WASHINGTON, September 30, 2014 — The appearance of yet another terror group – Khorasan – in the Middle East makes understanding a confused tangle of terror groups even harder.
Al-Qaeda was, until the death of Osama bin Laden, the “big bad” in the region for most Americans. The expectation of many people who should have known better was that the death of bin Laden would deal a death blow to al-Qaeda, and thus put the U.S. one very big step closer to destroying the Islamist terror threat to America.
Killing bin Laden was no more deadly to al-Qaeda than the death of Steve Jobs was deadly to Apple; it was no more a body blow to Islamist terror than the death of Steve Jobs was a blow to smart phones.
Like Jobs and Apple, bin Laden and al-Qaeda helped define a market, but they didn’t create it. The al-Qaeda brand remains potent within that market, but it isn’t the only one. As with the computer and smartphone markets, we have seen innovation, knockoffs, new players, and shifting alliances.
One way to categorize Islamist terrorists is as Sunni or Shi’a. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are Sunni, as are Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Hezbollah is Shi’a. But within the category of Sunni terror groups, there are some dramatic differences.
Al-Qaeda was born of the struggle to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden wanted to expel a secular foreign influence and cleanse the Muslim community from that secular taint.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which include Syria’s al-Nusra and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, want to redeem the Muslim world. They see the Arab world as corrupted, and believe they must act violently to save it. But their goal is to redeem the sinful, not destroy them.
Osama bin Laden was influenced heavily by Wahhabist (Salafi) teachings, which are dominant in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is an ultra-orthodox movement that rests on a strict, literal interpretation of the Koran. It treats anyone whose beliefs are less literal – Muslim, Christian or Jew – as an enemy.
In this world, there are only two groups: Salafis, who are chosen and will go to heaven; and the rest. The rest include non-believers, Shiites, and Sunnis who are in any way less literal in their religious belief. The rest should all be put to death in order to cleans the community of believers.
But the focus of bin Laden’s rage was the secular world. He would cooperate with anyone to achieve his ends, including with Americans to get rid of the Soviets, and with the Shi’a group Hezbollah when it was time to turn on America.
Al-Qaeda tries not to antagonize potential allies. The Islamic State (ISIS) is more orthodox than that; they have no potential allies. You are one of the saved, or you’re a target.
Even though ISIS spun off from al-Qaeda, its leaders have always been more strict in their Wahhabism. They are even more militant than al-Qaeda. ISIS doesn’t seek to redeem the sinful or work with them, but to destroy them.
Hence ISIS destroys tombs, which are forbidden in their version of Islam; they destroy shrines sacred to Shi’a and Sunni alike. They execute Shiites, and they execute Sunnis who serve states like Syria. The only options ISIS gives to non-Salafis are conversion, expulsion or death.
ISIS is the most extreme Wahhabist group, but not the only one. Aside from ISIS and al-Qaeda other Wahhabi-influenced terrorist groups are the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian affiliate, Hamas.
Article 7 of the Hamas charter reads: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (and kill them), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Hamas is no less extreme, in its way, than ISIS, but the main force of its extremism is directed at Jews. This Wahhabist streak is why Israelis can never come to terms with Hamas; the only acceptable conclusion to the struggle from the perspective of Hamas is to scrub the land clean of Jews. They can no more reach an accommodation with Israel than ISIS can reach one with Syria’s Assad or Iraq’s Shiites.
Former Hamas leader Abdel Azia Rantisi said, “The Jews will lose because they crave life, but a true Muslim loves death.” In 2010, Mahmoud Zahar said, “Our ultimate plan is [to have] Palestine in its entirety. I say this loud and clear so that nobody will accuse me of employing political tactics. We will not recognize the Israeli enemy.”
In 2011, Atallah Abu al-Subh, former Hamas minister of culture said that “the Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth, because they have displayed hostility to Allah. Allah will kill the Jews in the hell of the world to come, just like they killed the believers in the hell of this world.”
The Persian Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar – have supported the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Qaeda. But Wahhabist as the Saudi princes are, they aren’t orthodox by ISIS standards. ISIS hates them as much as it hates Americans, and they know it, so they are ready to throw in with the West to deal with the threat.
Wahhabism isn’t all the joins and divides Sunni terror groups. Politics plays a role.
The Shi’a terror group Hezbollah is really a movement, not a group. The various Sunni groups are subsidized by wealthy sponsors – and to some extent by the United States government, which provided half-a-billion dollars to al-Qaeda and the mujahedeen when it sought to make them a weapon against the USSR – but Hezbollah is sponsored by the government of Iran.
Because of its state connections, and out of fear of growing Iranian power, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups consider Hezbollah even more dangerous than the Jews. Iranian support for the regime of Syria’s President Assad has unified the Sunni states against him.
Assad isn’t Shi’a, but Alawite; members of the Alawite sect dominate his country’s leadership. Alawites are related to Shiites not by belief, but by politics. The Alawites have been a persecuted minority in Sunni-dominated areas, and have formed a strategic alliance with Iran. Most Syrians are Sunni, but influential, non-Alawite members of the regime are members of the Baath Party, a secular party despised by Wahhabis.
The tangled web of religious, political and terrorist groups – groups which often overlap – in the Middle East creates a treacherous landscape for Western politicians to tread. The United States has supported Israel against all comers, Sunni and Shiite, but after the fall of the Shah of Iran, tended to favor Sunnis over the seemingly more dangerous Shiites.
The United States supported a Shi’a government in Iraq against a Sunni insurgency, and a Sunni insurgency in Syria against an Alawite-Baathist government. Our problem in Syria has been to decide which faction of Sunni insurgents to support against Sunni ISIS, the sudden appearance of Khorasan making it clear that some Sunni terrorists still hate us more than they hate wrong-thinking fellow Muslims.