WASHINGTON, July 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The conflict between Israel and Hizballah has posed a difficult dilemma for Al-Qaeda. Israel is a sworn enemy, but Hizballah is a Shi'ite group with strong ties to Iran.
Al-Qaeda's radical Sunni worldview, which has never looked kindly on Shi'a, veered into extreme sectarian animosity with the rise of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- among the most rabidly anti-Shi'ite figures in recent memory -- and Iraq's descent into Sunni-Shi'a strife.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has come to stand for the rejection of Shi'a as heretics and the perpetration of merciless terror attacks against them.
Jihadist web forums -- the vox populi of a stateless movement -- reflect this polarization in their sour reaction to the conflict.
The radical Kuwaiti cleric Hamid al-Ali summed up a widely held view with a much-posted statement that spoke of the first skirmish in a coming clash between Iran and the "Jewish-crusader" alliance, a "war of aggressive devils, and we pray to God to help them against each other and bring us out intact, for they are the two enemies who are targeting the lawful jihadist."
But with mainstream popular sentiment in the Arab world rallying around Hizballah as a new symbol of "resistance," not all contributors to jihadist forums were willing to wish a plague on both houses for dogmatic reasons.
As one web post said: "Lebanon's Hezbollah didn't stay quiet like the Arabs. It did something heroic that the Arab armies couldn't do. Instead of screaming and yelling, you should have joined hands with the heroes of Hezbollah against the Zionist infidel enemy because the Jews don't distinguish between Sunni and Shi'ite."
The solution al-Zawahiri devised was to integrate recent events into Al-Qaeda's broader view of a worldwide conflict between true Muslims and the "Zionist-crusader alliance," while couching his positions in obscure rhetoric that can be read by Hizballah supporters as qualified support for Hizballah and by anti-Shi'ite jihadists as a politically correct stance on a group they view as heretics.
Another stated: "Seven soldiers were killed and two captured in this operation. [Hezbollah] did what no Arab army could do. This is a time for unity, not sectarian and ethnic differences." But the anti-Hizballah jihadists held their ground, arguing that Hizballah is "just like the Mahdi Army of the devil, which is slaughtering your brothers in Iraq. This operation is just a smokescreen..."
This is the polemic that al-Zawahiri stepped into with his address. The solution he devised was to integrate recent events into Al-Qaeda's broader view of a worldwide conflict between true Muslims and the "Zionist-crusader alliance," while couching his positions in obscure rhetoric that can be read by Hizballah supporters as qualified support for Hizballah and by anti-Shi'ite jihadists as a politically correct stance on a group they view as heretics.
In keeping with Al-Qaeda's belief in a global clash of civilizations, al-Zawahiri begins by stating that the "war with Israel" is not a conflict over treaties, nationalism, or disputed borders, but rather a "jihad in the path of God." The jihad aims not only for the "liberation of Palestine," but also "all land that was the realm of Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq."
Al-Zawahiri claims that the Israeli weapons that are "tearing apart the bodies of Muslims in Gaza and Lebanon" are provided and paid for by "all the countries of the crusader alliance," which must be made to "pay the price."
"How can we be silent?" he asks, enumerating a long list of heroes from Islamic history and promising that "we have once again taken to the field."
'Two Jihad Fronts'
To illustrate the proper response to the latest episode in what he has presented as a global conflict, al-Zawahiri recounts an exchange that took place between Muhammad Atta and Abu Hafs al-Masri in Kandahar a year before the September 11, 2001, attacks. Atta, he tells us, asked Abu Hafs about the best way to defend Palestine from aggression. Al-Zawahiri comments, "America knows the rest of [this] story well."
Following the implied advice of Abu Hafs, al-Zawahiri concludes that it is necessary to "target Jewish and American interests everywhere, and to target the interests of all the countries that take part in the aggression against Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon."
Al-Zawahiri points to the "two jihad fronts" in Iraq and Afghanistan as the key to making America "pay the price for its aggression against Muslims and its support for Israel." Moreover, Iraq should become a "jihad-fighting Islamic emirate to move the jihad to the borders of Palestine. Then, the mujahedin inside and outside Palestine can unite and the great conquest can take place, God willing."
Al-Zawahiri does not mention Hizballah by name in his statement, nor does he offer any direct expression of support.
In a carefully worded sentence near the end of his address, however, he says: "You dispossessed and oppressed in the world, victims of tyrannical, oppressive Western civilization and its leader, America -- stand with the Muslims to confront this oppression, the likes of which humanity has never seen. Stand with us, for we stand with you against oppression and tyranny."
The term "dispossessed" is most closely associated with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and specifically with populist elements in the political statements of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hizballah also employs it frequently. Al-Zawahiri's respectful use of this Shi'a-associated term in a context suggestive of unity in the face of "oppression and tyranny" implies common cause with Hizballah and flies in the face of the sectarian denunciations of the Shi'ite organization that emerged from extremist Sunni circles in the early days of the fighting in Lebanon.
At the same time, the way the sentence is phrased -- drawing a distinction between "the Muslims" (us, the Sunni) and "the dispossessed" (them, the Shi'a) by asking the Shi'a to stand with the Sunnis -- would allow Al-Qaeda's anti-Shi'ite supporters to read it as an affirmation of their belief that Shi'ites are heretics who cannot be considered Muslims. In this reading, al-Zawahiri is calling them back to the fold with his appeal for them to stand "with the Muslims."
Al-Zawahiri offers veiled, equivocal support for Hizballah, not in the context of a resistance movement's struggle bounded by national aims and borders, but rather in Al-Qaeda's preferred context of a global clash of civilizations that can only be resolved by a jihad to enshrine their vision of pure Islam.
In terms of concrete action, Al-Qaeda promises strikes against not only American and Jewish interests, but also the interests of all countries that "take part in aggression against Muslims." Suicide attacks remain the modus operandi, as al-Zawahiri urges a struggle using the "love of death" as a weapon.
Reaction To Al-Zawahiri
In comments to Al-Jazeera on July 27, Hasan Hudruj, a member of Hizballah's Political Council, reacted coolly to al-Zawahiri's rhetorical finesse. Stressing Hizballah's opposition to "sectarian sedition because it endangers Arab and Islamic issues, existence, future, and unity," Hudruj said al-Zawahiri's statement "should be clearer in its reference to the ideological and political dimensions of unity among Muslims. There should be clear and direct references to Hizballah and Shi'a in a positive sense."
Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah demonstrated his own view of the "ideological and political dimensions of unity," and not just among Muslims, in an address broadcast by Hizballah television station Al-Manar on July 29.
The contrast with al-Zawahiri's statement, with its global pretensions and triangulating imprecision, was stark. In opposition to the "barbaric Zionist-American aggression against Lebanon," Nasrallah began with blessings "for the resistance in Lebanon, for the Lebanese people, for all of Lebanon, with all its groups, regions, facets, and institutions."
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently told Lebanon's Future TV that Hizballah has emerged victorious from its confrontation with the Israeli Army, but the real question is to whom Hizballah will present its victory.
In his speech, Nasrallah made his reply in broadly national terms, saying that Hizballah's victory will be "a victory for every Arab, Muslim, Christian, and honorable person in the world." He continued with rhetoric aimed specifically at both Muslims and Christians: "This victory will be a powerful impetus for national unity as it has been embodied by our people in recent days and as it is embodied in the values of Christ and the Prophet..."
Elsewhere, he deployed sweeping nationalist tropes, likening resistance fighters to "the eternity of the cedars on our summits and the humility of sheaves of wheat in our lands."
The statements by al-Zawahiri and Nasrallah highlight rival discourses -- that of jihad, a global project to remake the world; and that of resistance, a regional project against a specific enemy. Jihad attracts adherents through the sweep and ambition of its aims, yet remains beholden to its violent means and narrow, exclusionary vision, as demonstrated by the sectarian carnage in Iraq. Resistance offers greater inclusion and flexibility, yet seems capable of displaying those qualities only during the conflict with an external enemy, as demonstrated by the contentious domestic political experiences of both Hizballah and various Palestinian factions.
Jihad and resistance have formed tactical alliances, perhaps most successfully during the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the tension between the two has a long history.
Jihad and resistance have formed tactical alliances, perhaps most successfully during the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the tension between the two has a long history. In 1978, Israeli forces briefly invaded Lebanon up to the Litani River to push back Palestinian militant groups. Mustafa Hamid, an Egyptian Islamist who would go on to join Al-Qaeda in the 1990s, volunteered to fight in what he hoped would be a jihad in southern Lebanon.
In a 1994 memoir, he recounted his disappointment when he found not jihad, but resistance: "I had imagined that in Lebanon I would find a strong Islamic presence.... Yet I did not find Islam or jihad, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood. All I found was armed struggle." He soon departed.
In the wake of 9/11 and Al-Qaeda's rise to prominence, jihad eclipsed resistance as a political discourse in the global imagination, although it never garnered mass support in the part of the world where it has tried hardest to succeed.
Now, with reports pointing to growing sympathy for Hizballah in the Arab world, resistance appears to be enjoying a resurgence. Arab regimes have exploited both discourses for their own purposes -- sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly -- yet have moved quickly to suppress them whenever they threatened to upset the status quo.
Jihad and resistance both thrive on conflict. The current violence in Lebanon could produce a tactical alliance -- which is likely to prove fragile and fleeting -- or heightened competition. Both outcomes are full of destabilizing intangibles.
But they will remain a real possibility as long as existing regimes stand for a status quo of questionable legitimacy and thin popular support, and no countervailing political ideas are capable of marshalling enough adherents to offer the hope of a viable third way.