel. Only al Qaeda is truly firm in standing clearly against any deal with Israel — everyone else is too soft.
This is an edited extract from The Search for al Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press), by Bruce Riedel.
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