East and West must beware new Barbarians at the gates
By Allister Heath-The Business on line .com
WALID Phares, the brilliant scholar of terrorism, lived through the worst of
times in Lebanon, the country where he was born. At the height of the civil war,
he would make the perilous journey out of Lebanon in flimsy vessels that were
easy targets for Syria’s long-range missiles. “In the 1980s, we used commercial
ships, with no Navy escort, sometimes under direct artillery action,” he
It was in the rather more relaxed setting of London’s Savoy Hotel that I met Phares, who now lives in America and has made his name since 9/11 as one of the leading analysts of terrorism. His latest book, Future Jihad: Waging War Against the West, will be published in the UK in the autumn; its superb US edition has become a must-read in foreign policy circles in Washington and for good reason. Talking to Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, made me realise how right Lenin was when he said “everything is connected to everything else”. What was supposed to be a quick chat about recent events morphed into a lengthy and fascinating seminar about the history of the Islamic world and the theory and practice of jihad across the ages, but still left me hungry for more.
The emergence of current strands of Islamic extremism long predates the creation of Israel or the Cold War, Phares explains. He peppers the conversation with Arabic to make his case, which is that today’s jihadist movements see themselves as a continuation of the Islamic state and strive for its reestablishment within in its old borders.
The abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924 freed jihadists from an ultimate Islamic authority for the first time since the seventh century. This unleashed the Saudi Wahhabis, and triggered the creation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Afghan battlefield produced a convergence into al-Qaeda, which soon became a rival school of its own. All these groups compete over the best way to re-establish the Sunni Caliphate, held up as the solution to the Muslim world’s problems. Meanwhile, the Iranian revolution saw the rise of a Shia jihadism; it too seeks leadership of Islam and to wage war against the infidels.
Phares, who advised the UN on disarming Hezbollah, is at his most passionate when discussing his native Lebanon. “As long as there is no strategic change in Lebanon, starting with Hezbollah’s disarming and having international forces taking the control of the Lebanese-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli borders, the bombings may give Israel some time, but will eventually transform Lebanon into an extension of Iran”, he argues.
When Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, was murdered in 2005, prompting the Cedar Revolution, one and a half million people – Christians, Druze, Sunnis and even some Shia – marched for democracy, dealing Hezbollah and their Iranian paymasters a devastating blow. It shattered the myth of Syria’s “brotherly” occupation, forced Damascus to withdraw, and proved that only a minority supported Hezbollah.
But the jihadists immediately fought back to re-establish the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut axis at the heart of the Iranian regime’s blueprint for dominance of the global jihadist movement. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, struck a deal with Prime Minister Fouad Seniora: three members of Hezbollah joined the cabinet, laying the seeds for disaster. As part of a one-year plan, Hezbollah, perhaps with the help of Syrian intelligence, launched an assassination campaign against politicians and journalists supportive of the Cedar Revolution, convincing most anti-Syrian politicians that any serious opposition to Iran-Syria-Hezbollah would be savagely punished.
The government was forced to stall on UN Security Council resolution 1559, which stipulates that all militias should be disarmed, and to sit down instead with Hezbollah to “discuss” the future of their weapons. Parliament was paralysed with the help of the pro-Syrian speaker Nabih Berri and the Aoun bloc; the allies of Emile Lahoud, the equally pro-Syrian president, were also tapped. Soon, says Phares, the Lebanese army command was intimidated, the Lebanese diaspora divided, pro-Syrian and jihadist networks in Lebanon and within the Palestinian camps reactivated, and weapons distributed to allied militias.
Hezbollah’s plan was to bring war with Israel back to the forefront of Lebanese politics; eventually, Seniora would be accused of treason and overthrown, and a new, non-Cedar government imposed, realigning the country with Tehran. As to timing, events in the region were crucial: Iran needed to divert attention from its nuclear programme; Syria wanted to inflame the Gaza and the Israeli-Lebanese borders to overshadow the UN investigation on the assassination of Hariri; finally, Hamas needed a new clash with the “Zionist enemy” to deflect attention from its looming civil war with Fatah.
While the response from Israel, as well as the original reaction from Seniora and most Arab states – they didn’t extend their full support to Hezbollah – took the Iranians by surprise, they quickly readjusted their strategy. Together with supporters of ex-premier Michel Aoun, Hezbollah unleashed a campaign to depict the Israelis as aggressors rather than victims, making full use of horrible tragedies such as the civilians deaths in the Lebanese village of Qana. Lebanon and the Arab world are all now furiously condemning Israel. “Hezbollah’s plan for the Lebanese army is to drag it into a fight with Israel, to destroy it,” says Phares. “The options are very limited: either Hezbollah will dominate Lebanon, or the latter will disarm Hezbollah. Anything in between would be a waste of time. The international community must form a multinational force to assist the Lebanese army”.
As to the wider war on terror, Phares is angry that the West has ignored moderate Muslims and reformers, in the West as well as in the Islamic world, instead treating those who support the jihad as truly representative. “For decades, the only ‘issue’ debated was the Arab- Israeli conflict”, he says. There was little study of jihadism, human rights abuses, women’s liberation movements or the treatment of minorities; worst of all, terrorists were routinely presented as reformers.
“The vast majority of intellectuals still live on a pre 9/11 planet. They refuse, even after the rise of democratic movements and dissidents in the region, to acknowledge that the jihadists are a fascist movement.” This must change, Phares pleads; the only hope is to support young Muslims who advocate democracy and social change.
Across the centuries, the jihadists often agreed temporary tactical alliances with one enemy, better to defeat another, a lesson which France, China and even Russia appear not yet to have learnt. But Phares’ crucial lesson is that we should never forget that all jihadist strands, regardless of how much they hate one another, are ultimately committed to the same aim, which is to wage war against those with whom they disagree. “The barbarians killed each other more than they killed Romans,” Phares warned me. “Yet they eventually destroyed the empire.”