Brothers in Arms? an Old Arabic Proverb Notes: My Brother and Me against My Cousin, My Cousin and Me against the Stranger

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Brothers in Arms? an Old Arabic Proverb Notes: My Brother and Me against My Cousin, My Cousin and Me against the Stranger


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


The conquest and occupation of Iraq has radicalised the Muslim world to an unprecedented degree, many believe to the point where Sunni and Shi'ite hardliners are now putting aside their historic differences and preparing to join forces against a common enemy--the West.

For years, the idea of an Islamic alliance between Sunni and Shi'ite has been a nightmare scenario for western intelligence agencies, their allies in the Muslim world and Israel. Ever since the 1980s, there have been indications that hard-liners from both denominations have been setting aside the theological differences that have kept them apart for 14 centuries and are possibly already cooperating on particular operations in which the interests of all concerned are advanced.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Shi'ite Iran's intelligence services and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) hosted many meetings in Tehran with extremist groups, including Sunni organisations such as the Palestinians, Islamic Jihad, Egypt's Gamaa al-Islamiya, the Kurdistan Workers' Party from Turkey and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. Tehran provided funds and training for several of these groups.

Radical Palestinian groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Sunni but secular and headed by the veteran Syrian-backed Ahmed Jibril, worked with Iran's intelligence services against western targets. Despite the conviction of a Libyan agent for the 1989 Lockerbie bombing, there are those in western--and Arab--intelligence circles who still believe that the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 was the work of the Iranians and the Syria-based PFLP-GC.

But no formalised hard-and-fast alliance between Shi'ite and Sunni hard-liners, dedicated to attacking the West and its Arab friends, ever seemed to emerge. By some accounts, that may be changing, largely as a consequence of the 11 September 2001, and the United States' response to the unprecedented terrorist attack on its soil.

The issue is clouded by intrigue and political agendas, propaganda from all sides, Iran, Israel, the US and elsewhere. But there seems little doubt that George W. Bush's war against terrorism is increasingly perceived in the Muslim world as a new Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam and its people. The conquest and occupation of Iraq has radicalised the Muslim world to an unprecedented degree.

These days, Iran and its Shi'ite Lebanese ally, Hizbullah, are actively aiding the Palestinian Sunni fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and latterly secular Sunni-dominated forces loyal to Yasser Arafat as well.

That is a relationship that goes back to 1992, when Israel tried to deport 415 Sunni activists of Hamas to Lebanon. Beirut refused to let them in, leaving the activists stranded in no-man's land on the border for seven months, during which time the Shi'ite militants taught their Sunni cousins how to conduct suicide bombings. The Hamas men were eventually taken back into Israel and the first Palestinian suicide bombing followed in April 1994.

As for Al Qaeda, the Americans have in recent months alleged that militant forces in Iran, such as the IRGC, and its Qods (Jerusalem) Force, which is responsible for all clandestine activities outside Iran, are working hand-in-glove with Osama bin Laden's network, which is Sunni, and bringing them together with Hizbullah, a long-time enemy of the US.

It is difficult to verify these claims, but it is clear that Sunni and Shi'ite militants are increasingly finding common cause against the US and its principal Middle Eastern ally, Israel. While there are differences between the two Muslim denominations, which have flared into violence, as in Pakistan today, the perceived threat to Islam from the US since 9/11 has eroded those differences.

Still, it is difficult for some to accept that Iran's Shi'ite leadership has joined forces with Al Qaeda, an overwhelmingly Sunni network virulently opposed to Shi'aism. …

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