Bin Laden's "Brothers"
The conventional wisdom is that Hezbollah and al Qaeda are rivals, not partners. The conventional wisdom is wrong.
4:30 PM, Jul 27, 2006 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
THE LATEST ZAWAHIRI TAPE, his tenth in the last year, will leave some al Qaeda watchers perplexed. In it, Zawahiri refers to his "brothers" in Lebanon and Gaza and links their war with Israel to al Qaeda's jihad against the West. "The shells and rockets ripping apart Muslim bodies in Gaza and Lebanon are not only Israeli [weapons], but are supplied by all the countries of the crusader coalition. Therefore, every participant in the crime will pay the price," Zawahiri says. Bin Laden's number two threatens retaliation for what is being done to his "brothers" in southern Lebanon saying, "We cannot just watch these shells as they burn our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon and stand by idly, humiliated."
Zawahiri's statements run counter to the conventional wisdom. It is widely believed in academic circles and some corridors of the U.S. intelligence community that al Qaeda and Hezbollah are ideological rivals competing for the hearts and minds of potential jihadists. In fact, some experts are already arguing that Zawahiri could not possibly be referring to Hezbollah in the tape and that he must mean al Qaeda's operatives or friends in Lebanon and Gaza.
Just this week, Bernard Haykel, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at New York University, summarized the academic view in the New York Times. "Al Qaeda's Sunni ideology regards Shiites as heretics and profoundly distrusts Shiite groups like Hezbollah," the author of Revival and Reform in Islam tells us. He goes on to argue that jihadist internet chat rooms frequented by al Qaeda are fretting over Hezbollah's success and wondering how to respond. "For al Qaeda," he writes, "it is a time of panic." The group is "unlikely to take a loss of status," caused by Hezbollah's stealing of the headlines, "lying down."
This view has been adopted by some of the more prominent members of the U.S. intelligence community. As Paul Pillar, a former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA and intelligence officer for the CIA's Near East and South Asia division, wrote in his book Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy:
The limits to bin Ladin's influence, however, are just as important. For one thing, he has very little sway among Shia extremists. Although he and shares some enemies with Iran--the center for Shia radicalism--he and Iran have opposing interests in the fight for Afghanistan, which is important to both of them.
Pillar's assumption is that because Iran was no friend of the Taliban, then al Qaeda and Tehran could not cooperate in any endeavor.
But to accept this view, one must ignore a wealth of evidence.
THE TERRORISTS of Hezbollah and al Qaeda do not behave like textbook automatons. It is never wise to accept al Qaeda's propaganda at face value, but behind Zawahiri's recent statement lies a long-standing relationship between Iran's Hezbollah and al Qaeda. Not only were ideological boundaries insignificant, Tehran's terror proxy has played an instrumental role in al Qaeda's rise.
Consider what two al Qaeda members who joined bin Laden's terrorist coalition through Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, say on the subject. Testifying at the U.S. Embassy bombings trial, Ali Mohamed and Jamal al Fadl spoke openly about the ties between Iran, Hezbollah and al Qaeda.
Ali Mohamed, a former U.S. Green Beret supply sergeant who admitted to conspiring with al Qaeda in the embassy bombings and various other nefarious activities, explained:
I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and [Egyptian Islamic] al Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden.
Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.
Mohamed's mention of a meeting between Hezbollah's terror chieftain, Imad Mugniyeh, and bin Laden is enough to set off alarm bells. Mugniyeh's handiwork includes: the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in 1983, the kidnapping and murder of the CIA's station chief in Lebanon in 1984, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, and numerous other attacks.
According to Mohamed, al Qaeda self-consciously modeled itself after Hezbollah. Mugniyeh's group successfully drove the U.S. out of Lebanon in 1984 with a series of attacks, and al Qaeda sought to force the same type of retreat from the Middle East.
Jamal al Fadl added additional details. Al Fadl described a meeting between a Sudanese scholar named Ahmed Abdel Rahman Hamadabi, an Iranian Sheikh named Nomani (who was an emissary of the mullahs), and senior leaders of al Qaeda. In broken English, al Fadl answered Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's questions about the meeting:
Q: What happened when Sheikh Nomani came to the guesthouse in Riyadh City?
A: In front there they sit down and some of the higher membership, they got meeting and talking with the Sheikh Nomani and Hamadabi.
Q: Was Bin Laden there?
Q: Can you tell us what was discussed at that meeting?
A: They [Nomani and Hamadabi] talk about we have to come together and we have to forget the problem between each other and each one he should respect the other because our enemy is one and because there is no reason to fight each other.
Q: Who did they describe the enemy as being?
A: They say westerns. [sic] [emphasis added]
This would seem to contradict the Haykel and Pillar construct.
The confluence of interests has not been confined to rhetoric and meetings. Al Fadl told prosecutor Fitzgerald that he knew of several al Qaeda associates who were trained by Hezbollah. One exchange in his testimony was especially provocative:
Q: Did you ever speak to anyone who received any training from anyone who was a Shia Muslim?
Q: Who did you speak to?
A: Abu Talha al Sudani and Saif al Islam el Masry. . . .
Q: What did Saif al Islam El Masry tell you?
A: He say they go to south Lebanon to got training with the Shiites over there.
Q: Did he indicate what Shia group in south Lebanon provided the training?
A: I remember he told me it's called Hezbollah.
Q: What did Abu Talha tell you?
A: Abu Talha, he tell me the training is very good, and he bring some tapes with him.
Q: Did Abu Talha tell you what was on the tapes he brought back?
A: I saw one of the tapes, and he tell me they train about how to explosives [sic] big buildings. [emphasis added]
Al Fadl then went on to list several other al Qaeda terrorists who received Hezbollah training. One of them was a man named Saif al Adel.
AL ADEL HAS BEEN IMPLICATED in some of al Qaeda's most spectacular attacks, including the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (which, incidentally, used truck bombs similar to those employed by Hezbollah to destroy "big buildings") and the September 11 attacks. Al Adel is thought to have trained several of the hijackers.
Al Adel's early relationship with Tehran's terror proxy may help explain why he was able to find safehaven in Iran shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan. The Iranian government claims to have "detained" him, along with dozens of other senior al Qaeda leaders--including bin Laden's son Saad.
But this "detention" has not stopped al Adel, who has become one of al Qaeda's senior operations leaders, from ordering up attacks. Al Adel played a key role in orchestrating al Qaeda's May 2003 suicide attacks on three Western housing complexes in Riyadh from Iranian soil.
The testimony provided by Ali Mohamed and Jamal al Fadl was corroborated by the 9/11 Commission. The Commission's final report confirms that al Qaeda operatives received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon in addition to other training provided in Iran. The Commission also left open the possibility that al Qaeda and Hezbollah worked together on the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
Remarkably, the Commission even left the door open for further investigation into the September 11 attacks. It cited evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives monitored the travels of eight to ten of the "muscle" hijackers prior to the attack. Such provocative threads of evidence led the Commission to report, "We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."
Some analysts will continue to dismiss Zawahiri's remarks because they do not conform to the prevailing model for understanding terrorism. But the truth is that there is a long history of collaboration between al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.