Qaeda Tapes Reveal a Rift

  • Share
  • Read Later

A man identified as Musab al-Zarqawi speaks in a video posted on the Internet

The most recent video releases by Osama bin Laden and Musab al-Zarqawi — and the reactions to them — reveal that the high-profile jihadist carpetbaggers may be finding it harder to maintain a following precisely in those places where local Islamist insurgencies should provide the most fertile ground. A videotape purporting to show Zarqawi musing on the state of the Iraqi insurgency surfaced on a jihadist web site on Tuesday, a day after a terror attack on the Egyptian resort town of Dahab killed at least 23 people and two days after the release of an Osama bin Laden audiotape urging attacks on Western civilians in defense of the Palestinians, among others. All three events show the growing distance between the "global jihadists" of al-Qaeda and the local constituencies on whose behalf they claim to be fighting.

Zarqawi Demoted?

The Zarqawi tape is an unremarkable restatement of enthusiasm for jihad in Iraq; its prime purpose seems to be to reestablish his media presence. And if recent reports that Zarqawi's status has been downsized even by his own coalition of insurgent groups are to be believed, it's not hard to see why the Jordanian fugitive synonymous with mass-casualty bombings of Iraqi Shi'ites and videotaped beheadings of kidnapped Westerners would be looking for some attention.

Huthaifa Azzam, a Jordan-based Palestinian Islamist and son of Osama bin Laden's erstwhile mentor in Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam, who claims to be well-connected in Iraqi insurgent circles, said last month that Zarqawi had made "many political mistakes" and was now being confined to a military role. Others suspected that lowering his profile was a strategy to put an Iraqi face on even the Islamist element of the insurgency, recognizing that a good portion of the Sunni population was alienated by many of Zarqawi's tactics. Either way, the problem facing the likes of Zarqawi is plain to see at a moment when the nationalist leadership of the insurgency is engaging in talks with the U.S., premised in part on their common antipathy to both Iran and al-Qaeda.

Hamas vs. al-Qaeda?

If the reported rift between Zarqawi and local nationalists and Islamists is happening in the safe houses and secret communication channels of the Iraqi insurgency, the rift between al-Qaeda and Hamas has become a matter of public record. It is not yet clear who was responsible for Monday's triple bombing in Dahab, but the Hamas-led Palestinian government instantly condemned "this criminal act which flouts our religion, shakes Palestinian national security and works against Arab interests". Strong stuff, particularly from a government that only last week had labeled a Tel Aviv suicide bombing by Islamic Jihad a "legitimate act of self-defense."

The Hamas statement could be read as a product of the pressure on the movement to distance itself from terrorism from even those Arab regimes that have stepped in to fund the Palestinian government. But Hamas is not typically prone to do the bidding of others, and could just as easily have remained silent on a bomb attack in Egypt. And viewed against the Hamas reponse to Osama bin Laden's latest tape, it appears to suggest a growing rift between the standard-bearers of Islamist politics in the Palestinian territories and the jihadists-without-borders element who would turn the Palestinian cause into a vehicle for their global campaign against the West.

Bin Laden's statement sought to portray him as a champion of the Palestinians against a Western "crusade" and, in passing, castigated Hamas for its decision to enter the Palestinian parliament and other Arab or Islamist moderates for even considering dialogue with the West. Hamas responded by saying that while Bin Laden was entitled to his own opinions (the implication being that in the case of the Palestinians he should keep them to himself), "We are interested in good relations with the West and we call on the Western countries to reconsider their stance towards the Palestinian cause and the Muslim nation."

A similar exchange had occurred in March when al-Qaeda's Number 2, Ayman Zawahiri, released his own tape criticizing Hamas's decision to enter politics and warning it never to make peace with Israel. That time, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal responded that Hamas had its own vision and always acted in the Palestinian national interest — it didn't need al Qaeda's advice. Zawahiri had also criticized the dominant Islamist group of his home country — the Muslim Brotherhood — for its participation in Egypt's recent elections.

The idea of Islamist groups entering democratic politics is inherently threatening to al-Qaeda, whose very premise is that local Muslim grievances can only ever be redressed once the "far enemy" (the U.S.) has been forced, through jihad under the banner of al-Qaeda, to retreat from the Muslim world. If a different, democratic option becomes available for local Islamist groups to pursue their goals, al-Qaeda and its message of the clash of civilizations becomes essentially irrelevant — which is exactly what Hamas appears to be implying it is to the Palestinians.