Vanguards at War: Hezbollah and Al Qaeda

There is a general suspicion among parts of the intelligence community in Washington that Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, despite their differences, have cooperated in the past and continue to cooperate on jihad-related activities against the United States and its interests at home and abroad.

In June 2004, the U.S. 9/11 commission found no operational ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It did, however, conclude that Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist network had long-running contacts with Iran and Hezbollah.

The alleged relationship between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah hit the spotlight in 2000 when it was reported that Imad Mugniyah, an international terrorist who is widely believed to be associated with Hezbollah, met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan to plan the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa.

Without access to reliable intelligence, the above allegation and others simply cannot be independently refuted. That one or more alleged Hezbollah members may have met in their lifetimes with a leader or fighter belonging to Al Qaeda’s global network is a possibility that cannot be repudiated.

The assumption that Hezbollah and Al Qaeda have a solid operational or strategic relationship and cooperate on matters pertaining to global jihad can be challenged on the basis of the following four reasons.

One, irreconcilable theological differences: Al Qaeda follows a Manichaean ideology that sees Shiite Muslims as the lowest of the low, even worse than the Jews and the “crusaders.” For Al Qaeda, Shiites are rawafidh (rejectionist Muslims) and should be fought like all other infidels. A week before he was killed by a U.S. air strike, the Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a fiery statement accusing Hezbollah of acting as a protective buffer for Israel. Hezbollah, generally reserved in its comments on internal Islamic issues, first commented on Al Qaeda and its ideology soon after the 9/11 attacks when Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s secretary general, described it as an “entity trapped in medieval ages and bent on killing innocent Muslims.” In June 2006, Nawaf al-Musawi, the director of Hezbollah’s external relations office, replied to Zarqawi’s allegations by accusing him of being a tool of the United States and Israel against Arab resistance groups and by viewing his criminal acts as solely intended to ignite civil wars and sectarian fighting.

Two, conflicting political strategies: Contrary to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah has accepted the political process and has been legitimately engaged in participatory and competitive politics (notwithstanding of course the controversial nature of its paramilitary wing). While Al Qaeda is bent on destroying Arab regimes and their allies and on replacing them with Taliban-style systems of governance, Hezbollah aims to work within the Lebanese system. As revolutionary as it is, Hezbollah indirectly negotiates and makes deals with its enemies (evidenced in the several prisoner exchanges with Israel over the last decade). In sum, contrary to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah can be engaged.

Three, strategic differences: It is hard to envision any strategic relationship between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah when the former is officially at war with the latter’s strategic orbit, comprised of Iran and Syria. Several of Al Qaeda’s leaders and grand ideologues have issued statements over the years describing Hezbollah as nothing but an “agent of the Safavid empire” (in reference to Iran) and interpreting the Shiite group’s agenda as solely intended to conspire to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world.

Four, the physical state of war between the two entities: Al Qaeda has demonstrated its hatred of Hezbollah over the years by launching a number of attacks against the Shiite group. In July 2004, Jund al-Sham, a Qaeda ally in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the murder of an Hezbollah senior official, Ghaleb Awali. In December 2005, in an attempt to implicate Hezbollah in an attack against Israel, four fighters of Al Qaeda in Iraq launched 10 Krad rockets from southern Lebanon into Kiryat Shemona in northern Israel. Finally, in April 2006, the Lebanese authorities foiled a plot by a local Salafist jihadist network to assassinate Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.

Lumping Al Qaeda and Hezbollah in the same basket will only do disservice to the global counterterrorism campaign. Each entity poses a distinct set of challenges to the Unites States and the West. Leading a successful campaign against these entities will require individual strategies tailored to address the distinctive threats they pose.

Encouraging the animosity of one toward the other and underscoring their differences serves the global war on terrorism better than creating a sense of solidarity between them.