ATbar Radicalization of the Sunni-Shi'a Divide

Radicalization of the Sunni-Shi'a Divide

04/10/2006 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  
This article is an edited updated version of two presentations: Is a Coalition Viable in the Islamist Camp? The Sunni - Shi’a Divide, at the Proteus Futures Academic Workshop “Analyzing Future National Security Challenges,” Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, USA, 22-24 August 2006; and Radicalization of the Sunni-Shi'a Divide: from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf at the Sixth Annual International Conference on Global Terrorism of The Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Herzlyia, Israel, September 11-14, 2006.

The war in Iraq has produced a tremendous change in the Middle East and in the Muslim world at large. For the first time in history, an Arab country is controlled by the Shi’a. The West does not grasp yet the full meaning of the Shi’a revival and the potential for deep change in many of the countries in the region and their regimes where Shiites represent the majority or an important minority.

One of the important questions since 9/11 and more so since the war in Iraq is if the potential for a coalition between radical Sunni and Shi’a forces active in the region can indeed materialize.

If we consider the al-Qaeda’s attempts to unify the Muslim umma the first such attempt was the formation of the World Islamic Front (WIF) for the Struggle against Jews and Crusaders proclaimed by bin Laden on February 22, 1998, whose goal was to form an international alliance of Sunni Islamist organizations, groups, and Muslim clerics sharing a common religious/political ideology and a global strategy of Holy War (jihad). But this movement or framework practically did not exist as an operational organization. The three terrorist attacks staged from February 1998 until September 11, 2001 (9/11) – the bombings of the US embassies in Africa in August 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the major 9/11 attacks in the US - were actually the work of the al-Qaeda hardcore group. After the war in Afghanistan, the WIF was replaced in the spring of 2002 by a new name, or perhaps framework - Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Jihad Base) - and the brand name WIF virtually disappeared.

After the war in Afghanistan and until the Madrid bombings in March 2004, in spite of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qa’ida spokes persons’ repeated threats to hit devastatingly at the heart of the United States and the Western world, all successful terrorist attacks have targeted Muslim countries (and Muslim communities such as Mombassa, Kenya). Local or regional groups affiliated with al-Qaeda were primarily responsible for these operations. They include the Salafi factions in Tunisia and Morocco; Yemeni Islamists; or the Indonesian Jemma’a Islamiyya (in fact a group led from Indonesia by Abu Bakr Bashir but with Malaysian, Philippine, and Singaporean branches striving to form a new regional Islamic state). Even the suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 were not clearly related to the al-Qaeda leadership.[1]

In an early al-Qaeda document, The Third Letter to the Africa Corps, one of the organization’s strategists already emphasized the difficulty of building a coalition:

We must keep completely away from any attempt at organizational merger for the reason that the practical experience of Muslims tells us that every attempt at merger causes numerous divisions and splits. So the attempts to merge must end. We have to be satisfied with coordination in practical fields. In and of itself, this will lay the proper groundwork for organizational unity in the distant future, or until God wills that the Mahdi appear.[2]

Since bin Laden nominated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the representative of al-Qaeda in Iraq in December 2004 growing strategic and tactical disagreements appeared between the various leaders of the jihadist movements. The disagreements relate to three main issues:

(1) The need to define the main struggle front after the beginning of the terrorist jihadist activity in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 - Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or possibly Egypt.

(2) The killing of innocent Muslims. The growing number of innocent Muslims killed in terrorist attacks due to the increasing violence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have produced negative reactions among Arab public opinion and the need to delineate tactical “red lines.”

(3) The Sunni-Shi’a divide, probably the most important issue at stake in the Middle East. With the growing strategic and political status of the Shi’a in Iraq and the potential threat they represent in the entire Gulf area, the Shi’a have been designated as the Sunni jihadist movement’s main enemy

Is a coalition viable in the Islamist radical camp? The Sunni-Shi’a divide

The numerous religious, political, socio-economic and sometimes ethnic conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a communities throughout the Muslim world impact on the behavior of the more radical organizations and also the supportive state players, which can use these conflicts for ideological or tactical reasons to increase the solidarity with allied groups. The existence of two parallel Islamist trends, the revolutionary Iranian Shi’a model as opposed to the radical Sunni Wahhabi or Salafi one affects the ideology and strategy of the numerous violent groups active in the Muslim world, as clearly proved in the open terrorist war between Sunni and Shi’a groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in Iraq and these days on the issue of Hizballah’s war against Israel.

What are the sources of these conflicts and how do they influence upon the potential of a coalition between the radical Sunnis from the al-Qaeda camp and the radical Shi’a from the Iranian camp?

According to the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Isbir, the history of the Muslims since the inception of the Islamic State [is] a continuous endless war, with the aim of negating pluralism inside Islam on the basis of a single simple power center with its sources in a unique religion. This war has never ended: in a way or another its flames were never spent, not only among the two antagonistic groups, the Sunni and the Shi’a, but also among other less known and less involved ones.[3]

The Shi‘a number around 130 million people globally, some 10 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Shi‘a (approximately 120 million) live in the area between Lebanon and Pakistan, where they constitute the majority population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan; the single-largest community in Lebanon; and sizeable minorities in various Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (as well as in neighboring countries such as India and Tajikistan and in East Africa). From the marshes of southern Iraq to the ghettoes of Karachi, the Shi‘a have been the underdogs - oppressed and marginalized by Sunni ruling regimes and majority communities.

In a concise and persuasive article, Vali Nasr examines the background to the Shi’a revival in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and its implications for the larger Middle East. He stresses the role of the Iranian revolution of 1979 in mobilizing the Shi‘a identity and pushing for specifically Shi‘a agendas by supporting financially and politically groups such as Amal in Lebanon, al-Da’waa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Call) in Iraq, Hizb-i Wahdat (Party of Unity) in Afghanistan, and Tahrik-i Jafaria (Shi‘a Movement) in Pakistan. The Tehran-Damascus axis is part of Iran’s Shi‘a expansionist agenda and enabled it to establish Hizballah in Lebanon, supporting the organization throughout the 1980s and 1990s to confront the U.S. presence in Lebanon and entrench Iranian influence among Lebanese According to Nasr, revolutionary Iran failed to alter the balance of power between the Shi‘a and Sunnis across the region and ultimately gave up trying to do so, while the Saudis became the defenders of Sunnism and the symbol of its resistance to Shi‘a “usurpers.” [4]

According to this view, Saudi Arabia was motivated by the desire both to control its own Shi‘a minority and to thwart Khomeini’s challenge to the Islamic legitimacy of the kingdom. Riyadh’s investment in Sunni militancy did not raise much concern in the West in the 1980s and the 1990s, for during this period Iran and its brand of Shi‘a militancy were viewed as the most dangerous face of Islam and the main threat to Western interests. The Shi‘a were then associated with anti-Americanism, revolution, terrorism, hostage taking, and suicide bombing. Nasr considers that after Khomeini’s death in 1988, Shi‘a militancy ceased to be the ideological force that animated Islamic activism and it was replaced by Sunni militancy following the 1991 Gulf War, at least partially if not primarily as a response to the Shi‘a activism that followed the Iranian revolution.[5]

Saddam’s fall has radically changed that balance by empowering the Shi‘a majority and the Shi‘a-Sunni competition for power has emerged as the greatest determinant of peace and stability in Iraq directly influencing the broader region from Lebanon to Pakistan. However, the Shi‘a revival and the decline in Sunni power in Iraq has not created Sunni militancy; it has invigorated and emboldened it. The anti-Shi‘a violence that plagues Iraq today was first born in South Asia and Afghanistan in the 1990s by militant groups with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The bombings in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, and other Shi‘a strongholds in Iraq have claimed many lives but these attacks closely resemble acts in Mashad, Karachi, Quetta, and Mazar-i Sharif since the early 1990s. The current sectarian threat in Iraq is therefore, more the product of a deeply rooted rivalry in the region than the direct result of recent developments in Iraq.[6]

Pakistan’s bloody sectarian war

The Pakistani Shia community representing 15 to 20 % of the population, i.e. about 25 millions persons and traditionally linked to the ulema of Najaf, stayed away from politics till the mid-1970s. The Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the transposition on Pakistani soil of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the islamisation policy launched by general Zia ul Haq from 1979 with the aim of transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state, all these factors contributed to a religious and political mobilization of the Shia community. The Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Fiqh-e Jaafria (TNFJ) later renamed Tehrik-e Jaafria (TEJ) Pakistan, a religious movement founded in 1980, became more radical from 1985 on and under the leadership of Allama Arif Hussein al Husseini transformed itself into a political party in 1987. His assassination in 1988 marked the start of widespread sectarian violence which has continued since the early 1990s.[7] To counter the growing political assertiveness of the Shias and their political party the (TEJ), Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator of the 1980s, encouraged and assisted Sunni extremist organizations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

The anti-Shi’a campaign and violence in Pakistan have been largely the work of the militant Deobandi-Wahabi, who are a minority in Pakistan, but enjoy tremendous influence because of the support of the military-intelligence establishment and the seemingly inexhaustible flow of funds from Saudi Arabia.[8]

The bloody sectarian war between Pakistan's Shiis and Sunnis caused between January 1989 and May 31, 2005 a total of 1,784 Pakistanis casualties and another 4,279 injured persons across the country. And there are some indications that the trends may worsen. Thus, 187 persons were killed and another 619 were injured in 19 incidents of sectarian violence in 2004. Within the first five months of 2005, 120 Pakistanis have lost their lives, and 286 have been injured in 30 incidents of sectarian violence.[9]

An aggravating feature of this sectarian violence has been the growing number of suicide bombings in or near mosques or holy shrines and mutual assassinations of major religious leaders. Thus, on March 19, 2005, 50 people were killed and over 100 others injures during a bomb explosion near the shrine of a Shi’a saint at Fatehpur village in the Balochistan province; on May 27, 2005, at least 25 people were killed and approximately 100 others injured during a suicide bombing at the Bari Imam Shi’a shrine in the capital Islamabad; on February 9, 2006, 40 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a suspected suicide attack on a Muharram procession of Shi’a Muslims in the Hangu town of North West Frontier Province (see also Annex).[10]

Al-Qaeda groups and affiliates were directly involved in this sectarian conflict. Pakistani Sunni, Taliban, and al-Qaeda combatants fought together in military campaigns in Afghanistan, most notably in the capture of Mazar-i Sharif and Bamiyan in 1997, which involved the wide-scale massacre of the Shi‘a. Pakistani Sipah-i Sahabah fighters did most of the killing, nearly precipitating a war with Iran when they captured the Iranian consulate and killed 11 Iranian diplomats.[11]

According to Indian sources, Ramzi Yousef, now in jail in the US for his involvement in the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993, Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), Fazlur Rahman Khalil of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, started their career as terrorists as members of the SSP and participated in many of its anti-Shia massacres in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The suspicion that the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) by the Pakistani authorities in Rawalpindi in March 2003 and his handing over to FBI was a result of the betrayal of the Hazaras (Shias) of Balouchistan provoked several deadly attacks against Shi’as. The massacre of the Shias in Quetta in March 2004 was in reprisal partly for their suspected collaboration with the Americans in their hunt for bin Laden and partly for the murder of Maulana Azam Tariq, the leader of the SSP, allegedly by Shi’a extremists.[12]

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

Already in November 1997, almost parallel to the occupation of the Mecca sanctuary by radical Sunnis under the leadership of Muhammad al-Utaybi and Abdallah al-Qahtani, Shi’a demonstrations in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia marked a new activism which degenerated in their first intifada, the spontaneous uprising.[13] Saudi Hizbollah known locally as the Followers of the Line of the Imam [Khomeini]. (Ansar Khat al-Imam) was founded in 1987 by several prominent clerics, including Sheikh Hashim al-Shukus, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Hubail and Abduljalil al-Maa, from the Eastern Province. The organization espouses Khomeini's principle of vilayat-e-faqih, and most members emulate the marja'iyya of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Followers of the Line of the Imam wholly distrust the ruling family and government. For the most part, that sentiment has translated into isolation though it reportedly slipped into periodic violence.[14] Interestingly, the extent of Wahhabi hostility toward the Shi’a is expressed by the dissemination since the beginning of the 19th century of a myth according to which the founder of Shi’ism was a Jew named Abdallah ibn Saba.[15]

The truck bombing in June 1996 of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where 19 members of the US Air Force personnel were killed and hundreds of other Americans were injured, has been the main terrorist attack by Shi’a radicals in Saudi Arabia. According to the US indictment against the perpetrators, Iranian officials and Lebanese Hizballah operatives were involved in the plot. The government cracked down on Saudi Hizbollah in the wake of the Khobar bombing but there are some indications Hizbollah/The Followers of the Line of the Imam may have increased their presence and influence of late by focusing on social and cultural activities to the exclusion of politics. [16]

The war in Iraq and the concomitant empowerment of the country's Shiites again fuelled anti-Shiite hostility. Posters on a popular web-forum stressed that, "they are the enemy, they are the enemy, they are the enemy", adding "God damn the rafida". Acts of violence against Shiites have risen over recent years, uncorroborated rumors of planned or failed attacks have spread rapidly within the community. Over the past two years, incidents with an apparent sectarian connotation include the burning of Shiite mosques in Qatif and community centers in Tarut, as well as vandalism against a Shiite cemetery at Annak. Sunni-Shiite issues are taking on greater public importance in Saudi Arabia. Of particular concern for the future of Sunni-Shiite relations has been the alarming rise in the number of Saudi jihadi militants drawn to Iraq. Hostility to Shiites and their growing role in Iraq also is important as many Saudi jihadis went to Iraq “to kill Shiites.” The prospect of the eventual return of several hundreds of battle-tested Saudi mujahidin from Iraq raises the possibility that - like their predecessors returning from Afghanistan - they will look for a new battlefield and so pose a potential threat to the Shiite minority.[17]

The Sunni-Shi’a divide in Iraq

Al-Qaeda. From the September 2003 assassination of Ayatollah al-Hakim and to present, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has made the utmost effort to provoke the Shi'a of Iraq to retaliate against the Sunnis and thus trigger a civil war. This strategy, reflecting the common Wahhabi doctrine, became obvious after US authorities leaked a letter written by him in January 2004. The Shi'a were described as “the most evil of mankind…the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” Their crime was “patent polytheism, worshipping at graves, and circumambulating shrines.”[18]

Zarqawi’s position contradicted bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s views concerning the Shi’a. It should be noted that in his audio message of February 2003, bin Laden stressed the importance of the Sunnis and Shi’a fighting united against the Americans. He even cited Hizballah’s 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut as the first “American defeat” at the hands of Islamist radicals.[19]

The victorious image in the Arab and Muslim world achieved by the Shi’a Hizballah movement and its leader Hasan Nasrallah after the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and, more recently, the exchange of prisoners (including many Palestinians) between Israel and Hizballah in January 2004, created much resentment and criticism in Saudi jihadi-Salafi elements. Moreover, the presentation of Nasrallah as the “New Salah al-Din” put the role of the global vanguard of Islam played by Qa’idat al-Jihad at risk for a takeover by the Hizballah. Since the process of establishing a new government in Iraq, with a clear Shi’a majority, Salafi web sites and forums have stepped up their attacks against the Shi’a, Iran, and Shi’a doctrines.[20]

It is of note that in the end it was bin Laden who accepted the strategy of Zarqawi and the Saudi jihadists, recognizing the predominance of the leaders who continued the fight on the ground rather than that of the nominal leadership which was hiding somewhere in Pakistan. This process took a whole year (from December 2003 to December 2004) and resulted in the nomin[21]ation of Zarqawi as the “emir” of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In a video aired on al-Jazeera, in what appears to be a response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call on his Shi’a followers to vote en masse and decree that those who boycott the elections are “infidels,” bin Laden warned against the participation in elections [in Iraq]: “Anyone who participates in these elections… has committed apostasy against Allah.” He also endorsed the killing of security people “in Allah's name.”[22]

However, bin Laden’s attack on the Shi’a has been cautious, without referring directly to their leaders. Interestingly, in a book which includes most of his statements, there is no one reference to the Shi’a as such, let alone an attack on the Shi’a.

This important issue has continued to trouble the relations between the al-Qaeda leadership and al-Zarqawi, as evidenced in the letter sent to the latter by Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2005. In this major document Zawahiri acknowledges “the extent of danger to Islam of the Twelve'er school of Shiism… a religious school based on excess and falsehood,” and “their current reality of connivance with the Crusaders.” He admits that the “collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later.” The question he and “mujahedeen circles” ask Zarqawi is “about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the mujahed movement in Iraq gets stronger?”

Moreover, Zawahiri remembers Zarqawi that “more than one hundred prisoners - many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries – [are] in the custody of the Iranians.” The attacks against the Shia in Iraq could compel “the Iranians to take counter measures.” Actually, al-Qaeda “and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting” them.[23] This is indeed a new kind of real-politik on the part of al-Qaeda leadership!

However, this did not change Zarqawi’s position. In his last audio message he blasted Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as the “leader of infidelity and atheism,” accused Shiite groups and government forces of being responsible for numerous attacks on Sunnis and suggested that Shiites themselves were behind the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samara. He also criticized the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for stopping the fight against American forces.[24]

In a recent interview with al-Qaeda's media production unit on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested for the first time that Zarqawi's murderous behavior toward the Shiites had not been sanctioned by bin Laden: "The instructions of Sheikh Osama, may God protect him, to the brothers in Iraq, chief among them Abu Musab…were that they focus their efforts on the Americans and neutralize the rest of the powers as best they could.” Al-Zawahiri dismissed the interviewer's claim that many thought al-Qaeda initiated the Shiite-Sunni fighting, saying that “al-Qaeda has not done anything to them [the Shiites] because al-Qaeda in Iraq is too busy with jihad against the Crusader occupation.”[25]

The Shi’a. For a year and a half, from August 2003 until February 2005, Sunni attacks met with barely a response from most Shiites. The only ones accused of meting out revenge from the outset were members of the Badr Organisation, allegedly responsible for the assassination of former regime officials and suspected Baath party members, in addition to suspected insurgents, but for a long time these actions did not reach critical mass. However, once the Shiite parties, brought together in the United Iraqi Alliance, won a simple majority of votes in the January 2005 elections and, in alliance with the Kurdish list, gained power three months later, the SCIRI took over the Interior Ministry, allowing the Badr Corps to infiltrate its police and commando units. Soon, Iraqis witnessed a steep rise in killings of Sunnis that could not be explained by the fight against insurgents alone.[26]

Arab Shi'ites have been increasingly polarized by the Sunni suicide attacks on Shi'ite targets, kidnappings, and disappearances which have intensified since the January 2005 elections. They are all too aware that figures like Zarqawi have threatened jihad against Shi'ites and have said they are not legitimate followers of Islam. Although the CPA tried to establish legal barriers to maintaining militias the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the faction of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim still have large militia elements. These are forces that Sunni groups have increasingly accused of committing atrocities against them since the spring of 2005. Sunnis feel particularly threatened by the Badr Organization, created by SCIRI and trained by the Iranian military. Sunnis assert that the Badr are the ones responsible for the targeting and assassination of a number of senior Sunni clerics, many from the Muslim Scholars’ Board. Some of the killings of an estimated 700 Sunnis between August and November 2005 involved men who identified themselves as Ministry of Interior forces. US sources also noted that large number of members of the Badr Organization had joined the MOI forces, including the police and commando units, since the new government was formed in April 2003, and the lines between some MOI units and the Badr Organization had become increasingly blurred.[27]

Moqtada al-Sadr has played a divisive role in Iraq since the first days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He has been accused of playing a role in the murder of rival Shi’ite clerics like the Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi on April 10, 2003. In October 2003 al-Sadr's men attacked supporters of moderate Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani near the Imam Hussein shrine. He attacked the US presence in Iraq almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His Mahdi Army presented a serious threat to Coalition and government forces in Najaf, in Sadr City in Baghdad, and in other Shi’ite areas in the south during much of the summer and early fall of 2004. Since the elections Sadr revived the Mahdi Army, which was again beginning to be openly active in parts of Southern Iraq such as Basra, Amarah, and Nasiriyah, and still had cells in Najaf and Qut as well. Since the fall of 2005, his organization and other Shi’ite groups with similar beliefs have been accused of political assassinations and kidnappings.[28] Some Iranian leaders appear to view Sadr as a useful potential ally with whom they might cooperate in the same way they have worked with the leadership of the Lebanese group, Sadr’s movement has parallels with Hizballah, and Tehran may view the Hizballah model as instructive to Iraq under current circumstances.[29]

The Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades compete with the Iraqi police for control in Iraq’s largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, are well organized and gain popular support with their religious character and their ability to provide security and certain social services. Some police and army units within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have moved away from their original training and developed independent and often problematic methods of operation.[30]


During the last year there seemed to be a possible change in al-Qaeda’s and Zarqawi’s strategy in relation to Iran and its proxy organization the Lebanese Hizballah. It is possible that the rocket attack by Zarqawi’s men from southern Lebanon on northern Israel in December 2005 was a first step in some kind of understanding between the two sides, al-Qaeda and Iran, which permitted the attack from a territory notably known to be under the rigorous control of Hizballah.

It took two weeks to Hizballah to deny its knowledge of the attack and to caution against the use of territory considered under its responsibility: "There are some [operatives] in Lebanon," said Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizballah’s deputy secretary-general. "We don't know how many and we don't know their plans or if they intend to do [military] operations here…[and] it's important to caution everyone not to make Lebanon an arena for settling scores." He claimed it is indeed possible to act without Hizballah's knowledge and that the organization is still investigating the al-Qaeda claim.[31]

The Lebanese authorities arrested 13 al-Qaeda suspects in different parts of the country and charged them with “establishing a gang to carry out terrorist acts, forging official and private documents and possessing unlicensed arms.” Among the thirteen al-Qaeda suspects were seven Syrians, three Lebanese, a Saudi Arabian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian. Beirut’s Daily Star reported an alleged al-Qaeda statement that warned the Palestinians camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon that they would face attacks from al-Qaeda if they did not conform to their ideology.[32]

Interestingly, in April 2006 nine men were charged with plotting to assassinate Hizballah’s secretary-general Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. They were presented as “Salafists who saw in Sheik Nasrallah a good Shiite target to avenge the death of Sunnis in Iraq.'' Nasrallah himself declared that he would not blame Lebanon's Sunnis if the conspirators were shown to be motivated by Sunni militancy.[33]

It is of note that several days before his death Zarqawi called for the disarmament of Lebanon's Hizballah, according to an audio message posted on the Internet. He accused Hizballah of serving as a “shield protecting the Zionist enemy [Israel] against the strikes of the mujahideen in Lebanon,” in a reference to Sunni Arab militants loyal to the al-Qaeda network. In reaction, a Hizballah spokesman dismissed Zarqawi's call, accusing him of trying to “distort the image of the resistance and its leaders,” through the media.[34]

Possibly, this volte-face of Zarqawi after the attempt to operate from southern Lebanon under the benevolent neutrality of Hizballah is a result of his intricate relationship with Iran.

On June 2, 2006 Hizballah organized in Beirut riots protesting the broadcast of a sketch on an LBC television program ridiculing the Shiite militia’s position on disarmament, implying that Hizballah would make any excuse to avoid laying down its weapons. The show’s producer apologized, but the demonstrations did not end until Nasrallah himself appeared on Hizballah’s own al-Manar network and appealed for calm. The Hizballah demonstrations were intended to support the group in the framework of the Lebanese National Dialogue, because Hizballah is no hurry to give up its weapons. Not only do the weapons support the party’s “resistance” credentials, the Shiite party also likely sees its arms as an insurance policy against the possible entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Nasrallah acknowledged the danger of the “Zarqawi phenomenon” during interviews in February and June 2006. According to this view, the presence of anti-Shiite al-Qaeda forces will only stiffen Hizballah’s resolve to retain its weapons, which it sees as essential to defending the Shiite community.[35]

The Shia Crescent

According to Jordan’s King Abdullah, Iran’s meddling in the recent Iraqi elections was an attempt by Tehran “to create a Shi'ite crescent from Iran to Syria and Lebanon”. Some Arab analysts don’t believe this strategic project is viable. According to this view a divided Iraq may lead to a change in the regional balance of power, but not necessarily noticeably in favor of Iran while a united Iraq with a balance of power between the three communities will serve Iran better but curb its influence. In any case, there are important differences within the various Shi’ite communities. Iraqi Shi’ites are Arabs and culturally closer to Iraqi Sunnis than to Persian Shi’ites. The Allawis are a small sect within Shi’ite Islam, and Syria’s Muslims are in any case 85 percent Sunni. Lebanon’s treacherous ethnic and religious mix is volatile at the best of times and Shi’ites there are as little interested in a flare-up of inter-communal violence as anyone else.[36]

Zaman, the Turkish Islamist newspaper, notes with some concern that Iran is now extending itself economically, militarily, as well as religiously, even though the latter does not have the connotations of a revolution. This extension is achieved through “centripetal” force towards Iraq with its holy Shi’a cities Najaf and Karbala, with the potential to make radical changes to the Shiite theological structure; and towards Lebanon, where Hizballah has as much potential as Iraq by taking advantage of its conflict with Israel and championing the cause of the oppressed. Significantly, the author evaluates that after the war in Lebanon Hassan Nasrallah has better chances than Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah to lead the Lebanese Shiites. The expansion of the Shiite axis towards the west finds expression in both the east and south. There’s now a more concrete and politically active Shiite presence in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. The predominantly Shiite population in Bahrain is already making its influence felt throughout the society and efforts are being made to set up organizations in Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian late August 2006 military exercise codenamed “Zulfikar Coup” was intended as a warning to American and British forces in the Middle East that they should not enter Iran under any circumstances, However, notes Zaman, it’s evident from the row between the Shiite and Sunni worlds that the coup did not only target the Western occupiers.[37]

From an Iranian perspective, Tehran indeed would like this crescent since that for 25 years it harbored, organized, trained, and armed Iraqi Shi'ite groups opposed to Saddam Hussein. The integration of Iraq into the alliance between Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut will also influence the balance of power, provide more political, financial and military support and greater strategic depth to Syria. The alliance is also likely to provide more support for Islamic groups such as Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. However, Iranian leaders hold that the regime in Syria is not a Shiite regime, and its foreign policy is not geared to serving Shiite interests. Rather, the current regime in Syria ascribes to Arab nationalism and its primary foreign policy goal is furthering Arab interests as defined by Damascus. For Iran, the alliance with Damascus is based on opposition to the US and Israel and has nothing to do with Shiites. Therefore, while the Middle East is not going to witness a “Shiite crescent,” the coming to power of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq will have important consequences in support of Shiite political rights, an Iran - Iraq alliance against the GCC, and strengthening the position of Syria and Islamic groups vis-a-vis Israel.[38]

Vali Nasr, whose analysis of the regional implications of the Shi’a revival in Iraq was earlier mentioned, claims that today Sunni militancy and Wahhabi activism, not Shi‘a revolutionary fervor, pose the greatest danger to U.S. interests, because it is an ascendant, violent, ideological force that is not only anti-Shi‘a but also virulently anti-American. He considers Shi‘a revolutionary activism as essentially a spent force with Iran “currently a tired dictatorship teetering on the verge of collapse.” Shi‘ism, he claims, no longer produces the kind of ideological politics that Sunnism continues to generate. Moreover, he considers Shi‘a-dominated countries of Iran and Iraq are better positioned to achieve economic growth and democracy than their Sunni neighbors (with the exception of Turkey).[39]

The problem is Nasr’s article was published in summer 2004, before the election of Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, before the radicalization of Tehran’s policy on the nuclear issue and the clash with the UN and the international community and before the latest violent crisis against Israel initiated by Hamas and Hizballah in the clear framework of an Iranian destabilization strategy of the Middle East.

According to the book published in mid-2005 by the Jordanian journalist Fuad Husayn, who spent time in prison with Zarqawi, Abu-Mus'ab thought that the US-Israeli confrontation with Iran is inevitable and could succeed in destroying Iran's infrastructure. Accordingly, Iran is preparing to retaliate by using the powerful cards in its hands. The area of the war will expand, pro-US Shi’a in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer embarrassment and might reconsider their alliances, and this will provide al-Qaeda with a larger vital area from which to carry out its activities, including Lebanon.[40]

But a recent document published after Zarqawi’s death describes a “bleak situation” of the Islamist insurgency in Iraq, which led Zarqawi to conceive a replacement strategy to provoke a “delegated war” the best of which would be “the one between the Americans and Iran, because it will have many benefits in favor of the Sunni and the resistance, such as: freeing the Sunni people in Iraq, who are (30 percent) of the population and under the Shi'a Rule; drowning the Americans in another war that will engage many of their forces; the possibility of acquiring new weapons from the Iranian side, either after the fall of Iran or during the battles; to entice Iran towards helping the resistance because of its need for its help; weakening the Shi'a supply line.” The document ends with some operational proposals how to provoke this war.[41]

The effects of the Lebanese War

The recent war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon has strengthen Hizballah’s image and standing in the Arab and Muslim world. While the main Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan indirectly supported Israel’s attempt to quell Hizballah, the Arab masses in these countries, including movements like the Egyptian Muslim Brothers supported the Shi’a Lebanese radical movement. Hassan Nasrallah became to be considered a new Salah al-Din who regained the lost Arab and Muslim honor, a highly significant element of Arab and Islamic culture and the Hizballah, a model for the Islamist warfare.

In July 2006, the Saudi Salman al-Awdah issued a fatwa in support of Hizballah and even considered this support a duty, despite the disagreements with Hizballah. His position was strongly opposed by scholars of global Jihad. One of them accused al-Awdah of creating an internal plot – fitnah - among the Muslims by supporting the apostate Shi’a movement.[42]

In a message broadcast on Al-Jazeera on July 27, 2006 bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri said al-Qaeda would not stand by while "[Israeli] shells burn our brothers" in Lebanon and Gaza. He called on Muslims to join forces and fight what he called the "Zionist-crusader war" against Muslim nations.[43]

According to Reuven Paz, Zawahiri’s message circulated in Jihadi forums sparked a hot debate among the Sunni jihadists. One of the salient analyses on the subject was published by the Egyptian Sayf al-Din al-Kinani on the website Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) under the title “The Puzzle of the Oppressed and the Red Lines.” In it Zawahiri’s message was interpreted as the necessity for Muslims to fight for Palestine and Lebanon, while only Sunnis are considered true Muslims. As Shi’is are not Muslims according to this view, their fight against Israel is not regarded as jihad and serves only foreign interests. One of the leading clerics of the Saudi Salafi clerics, Abdallah bin Jaberin, renewed his April 2002 popular fatwa against Hizballah.[44] Another salafi scholar, Khubab bin Marwan al-Hamad, stated on the Nur al-Islam website that the Jewish attack against the Lebanese Muslims was part of a test by Allah as a result of their disbelief and corrupted culture adopted from the West. However, for him too, any support for Hizballah and the Shi’is was prohibited, as a result of their long series of sins.

Paz evaluates that by the end of the war the vast majority of jihadis considered that the sacred principle of Al-Wala’ wal-Bara’ (loyalty and rejection) prevented any form of support for Hizballah, Nasrallah, or Iran, even though the Shi’a movement was fighting the Jews, protected Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad and caused the image of Israeli defeat. Hizballah was mostly nicknamed Hizb al-Shaytan (Party of the Devil) and Hassan Nasrallah was named only Hassan Nasr, in order not to add Allah to his name. In many ways, it looks as if the victorious image of Hizballah has created even more anti-Shi’a rage among the Sunni Jihadis.[45]

The Kuwaiti jihadi-salafi cleric Sheikh Hamed al-`Ali has led the attack against the Shi’a and negated any possibility of support to the Hizb al-Shaytan. In a fatwa published in August 2006 he attacked the “Iranian organized campaign to destroy the Muslims” as “a Safawi imperialist racist conspiracy similar to [the one] in Iraq.” In another fatwa published after the cease-fire between Israel and Hizballah he claimed that the Israeli-Hizballah war created a chaos that will be solved only by a much broader war with Iran. Iran’s policy was presented as a “Safawi/Irani project [] more dangerous than the Zio-Crusader one.” He actually called for a jihad against addition to [the jihad against] the Jews and the Christians.”[46]

On the background of the Arab opposition to Hizballah, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the conservative Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is close to the Iranian ayatollahs published a scornful editorial blasting the heads of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the head muftis. The paper accused these muftis of betraying Islam by serving the pro-Western Sunni Arab kings, as well as the U.S. and the Western infidels.

Some analysts evaluated before the war that Hizballah could transform Lebanon through a democratic process into an Islamic Shiite republic. In an article published following the war in Lebanon, the Jordanian-American reformist intellectual and researcher Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi warned of Hizballah’s intent to set up such a republic based on the principles of the current Iranian regime. Al-Nabulsi said the greatest concern relates to the possibility of Hizballah ideology spreading in the entire Arab world in such a way that there would no longer be a need to “export” Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. The danger to democracy and freedom lies in a possible triumph of Hizballah ideology rather than in the group’s military accomplishments, he said.

According to the analysis of a liberal (?) Saudi observer one of the more interesting results of the Israel-Hizballah War has been the sidelining of the global jihadi movement and the broader Salafi currents that sustain it, which despite their rethoric were reduced to mere spectators as Hezbollah, once again, dealt a serious blow to Israeli prestige. While some analysts interpreted Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message as an olive branch to Iran, Hizballah and Shi’a militants more broadly, it in fact was not a departure from the terror network’s stance on sectarian relations in Islam, according to the same Saudi journalist. In any case, al-Qaeda is increasingly a marginal component of the Salafi-jihadi movement, and its ideological influence on the new generation of radicals is nowhere near as strong as is often assumed.[47]


Looking at the existing alliance between Iran, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinians (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and some elements of Fatah) one could conclude that such an alliance is not only possible, it is actually acting successfully against its declared enemies: the United States, Israel, the West at large and the moderate regimes in many of the Arab countries.

However, the difference in this case is that the main engine and sponsor of the alliance are two rogue states, Iran and Syria, two authoritarian regimes using for three decades strategies of international terrorism without real punishment. Their position of strength vis-a-vis the client or proxy terrorist organizations, the political, financial, military support and the safe haven they give to the minor members of the alliance are so important that it makes it easier to keep the alliance working.

The historical experience of the last three decades shows that most of the coalitions between the radical terrorist organizations and groups of all colors and origins, have worked only partially and generally for very short periods of time.[48]

This author believes that the Sunni-Shi’a divide hints to the enormous difficulties for Islamist religious movements and groups that use terrorism and violence to build real long-term coalitions that could lead to the foundation of a united and victorious Muslim umma.

However, tactical coalitions between groups during periods of operational weakness and strong outside pressure or threat could indeed materialize, their main result being the destabilization of weak regimes in the region, the disruption of the democratization process in some countries or of the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians.


[1] Al-Qaeida did not anything serious to attack its major target and the loathed Saudi royal regime until after its demise in Afghanistan. It seems more realistic to evaluate that there was a kind of unwritten agreement between the Saudi rulers and bin Ladin not to touch Saudi interests and soil. This could also explain why Saudi Arabia was one of the only three countries (with Pakistan and the UAE) that recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, supported it financially, and maintained diplomatic relations with it until the last moment. According to Dr. Saad al-Faqih, a widely acknowledged expert on al-Qaeda, the local Saudi leadership has taken “quite a few clumsy decisions” in the recent past and “at the operational level there is now a very tenuous link between bin Laden and his advisers and the local al-Qaeda leadership in Saudi Arabia.” See Mahan Abedin, “New Security Realities and al-Qaeda’s Changing Tactics: An Interview with Saad al-Faqih,” Spotlight on Terror, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 12 (December 15, 2005). Dr. Saad al-Faqih heads the Saudi opposition group, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA).

[2] The Third Letter to the Africa Corps translated in Harmony and Disharmony Exploiting al-Qa’ida’s Organizational Vulnerabilities, Combating Terrorism Center, Department of Social Sciences, United States Military Academy, February 14, 2006, at

[3] Adonis, “Le Chiavi del Islam,” L’Espresso, June 29, 2006.

[4] It seems Nasr’s article has influenced also the debate in the US establishment and academia on this important issue. See Vali Nasr, Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq, The Washington Quarterly
Volume 27, Number 3, Summer 2004.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The Ottoman Policy toward the Shia community of Iraq in the late 19th century,” Images, Representations and Perceptions in the Shia world, Conference at the University of Geneva, 17-19 October 2002, at

[8] B. Raman, Islamabad Blast: Gilgit-Related, Paper no. 1393, 29. 05. 2005.

[9] SAIR, Volume 3, No. 47, June 6, 2005, Guest Writer: Amir Mir, Senior Assistant Editor, Monthly Herald, Dawn Group of Newspapers, Karachi.

[10] See “Major incidents of terrorist violence in Pakistan, 1988-2006,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, at

[11] Nasr, Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq.

[12] B.Raman, Massacres Of Shias In Iraq & Pakistan---The Background, Paper no. 941 03. 03. 2004.

[13] Yitzhak Nakash, Reaching for Power. The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 50-51.

[14] Nasr, Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq.

[15] Nakash, Reaching for Power. The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World, p.45.

[16] The Shiite Question In Saudi Arabia, The International Crisis Group, Middle East Report, N°45, 19 September 2005, at

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nimrod Raphaeli, “The Sheikh of the Slaughterers: Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi and the Al-Qa'ida Connection,” MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series, No. 231, July 1, 2005.

[19] Reuven Paz, “Global Jihad and the Sense of Crisis: al-Qa’idah’s Other Front,” PRISM Occasional Papers, Vol. 1, No. 4 (March 2003), at:

[20] Reuven Paz, “Hizballah or Hizb al-Shaytan? Recent Jihadi-Salafi Attacks against the Shiite Group,” PRISM Occasional Papers, Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 2004), at:

[21] See Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World. The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London, New York: Verso, 2005).

[22] Nimrod Raphaeli, “Iraqi Elections (III): The Islamist and Terrorist Threats,” MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 202, January 18, 2005.

[23] “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” ODNI News Release No. 2-05, October 11, 2005, at The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the letter dated July 9, 2005, obtained during counterterrorism operations in Iraq.

[24] “'Zarqawi tape' demands that Hizbullah lay down its arms. Head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq lashes out at 'infidel' Shiites,” Beirut Daily Star, June 3, 2006

[25] Michael Scheuer, “Al-Zawahiri's September 11 Video Hits Main Themes of al-Qaeda Doctrine,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, Issue 36 (September 19, 2006).

[26] The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism And Civil Conflict, International Crisis Group Middle East Report, N°52, 27 February 2006.

[27] Anthony H. Cordesman, The Iraqi Insurgency and the Risk of Civil War: Who Are the Players? Center for Strategic and International Studies, Working Draft, Revised: March 1, 2006.

[28] Ibid.

[29] W. Andrew Terrill, Strategic Implications of Intercommunal Warfare In Iraq, The Strategic Studies Institute, February 2005, at http://Www.Strategicstudiesinstitute.Army.Mil/Pubs/Display.Cfm?Pubid=595.

[30] For a detailed report on the Shiite anti-Sunni units see Cecile Zwiebach, “The Confused Security Situation in Iraq: Some Less Publicized Units,” PolicyWatch No. 1114, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 21, 2006.

[31] Ilene R. Presher and Nicholas Blanford, “Al Qaeda takes aim at Israel,” The Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 2006.

[32] Steve Schippert, “al-Qaeda Branching into Lebanon, Hezbollah Unimpressed,” ThreatsWatch, January 14, 2006 at.
[33] Hamza Hendawi, “Hezbollah Links Plot to Clashes in Iraq,” Associated Press, April 15, 2006.

[34] “'Zarqawi tape' demands that Hizbullah lay down its arms. Head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq lashes out at 'infidel' Shiites,” Daily Star, June 03, 2006.

[35] David Schenker, “ One Year after the Cedar Revolution: The Potential for Sunni-Shiite Conflict in Lebanon,” Policywatch No. 1114, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 20, 2006.

[36] Mourhaf Jouejati, Much ado about nothing, Shi’ite crescent,, Ed. 4, Volume 3, February 03, 2005.

[37] Kerim Balci, Zulfikar Coup, Zaman, September 14, 2006 &trh=20060914 &hn =36501.

[38] Kamran Taremi, Shi’ite crescent. An Iranian perspective,, Edition 4 Volume 3. February 03, 2005.

[39] Nasr, Regional Implications of Shi‘a Revival in Iraq.

[40] Fuad Husayn, The Second Generation of Al-Qa'ida (Part 13), a serialized book on Al Zarqawi and Al-Qa'ida published by the London al-Quds al-'Arabi, July 11, 2005.

[41] “Text of a document discovered in terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's hideout. The document was provided in English by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie,” The Associated Press, June 15, 2006.

[42] Reuven Paz, “Hotwiring The Apocalypse: Jihadi Salafi Attitude Towards Hizballah And Iran,” The Project For The Research Of Islamist Movements (PRISM) Occasional Papers, Vol. 4, No. 4 (August 2006).

[43] “Al-Zawahiri urges attacks on Israel,” at

[44] Paz, Hizballah or Hizb al-Shaytan?

[45] Paz, Hotwiring The Apocalypse: Jihadi Salafi Attitude Towards Hizballah And Iran.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Mahan Abedin, Al-Qaeda eclipsed by rise of Iran as Islamists bask in success against Israel , August 18, 2006, at

[48] See Ely Karmon, Coalitions of Terrorist Organizations. Revolutionaries, Nationalists and Islamists (Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005).