Bin Laden turns his mind to Israel

Osama bin Laden has plenty on his mind but he managed to pay close attention this month to the events surrounding Israel’s 60th anniversary and the parallel commemoration of the “nakba”—the catastrophe—that the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 meant for the Palestinians.

Twice in three days Israel and Palestine were the focus of carefully-crafted messages from the al-Qaeda leader, broadcasting via Islamist websites from his hideout in the badlands of the Pakistani tribal areas.

First he attacked Western leaders—United States President George Bush most obviously—for taking part in Israel’s birthday celebrations, vowing that Muslims would fight and not give up “one inch of Palestine”. Two days later he urged Muslims to smash the Israeli-led blockade of the Gaza Strip and fight Arab governments that deal with the Jewish state.

The Palestinian cause has not always been uppermost in Bin Laden’s mind, at least in terms of explicit political demands. From 1996 his focus was on the US presence in Saudi Arabia, his estranged homeland.
In his 1998 fatwa declaring war on “Crusaders and Jews” Palestine was mentioned only third, again after American bases in Saudi Arabia and UN sanctions on Iraq.

Yet in one recent statement he called Palestine “my nation’s pivotal issue”. It was, he declared, “an important factor in giving me since childhood, and giving the 19 free men [who carried out the 9/11 attacks], an overwhelming feeling that we must stand by the oppressed and punish the unjust Jews and their backers.“In fact, Palestine has never been an operational priority for the group. Al-Qaeda’s achievements on that front consist of attacking a synagogue in Tunisia and Israeli tourists in Kenya ‒ perhaps simply because such targets are hard to hit.

Analysts say Bin Laden is talking about Israel now because of al-Qaeda’s failures in Iraq and the large number of innocent Muslims who have been killed in its war against the Americans and the Iraqi government. Another broader reason is that the organisation’s legitimacy is being undermined by criticism from repentant takfiri thinkers such as Sayid Imam al-Sharif, the once revered founder, with al-Qaeda’s number two and ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, of the Egyptian Jihad group.

“Bin Laden and co have not followed through,” argues Thomas Hegghammer, an al-Qaeda expert at Princeton University. “They are on the defensive. Tapping into the Palestinian issue is a way of combating that. It’s the deepest reserve, the safest bet. But it does reflect a sense of weakness.”

For Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian scholar at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London (IISS), this is a significant shift in al-Qaeda discourse. “Anti-Americanism by itself can’t keep the attention of the Arab world, so resorting to traditional symbols of mobilisation is the best way,” he says. “And Palestine is the quintessential way to do that. People say OK, Bin Laden is fighting the Americans, but what about the Zionists?”

The sense that al-Qaeda is on the back foot is partly due to its own failures but partly to the success of two other Islamist nationalist organisations: Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which reject a jihadist, takfiri agenda and seek to liberate territory and operate within a state framework.

“Al-Qaeda has a real problem dealing with Hamas because it is quite popular in the Arab and Islamic worlds,” says Brynjar Lia of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, which monitors jihadi websites. “It enjoys a legitimacy as a liberation movement that al-Qaeda doesn’t. It’s a vulnerable point.”

The same is true of Hezbollah, which claims credit for driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 and keeping alive the flame of resistance ever since, through the 2006 war, when its leader, the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, acquired rock star status all over the Arab world.

Unlike al-Qaeda, both these movements have strong social bases and political as well as armed wings. Both are sworn enemies of Israel and are boycotted as terrorist organisations by the US and the European Union. Both are ideological but are capable of behaving pragmatically. Both take part in elections. Hamas was part of a unity government headed by the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and has signalled readiness for a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

Hezbollah’s attitude to Palestine is ambiguous. In Lebanon, its priority is to hang on to its weapons and operate within the system.

Zawahiri has attacked both organisations in his statements, punning on the Arabic name Hizbullah (The Party of God) to insinuate that it serves many gods, not just Allah. He lambasted Hamas for “falling into the swamp of surrender” by accepting the Saudi-brokered Mecca deal with Abbas and for pursuing democratic methods.

Bin Laden singled out Nasrallah for failing to liberate Palestine and agreeing in 2006 to the deployment of “Crusaders” [UN peacekeepers] in south Lebanon “to protect the Jews”.

Muslim sectarianism is part of this story: Hizbullah, backed by Iran, is a Shia movement, hated by the extremist Sunnis of al-Qaeda and by the small like-minded groups that have proliferated in Lebanon in recent years but done nothing to fight Israel.

Al-Qaeda watchers agree that by his own lights Bin Laden needs to raise his profile on Palestine. “The fact is that they haven’t got a very good story to tell and they need something better,” argues Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of Britain’s MI6 and now at London’s IISS. “The focus on Israel is partly a function of the need for a new narrative.”

“People are expecting something by al-Qaeda against an Israeli target,” says Hegghammer. “That would be the most logical thing to do.”

Palestine, suggests Khaled Hroub, an expert on Hamas and Sunni (Salafi) fundamentalism, is al-Qaeda’s Achilles heel. It is, he says, “desperate” to set foot in the Gaza Strip, though there is no hard evidence that it has done—yet. That could change if the blockade and suffering continues. “In the past it was a question of those who didn’t like the PLO ending up with Hamas,” Hroub warns. “Now, if they don’t like the radical Islamists of Hamas they can wait for al-Qaeda instead.” - Â

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