For the past several years, the primary bulwarks against the spread of al-Qaeda’s brand of Salafi Islamism into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have been Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. While it may not fit well with the black-and-white worldview that provides the backdrop for the war against terrorism, the fact is that these two movements have been far more successful at limiting the influence of Salafism within their respective jurisdictions than any of the regional friends and allies of the United States. Even so, as fierce fighting is reducing Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to rubble, the United States has underwritten the Israeli government’s policy that any acceptable political solution must entail the military destruction of Hezbollah and Hamas. Consequently, both movements find themselves the principal targets in the war against terrorism.
Given Hezbollah and Hamas’s willingness and ability to stem the rising tide of Salafist militancy, targeting these two movements means that the war against terrorism itself threatens to enable the infiltration and entrenchment of al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in countries so far denied them. The priorities of the administration seem not only to miss the mark in the fight against terrorism but to constitute a grievous strategic error.
The enmity between Hezbollah and Hamas, on the one hand, and the Salafist trend on the other is in part a matter of practical politics. The former two have been well aware that the emergence of al-Qaeda affiliates in either of their respective territories would serve as a pretext for harsher U.S. and Israeli actions against them and their constituents. Indeed, Israeli military intelligence has repeatedly floated “information” linking Hamas and al-Qaeda with a view to more firmly incorporating Israel’s fight against its enemies into the U.S.-led global war on terror.
Moreover, Hezbollah and Hamas are well established political movements that simply do not want to share their local power bases with Islamist groups of a different ideological hue. Yet it is the nature of this ideological difference that is crucial to understanding the depth of their enmity towards the Salafist project
While Hezbollah/Hamas and al-Qaeda and its affiliates are engaged in what they see as a resistance project, they are not engaged in the same resistance project. The struggles of the former two are territorial, directed against a specific enemy—Israel—and rooted in the needs and aspirations of specific peoples. Through modern institutions these movements aim to empower their constituents, to whom they also stand directly accountable in democratic elections as well as in terms of a more general approval of their actions. Importantly, they form part of, and co-operate within, a pluralistic spectrum of ideologies and creeds within their respective arenas. While it may not sit well with the U.S. public discourse, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas are enemies of the U.S. other than by inferred extension of their enmity with Israel.
In sharp contrast, al-Qaeda’s struggle is rooted in Wahhabi theology, the tribal legacies of Saudi Arabia, and the military experiences of Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Somalia. It wages a cosmic war against the impure values of the West and stands accountable to no specific constituency because it limits its struggle to no specific territory. It seeks to create alternatives to the modern institutions “imported” from the West. It rejects, other than on tactical grounds, political and religious pluralism because it views everyone outside the Salafist sphere as infidels or apostates. It is important to understand that even Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as part of this circle of apostates: the former on account of its Shi’a theology, the latter due to its co-operation with Hezbollah and the various secular Palestinian militant groups and movements. Al-Qaeda is a direct sworn enemy of the U.S. and appears to care little for confrontation with Israel. “Otherwise,” as one Palestinian official remarked, “the bastards would have driven those planes [on 9/11] into buildings in Israel, not New York and Washington.”
Hezbollah, which operates an effective intelligence apparatus, has carefully monitored Salafist movements for the past several years. It has used a combination of carrots and sticks, most often discreetly, to curb the spread of the new ideology among its constituents. Sometimes it has come to blows. For instance, in response to an uprising linked to al-Qaeda affiliates in the northern coastal town of Tripoli in late 2001, Hezbollah provided intelligence support for a successful joint Syrian and Lebanese army counterterrorist operation.
In the Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, which are extremely vulnerable to Salafist influence due to the misery and poverty of their inhabitants, Hamas has co-operated with secular Palestinian groups to stem the tide. Here the tension has repeatedly erupted in violence. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas has worked to counteract infiltration chiefly by absorbing the social grievances that constitute the Salafist breeding ground into its own domestic agenda, thereby reducing the need for a more radical movement. Hamas has also exhibited a rock-solid refusal to respond to persistent Salafist requests for “co-operation against common enemies.” “We have no common enemy,” said one Hamas spokesman, “as long as they wage a global struggle and we wage a local one.”
If the U.S. and Israel were able to fulfill the goal of eradicating Hezbollah and Hamas—which, it must be noted, is almost certainly a pipedream—there would be no “acceptable” actor in either Lebanon or the Palestinian territories capable of counteracting Salafism as effectively. Without Hezbollah and Syrian support, the Lebanese army is utterly useless for counterterrorism purposes, while a reconstituted “moderate” Palestinian Authority will be no more effective at combating Salafists than they were at stemming the tide of Hamas’s popularity. As Hezbollah and Hamas find themselves under Israeli siege with U.S. approval, Arab and Israeli intelligence sources warn that Salafists are already moving in to fill the eventual void.
Combating Hezbollah and Hamas is thus an open invitation for Salafists to enter Lebanon and Palestine, serving no discernible American interest in the war against al-Qaeda—supposedly the centerpiece in the war against terrorism. The administration’s crude and dangerous approach to Middle East politics seems entirely shaped by neocon utopianism, fuelled by the politics of vendetta.
When the U.S. put forces in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the loose conglomerate of nascent cells that would later coalesce into Hezbollah struck with lethal force. In two attacks, against the U.S. embassy and the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, over 300 American service personnel were killed. Atrocious as these attacks were, it is important to understand that the Hezbollah of today bears no resemblance—politically, organizationally, or operationally—to the cells that carried out the 1983 attacks. For the past two decades, Hezbollah’s exclusive focus has been its struggle against Israeli occupation. Since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 (although the continued occupation of the Sheba’a Farms remains a source of tension) Hezbollah’s raison d´être has been the almost daily Israeli violations of Lebanese territory.
For the past 20 years, there has been no evidence that Hezbollah has considered attacking American targets, either in the homeland or abroad. Federal law- enforcement officials have admitted that there is no evidence, despite overwhelming investigative efforts, that Hezbollah has ever sought to establish military “sleeper cells” in the U.S., and Hezbollah itself has repeatedly stated that it has no interest in attacking the U.S. and has recently participated in efforts at dialogue mediated by former British foreign service and intelligence officials. The absence of motive combined with the lack of evidence makes it difficult to see accounts of Hezbollah’s “vast international terrorist network”—“the A-team of terrorists” according to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage—as credible.
The same holds true for Hamas, which has consistently limited its struggle to the Palestinian territories and Israel and has never been found to plan or prepare any kind of attack outside of its local theater of conflict. Elected by a landslide majority in January 2006 to form a new Palestinian government, Hamas ousted a chronically corrupt and incompetent Fatah government, whose sole qualification for the post was its “moderation” and willingness to negotiate with Israel. The Hamas government, by contrast, refused to recognize the existence of Israel—as long as Israel refused to end its occupation of the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners, and agree to an equitable solution to the six-decade-long Palestinian refugee crisis. This position so galled Israel and the U.S. that the new democratically elected government—one of three in the entire Arab Middle East—was declared an obstacle to peace that needed to be removed.
Only an exact equation of Israeli policy with the U.S. national interest could justify the prominence given by the administration to combating and marginalizing Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet Israeli commentators have recently remarked that the neocons’ apparently instrumental view of Israel is anything but helpful. Daniel Levy writes in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz about “the near-perfect symmetry of Israeli and American polic,” but goes on to suggest that “disentangling Israeli interests from the rubble of neocon ‘creative destruction’ in the Middle East has become an urgent challenge for Israeli policy-makers. An America that seeks to reshape the region through an unsophisticated mixture of bombs and ballots, devoid of local contextual understanding, alliance-building or redressing of grievances, ultimately undermines both itself and Israel.”
The paradox of the war against terrorism has been placed in sharp focus in the course of ongoing battles in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Focusing efforts on Hezbollah and Hamas, the U.S. is being drained of political capital that it sorely needs in the fight against real enemies elsewhere in the region and around the world. The Arabs and Muslims know that Hezbollah and Hamas are not the enemies of the U.S., and their elevation to primary U.S. targets does nothing to ameliorate regional disapproval of the war against terrorism.
Moreover, in terms of making operational headway in the war against al-Qaeda, going after Hezbollah and Hamas militarily is exactly the wrong thing to do. The specific struggles of these two movements did not begin with them but was inherited from previous generations of nationalist and leftist combatants. Destroying or weakening Hezbollah and Hamas without addressing the underlying grievances—occupation, prisoners, refugees—would merely cause the baton to be passed on to the next generation of fighters: the al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafists that are already waiting in the wings. If the Salafists were to proliferate in Lebanon and Palestine, they would be on Israel’s borders and become direct participants in the Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time. Given the U.S. role as primary patron of Israel, al-Qaeda and its allies would thus have gained access to the mother lode of political ammunition with which to justify their global struggle.
Anders Strindberg is an academic and a journalist specializing in Mideast politics.