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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 2, No. 13     18 December 2002


Sunni and Shiite Terrorist Networks:
Competition or Collusion?

Lenny Ben-David


  • The Palestinian assertion that Sunni and Shiite terrorist groups do not cooperate is baseless and historically wrong.

  • Recent history has demonstrated that there are few religious-ideological barriers in the world of international terrorism. The secular Ba'athist regime in Syria works closely with Hizballah, as a secular Ba'athist regime in Iraq has developed ties to al-Qaeda.

  • Radical Sunni and Shiite Islamic groups have their own geopolitical interests in bridging the great Islamic divide - particularly their antipathy for the United States and its allies.



The smoke had barely cleared over Mombassa when investigators began to suspect that both al-Qaeda and Hizballah terrorist groups were involved in the bombing of the Israeli hotel on November 28, 2002. Both groups had utilized suicide drivers to blow up targets such as the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut or the U.S. embassies in Lebanon, Kenya, and Tanzania.  

Commentators expressed surprise that the two organizations would be cooperating. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's claim that al-Qaeda had joined the Hizballah jihad against Israel and had infiltrated into Palestinian territories was met with cynicism and denial by Palestinian and Lebanese officials.

"Al-Qaeda has no presence in Lebanon and there is no relationship between Hizballah and al-Qaeda," the Hizballah said in a statement issued in Lebanon on December 6.1 Lebanese President Emile Lahoud also denied the claim that members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network were present in his country. "The accusations issued by the prime minister of the enemy, Ariel Sharon, over the presence of al-Qaeda offices in Lebanon are null and void and conceal aggressive intentions toward Lebanon," Lahoud said in a statement issued by his office.2

On the Palestinian front, Arafat called the al-Qaeda charge "a big, big, big, big lie to cover Sharon's attacks and his crimes against our people."3 Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo claimed an Israeli plot. "There are certain elements who were instructed by the Mossad to form a cell under the name of al-Qaeda in the Gaza Strip in order to justify the assault and the military campaigns of the Israeli occupation army against Gaza," Abed Rabbo said.4

The connection between the two organizations seems improbable considering the centuries of violent religious strife between al-Qaeda's radical Sunni Muslim doctrine and Hizballah's Shiite brand of Islam. In recent years, the Sunni-Shiite conflict spilled over into bloody riots in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of Shiites were killed in Pakistan in the last five years. In the late 1990s, Iran, Hizballah's patron, massed forces on its border with Taliban Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaeda. Tension and violence characterize the relationship between the two sects in countries where both communities reside.


Sources of Sunni-Shiite Collaboration

A Sunni-Shiite terrorist coalition was an unintended consequence of at least one Israeli action. In December 1992, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin deported 415 Palestinians, most of whom were members of the radical Sunni terrorist group Hamas, to southern Lebanon, where they were met with open arms by the Hizballah network. The Shiite organization not only trained the Palestinians in advanced bomb making techniques, but apparently also indoctrinated many in the culture of suicide bombing, a tactic little used by the Sunni Palestinians until that point.

The encounter also helped the Iranian-backed Hizballah gain a foothold inside Israel, despite the absence of a Shiite population in Israel or the territories. Several Hizballah operatives have been captured inside Israel or attempting to enter. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 was perceived by Palestinians as the successful result of Hizballah attacks on Israel's defense forces and served as a model for their "al-Aqsa intifada."

Far from the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield, however, the Hamas-Hizballah alliance expanded to include al-Qaeda, as well. Ali Mohamed, a former Egyptian intelligence officer and American Green Beret, testified in American courts in October 2000 that he aided al-Qaeda in planning the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.5 He also admitted to providing security for Osama bin Laden at a meeting in Sudan with Hizballah's intelligence chief, Imad Mughniyah. Mughniyah, believed to be living in Iran, is considered the chief suspect in the 1996 bombing of the American barracks in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that left 19 servicemen dead. He is also suspected of arranging for the Karine A arms shipment sent by Iran to Palestinians, that was captured by Israel on the high seas.

When the United States launched operations in Afghanistan, some al-Qaeda operatives escaped to Lebanon where they attempted to establish bases of operation in Palestinian refugee camps, particularly the largest camp in Lebanon, Ein al-Hilweh.6 Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaida attempted to open a dialogue with Hizballah and Shiite Iran, with Sudan's Hasan Turabi, and Tajik Islamists like Abdallah Nuri serving as intermediaries.


The South American Connection

Recent evidence indicates that the terrorist trident of al-Qaeda-Hizballah-Hamas has established a base in the most unlikely of places - South America. U.S. officials testified before the House International Relations Committee in October 2001:

In the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Middle East terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah train terrorists and conduct fundraising activities in an area which has a growing population of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants. Funds raised in the tri-border area are sent directly to the Middle East to support the operation of these organizations, possibly even the planning and execution of terrorist acts....No doubt funds raised in the tri-border area have made it to the pockets of al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden....The FBI claims Islamic extremist cells linked with Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda are operating in Paraguay, Uruguay, and Ecuador.7

The region is believed to be the base of operations for Hizballah terrorists who used car bombs to attack the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and an Argentinean Jewish center in 1994, murdering scores. Imad Mughniya, the Hizballah intelligence officer, is again the chief suspect.8

A recent report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a research institute directed by former Senator Sam Nunn, cites an Argentinean intelligence report "detailing…findings that operatives from al-Qaeda were in the tri-border region and coordinating with extremist Shiite groups."9

Immediately following the Mombassa hotel bombing, American officials were reluctant to place blame on al-Qaeda,10 perhaps out of fear of identifying too closely with Israel as a common bin Laden target. With al-Qaeda now publicly claiming responsibility for the Kenyan bombing, there can be no doubt that the United States and Israel find themselves in the same global battle against Islamic terror, and that the global terrorist net is connected from Afghanistan to Gaza, Mecca to Mombassa, Ramallah to Buenos Aires, and Beirut to Paraguay.


Conclusion

Recent history has demonstrated that there are few religious-ideological barriers in the world of international terrorism. The secular Ba'athist regime in Syria works closely with Hizballah, as a secular Ba'athist regime in Iraq has developed ties to al-Qaeda.

It would be a mistake to assume that Islamist international terror groups are driven primarily by the religious associations with radical Sunni or radical Shiite Islam. These groups have their own geopolitical interests in bridging this great Islamic divide - particularly their antipathy for the United States and its allies.     


Notes

    1. Al Bawaba, http://www.albawaba.com/headlines/TheNews.php3?action=story&sid=235785&lang=e&dir=news.
    2. Middle East Online, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=3528.
    3. Ibrahim Hazboun, "Palestinians Reject Al-Qaida Claim," AP - Washington Post, December 7, 2002, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24441-2002Dec7.html.
    4. Reuters, http://reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=1867737.
    5. Judy Aita, "Ali Mohamed: The Defendant Who Did Not Go to Trial," Washington File, U.S. Department of State, http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/terror/01051502.htm.
    6. Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0815/p07s01-wome.html.
    7. Center for International Policy, Columbia Project, Transcript of House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Hearing, October 10, 2001 http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/101001.htm.
    8. Jeffrey Fields, "Islamist Terrorist Threat in the Tri-Border Region," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, October 2002, http://www.nti.org/e_research/e3_16b.html.
    9. Ibid.
    10. Richard Boucher, Daily Press Briefing, U.S. Department of State, December 2, 2002, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2002/15609.htm.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Lenny Ben-David, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 1616 Walnut St., Suite 1005, Philadelphia, PA 19103-5313; Tel. (215) 772-0564, Fax. (215) 772-0566. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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