Assessments of this sort put forth by the Bush administration and others fly in the face of reality and fact. Coordination between Sunni and Shiite is anathema for most Sunni fundamentalists, who view the Shiites as apostates; al-Qaida training literature places the Shiite as the second-greatest enemy of Islam, behind Sunni heretics, and ahead of Israel and the United States. Iran nearly fought a war with the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in 1999, following the Taliban’s massacre of thousands of Shiite Hazara in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, along with several Iranian diplomats and their families. Many of the more extreme elements within al-Qaida are known as “taqfiris,” or those who believe in the repudiation and elimination from Islam of all impure elements. To them, the Shiites are among the most impure. The natural inclination between Shiite and Sunni, especially at the level of fundamentalists, is to oppose one another, more often than not violently. The concept of a “nexus of terror” naturally linking these two forces together is difficult to imagine, let alone document. It would take a compelling cause for any such linkage to be formed, directly or indirectly. Such a cause exists, and it can be defined by one word: Palestine.
The cause of Palestine is not a natural rallying point for most Sunni fundamentalists associated with al-Qaida. For all the language of global jihad, most Sunni fundamentalists are in fact quite parochial, focused primarily on “cleansing” Islam only insofar as it impacts them personally. Thus, an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood is almost exclusively focused on ridding Egypt of “heretics” such as President Hosni Mubarak, and not supporting global jihad or the Palestinian cause. Similarly, Sunni fundamentalists in Afghanistan are more concerned with establishing Islamic purity in their respective areas than they are with exporting Islam abroad. While there are those elements of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism that do in fact espouse global jihad, they are very much in the minority and, more critically, isolated from any traditional foundation of support. Stateless, these extremists are prone to being isolated from the rest of Islam due to a combination of conditions—their inability to bond with the natural fabric of Islamic society (family, tribe and nation), and the violence of their actions, which are rejected by nearly the entire Islamic world. These stateless jihadists are in fact little more than parasites, and they require a host cause from which they can nourish. Palestine represents such a cause.
One of bin Laden’s overarching objectives was to get the United States to commit to a course of action that pitted it in a life-and-death struggle with Islam. The horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were intended to accomplish this, but in fact backfired when the majority of Islam expressed revulsion at the murder of thousands of innocents. It took the invasion of Iraq by the United States to breathe life into bin Laden’s dream. Afghanistan today remains a remote battleground in the “global war on terror,” with American forces engaged in little more than a fruitless manhunt amid the backdrop of an internal struggle for power within Afghanistan and Pakistan. The American invasion of Iraq created the spectacle of a Christian nation invading and occupying, in brutal fashion, a Muslim people (albeit ruled by a secular dictator). But even this horrific blunder by the United States, left in isolation, was not enough to inspire a universal condemnation by the Islamic world, if for no other reason than that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was viewed by most Muslim nations as an embarrassment. The resistance to the American occupation of Iraq comes almost exclusively from Iraqi sources, with foreign jihadists comprising a distinct minority used more as disposable munitions (i.e., suicide bombers) than a philosophical center of gravity. But what the American invasion of Iraq did accomplish, coupled with the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, was to create the impression of a larger struggle between the West and Islam that has come to be defined by a separate ongoing occupation, carried out by an American ally viewed by many in the Muslim world as more U.S. proxy than U.S. friend. The occupier in this case is Israel, with Palestine being the occupied territory. Since 9/11 didn’t capture the imagination of the Muslim world, and Afghanistan and Iraq couldn’t hold the attention of the Muslim world, bin Laden and his circle of followers have opportunistically picked up on Palestine as the issue of the moment. Unlike 9/11 and Iraq, it’s an issue that sticks.
Hamas rejects any effort to label its movement as extremist, and, though it is a religious organization, it has vociferously rebuffed all efforts undertaken by al-Qaida to piggyback the cause of global jihad onto the matter of a Palestinian homeland. Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal has repeatedly underscored that his group’s mission is to secure a Palestinian homeland and that its military struggle will never expand beyond confronting Israel inside Israel or in the occupied territories. While Hamas has no global agenda, it has attracted the attention of Islamist elements around the world beyond the parasitic opportunism of al-Qaida, including Hezbollah, the parent organization of Imad Mughniyeh.
Hezbollah began as a radical outgrowth of the Lebanese Shiite militia group known as Amal. In 1979, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, radical elements of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command traveled to Lebanon in an effort to export the concept of Islamic revolution. Many of these Iranians took Lebanese wives and became an integral part of the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. The call for Islamic revolution did not catch on, however, and many of the original cadres of Revolutionary Guards were transferred back to Iran when Iraq invaded. The Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982 dramatically altered the political landscape among the Shiites. The Iranians rushed reinforcements to Lebanon to support their Amal allies, until nearly 1,500 Revolutionary Guards were deployed. These forces helped fight the Israeli army to a standstill, and became a critical part of the resistance movement that grew inside Lebanon.