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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Sep 20th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Analysis arrow Hezbollah Signs Pact with Salafis
Hezbollah Signs Pact with Salafis PDF Print E-mail
Written by Walid Phares   
Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Hizbullah, Salafists ink accord banning sectarian strife
Hizbullah, Salafists ink accord banning sectarian strife

But implementation to be decided later

Amidst a growing world crisis, new developments in Lebanon may signal what lies ahead in the sphere of global jihadist forces in the near future. A memorandum of understanding has been signed by Hezbollah, the main pro-Iranian organization in the region, and a number of Salafist groups outlining efforts to "confront America."

Innocent minds may question how that impacts our lives. However, events that unfold in Beirut have a direct effect on the war on terror, or to be more precise, on the jihadist war on democracies. Here is why:

The Two Trees

In my last three books (the "Future Jihad Trilogy") I depicted the world web of jihadism as two large trees. The Salafist tree, emanating from radical Sunni circles and encompassing mainly the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Deobandis is the largest. But it has been evolving and some of its branches have mutated into layers of radicalism. Al-Qaida is one of the latest mutations, for now the most radical.

The Khomeinist tree, centered on the Iranian regime, has a single branch. It is centralized and has disciplined extensions in the region, mostly Hezbollah out of Lebanon.

Each "tree" has a worldview and a future jihad to accomplish. In many realms they oppose each other and they compete for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.

But despite their "brotherly enmity" their respective agendas have two goals in common: one is to oppose the rise of democracy in the region, and the second is to defeat U.S. support for that democracy.

Salafist and Khomeinist jihadis have always claimed they reject each other's doctrines and plans. But despite their ideological bickering they have been able to find common ground -- when it suits them -- and some jihadist Salafis have collaborated with Iran and its Syrian ally, even though most Salafis heavily criticize Khomeinism.

The Lebanon "understanding" between some Salafis and Hezbollah is the first open joint declaration between followers of Tehran's jihadism and the followers of Salafist jihadism. It is a "premiere" with significant consequences.

Road to the Agreement

On Aug. 19, leaders from Hezbollah and Salafist organizations called a press conference at Al Safir Hotel in Beirut's Raouche district and signed a memo of understanding between the two forces.

Radwan Aqeel wrote in the Beirut daily An-Nahar (Aug. 18): "Hezbollah is practicing a calm policy of overture toward the Sunni political and religious forces, especially since last May (against the Sunni Future Movement) to save the image the party has developed in the past as an 'Islamic resistance' in the Arab and Muslim world including in the Arab Gulf, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories."

It is believed that the move by Hezbollah to sign an agreement of understanding with Salafist organizations aims ultimately at penetrating the Arab Sunni world via Lebanon's Muslim community and maintaining an influence over the region's attitude toward the West.

According to Aqeel, "this move didn't come [out of the] void, but after many meetings away from media between representatives of Hezbollah and some Salafist groups." These encounters, said An-Nahar, included the head of Hezbollah's political bureau Ibrahim al-Amin and Sheikh Safuan al-Zuhbi from the Salafist movement.

Another Beirut daily, Al-Mustaqbal (Aug. 18) wrote that Hezbollah has been successful in recruiting 15 Salafist groups in Lebanon including the Waqf Ahya' al-Turath al-Islami to form a "Salafist camp" allied to the Iranian-Syrian axis. Hezbollah officials, wrote Al-Mustaqbal, are declaring that Americans have been defeated in the region by "resistance" in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza.

The founder of the Salafist current in Lebanon, Sheikh Daee al-Islam al-Shahhal said it is "a partial step." Al-Akhbar, the pro-Iranian daily, reported that Shahhal argued, during visits to jihadist movements, that these agreements are happening, because of the "aggression against Islam all over the world."

At first, Shahhal rejected the Hezbollah-Salafist memorandum of understanding. But he revealed that he was not against dialogue (with Hezbollah), "but we have some reservations concerning the attack against the Sunnis in May."

Observers said his declarations were to assure the Saudis that the classical Salafis are not slipping away to the Iranian camp. However the representatives of many other Salafist groups stayed the course firmly. Hassan Shahhal who heads the Belief and Justice Movement (BJM) called the memorandum a step in the right direction.

The agreement commits to:

1) Condemn any Islamic group that assaults another.

2) Abandon incitement, which creates trouble and will allow the "enemies" to take advantage of the situation.

3) "Confront" the American agenda.

4) Firmly support Hezbollah and the Salafist movement against others.

5) Form a religious committee to discuss any disagreements between the Shiites and the Sunnis.

6) Respect each others' opinions.

But under pressures from Salafists who are opposed to HezbollahSheikh Hassan Shahhal, who signed the understanding on Monday with Hizbullah's Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, declared freezing the agreement pending "appropriate circumstances that allow its implementation." In other words, the document was produced and signed, which was the most difficult stage. The second stage, implementation, will depend on the ability of Hezbollah to recruit more Salafists via financial incentives and political backing.

Consequences of the Agreement

Undoubtedly, the consequences of this event will be filled with strategic implications. Certainly this joint declaration is only between a number of Salafist groups, not the entire tree, let alone the Wahhabi Muslim Brotherhood web on one hand and Hezbollah; it remains confined to Lebanon; we're not dealing with an all-out two-trees jihadist merge.

Far from that, what we're witnessing is a massive move on behalf of one tree, the Khomeinists, to connect to some branches of the Salafist tree.

These attempts aren't new, for Iran has been funding "Sunni" Hamas and Islamic Jihad for decades. And the Syrian regime has been controlling Sunni-Salafist satellites for years.

Fatah al-Islam, a Salafist combat group which fought the Lebanese army during the summer of 2007 has been released from Syria into northern Lebanon. But all of these relationships were not declared openly nor were they organized officially.

The Salafist-Hezbollah agreement in Lebanon is a novelty from which there are a number of lessons to be learnt:

1) It demonstrates that Hezbollah continues to move forward after its big win in May against Lebanon's first Fouad Siniora government and the March 14 Coalition.

The organization relentlessly controls the national security decision making process of Lebanon and is stretching its military presence in areas it had never reached before, such as into the heart of the Christian areas north of Beirut; and soon, the Sunni north.

The agreement will serve as a launching pad to begin establishing a presence through these Salafis from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, all the way to the northern border with Syria. In short, and as Salafist leaders opposed to the agreement have stated, this is a strategic penetration of the Sunni community in Lebanon via its most militant segment, the Islamist Salafis.

2) Regionally, a Hezbollah-Salafist coordination space will receive highly-strategic aid from Iran's oil power and will profit from Syria's intelligence apparatus.

While since 2003 the Syrian-Iranian axis was extending a discrete support to the jihadist-Salafis, escorting them to the Sunni Triangle in Iraq to fight the U.S.-led coalition, as of the birth of this new consortium in Beirut, Hezbollah and its regional backers have no reason to be shy.

In fact as is the case with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the "Palestinian arms" of Tehran-Damascus, we may see the rise of a "Salafist arm" of that axis with all the unnatural ideological ingredients this could display. If the Shiite Khomeinists were able to accommodate Alawi socialists why not extend this market to Salafist forces? But the implications could be earth-shattering for the rest of the region.

Writing in Kuwait's Al-Siyassa (Aug. 18), Hamid Ghoriafi reported that "Iranian Pasdaran and Hezbollah have already started bringing Salafist groups to Lebanon from other countries to be trained and then sending them to Arab Gulf countries to deploy them for the greater battle to come against the United States and its allies."

This is a classical Iranian tactic: using a proxy force to terrorize their foes into submission. Saudis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Jordanians and beyond are on notice: There is now a Salafist force in a joint venture with Iranian backed Hezbollah.

3) Internationally, this will have a ripple effect far beyond Lebanon's borders. Pictures of Salafist and Hezbollah leaders embracing and committing to a unified Islamist jihad against the enemies of the "umma," or Muslim world, can send waves of emotional charges around the Arab world.

The mere image of branches from the two trees joining forces against the enemy will have a chilling effect on the jihadist movement.

The international community will be facing two networks, but three creatures: al-Qaida and its worldwide Salafist constellation on the one hand, and the Tehran-led nebulous with Syrian-Iranian intelligence services in the center, Hezbollah in the front and a web of small Salafis on Iran's payroll instead of the Wahhabis -- all-in-all pretty complicated for Western intelligence services to penetrate.

Failed Debate in West

Indeed, the major lesson from this small experiment of a marriage between a Khomeinist organization and a Salafist network -- even if it won't attract all Salafis, is that Western analysis has failed, one more time.

With some solid exceptions, the bulk of North American and European academic and expert literature has erred in the mass assertion that what we saw in Beirut was not to happen, cannot happen and will not happen. Pre- and post Sept. 11, 2001 research, which has seriously influenced governments on both sides of the Atlantic has been overconfident that since the Sunni-Shia religious divide cannot be bridged, these two spheres cannot converge.

Many scholars of Middle Eastern studies established in the United States and the West have argued for years against the possibility of a joint venture between the two branches of Islam.

They even rejected the "limited possibility" of such a coordination between Salafis and Khomeinists. Hence their advice to decision-making institutions and to media has negatively affecting long-term national security strategic planning.

The essence of the analytical errors made by scholarly advisers to the war on terror can be encapsulated in two points:

First, the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern studies apologist attitudes was to wrongly assert that traditional Salafism in its essence is neither political nor militant: 'just conservatives practicing spiritual revivalism,' they said.

But ironically those Salafis who joined Hezbollah in a strategic venture in Beirut were among the circles presented by the apologists as the "good Salafis," versus the "bad Salafis" of al-Qaida.

Second, that same dominant elite in academia kept theorizing that Salafis by nature cannot sit at the same table with Khomeinists.

Well some have just done so, and the "model" is here. Now, as these events are countering the most critical expert advice provided to Washington and Brussels, the next stage for the alternative counter-terrorism expertise is to help decision-makers realize how dramatic this Beirut experiment could become.

Even with a 10 percent chance of success the consequences of the so-called war on terror from the Middle East to Africa, Europe and the Americas are endless.

More important could be the effects of any model of Salafist-Khomeinist collaboration on U.S. Homeland Security. This particular chapter will be addressed later, but it is useful and astounding to observe how the jihadis are experimenting and evolving while recent efforts in America and Europe have led to the creation of a lexicon which, if anything, would blind the counter-terrorism communities and decision-makers from "seeing" these and other new dangers.


Walid Phares is the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 19 August 2008 )
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