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    Middle East
     Aug 25, 2006
Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah look to make up
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Hezbollah has emerged as the new champion of the jihadist world, eclipsing even al-Qaeda as it battled the might of the US-backed-and-supplied Israel Defense Forces.

Shi'ite Hezbollah's newfound international popularity is likely in turn to encourage closer ties between it and Salafi-dominated al-Qaeda, which had fallen in Hezbollah's esteem for its targeting of

Shi'ites in Iraq.

An Iranian intelligence official explained to Asia Times Online, "There have been some contacts between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in the past, but those contacts were at the individual level. The two organizations never spoke to each other officially. Neither did they exchange any official delegations.

"However, nobody can deny that individuals of both organizations carried out operations jointly. And as the situation is emerging, there are chances that any time soon the two organizations will be compelled to interact officially."

This is confirmed by a Pakistani intelligence source who is part of an international intelligence cartel investigating regional arms markets.

He told Asia Times Online, "There are so many common interests between the two organizations that it is impossible that bitterness about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's role against Shi'ites [in Iraq] will continue to be an irritant between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

"There is a big arms black market in Central Asia, and Iraqi Kurdistan is the main route [through which] goods are smuggled into Afghanistan and into Syria and then Lebanon. Both Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have been dealing in the same markets, and many times with the same dealers.

"However, this is not the only thing. The channels of money transfers are the same. International financial investigators have tracked al-Qaeda's financial arteries from South Africa through diamond traders. All these diamond traders come from Nabatiyeh [southern Lebanon] - they are Shi'ites and indirectly linked with Hezbollah," the intelligence officer said.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has in the past made extensive capital out of the plight of south Lebanon, pinning much of his anti-American rhetoric on US-backed Israeli actions there.

A Hezbollah fighter who called himself Nidal told this correspondent recently in the Baalbek region of south Lebanon, "Osama always referred to the Israeli bombing of a UN building in Qana in the mid-1990s. He called the incident his inspiration for his hatred against the US, as the Americans backed the Israeli attack. So we were surprised when Osama was tight-lipped when the Taliban killed Shi'ites [of the Hazara sect] in Afghanistan, and then Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared war on Shi'ites in Iraq."

Nidal was referring to the Qana incident of 1996 in which Lebanese women and children were killed and bin Laden used the incident to justify calls to take revenge against the "Zionist-American alliance".

British journalist Robert Fisk recalled in an article in 2002, "When I last saw bin Laden, he was still obsessed with the Israeli massacre of 107 Lebanese refugees sheltering at the UN camp at Qana in April 1996. Israel claimed it was a 'mistake', the UN conceded otherwise and president [Bill] Clinton called it only a 'tragedy' - as if it was a natural disaster. 'It was,' said bin Laden, an act of 'international terrorism'. 'There must be justice,' he said, and 'trials for the Israeli perpetrators.'"

While the perception on the streets of Lebanon and Syria might be that al-Qaeda, the flag-bearer of anti-Americanism, is anti-Shi'ite, this has never been the case.

Al-Qaeda has always wanted to cooperate with organizations such as Hezbollah, but its efforts at extending its international reach were curtailed after it lost its sanctuary in Afghanistan in 2001 and its leaders, including bin Laden and his deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, were forced to lie low in the border areas with Pakistan. In effect, they were cut off from the rest of the world, as well as from their organization.

Then came the Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan from 2003 to 2005 to root out al-Qaeda fugitives. This gave rise to the takfiri faction in al-Qaeda, which took advantage of the leadership and ideological vacuum to make its mark.

Sheikh Essa is an example. He is an Egyptian and longtime takfiri (one of those who believe all non-practicing Muslims are infidels). Though he is respected for his convictions and his knowledge on religion, he had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda's tactical affairs.

He seized the initiative, and along with Mustafa Seth Marium al-Suri began to to propagate his takfiri ideas against Shi'ites. They found a soulmate in Zarqawi, who like them had never been a part of the al-Qaeda command. Zarqawi took charge of affairs in Iraq and began to foment civil war by attacking Shi'ites.

Once the military operations in Waziristan eased and bin Laden and Zawahiri were able to reconnect with their men throughout the world, they moved quickly to rein in Zarqawi and try to re-establish harmony among Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq to fight against the Americans. Zarqawi's killing at the hands of US forces in June was therefore a blessing in disguise for bin Laden, although sectarian strife might already have reached the point of no return.

With regard to Hezbollah, though, it is certainly not too late for al-Qaeda to mend fences and improve ties, given their similar illicit arms and financial needs, as well as the perfect public relations that US-backed efforts in south Lebanon give bin Laden and the al-Qaeda propaganda machine.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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