Amid growing indications of a campaign against Iraq, U.S. officials are taking note of an alarming development. Scattered but not yet decisively defeated, al Qaeda appears to be regrouping — this time on the periphery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In recent weeks, a rash of reports have surfaced about a growing al Qaeda presence in Lebanon. According to both American and European sources, operatives of the group are hard at work establishing a new terror infrastructure in that country with the active operational and logistical assistance of Hezbollah, Lebanon's terrorist powerhouse.
Such a union is logical. Despite their religious incompatibility — Hezbollah, an Iranian invention, is Shiite, while bin Laden and al Qaeda are Sunni — practical coordination between the two terror outfits has gone on for years. As long ago as 1994, the Lebanese militia was already providing explosives training to members of al Qaeda and Egypt's affiliated al-Jihad group, according to the federal testimony of one bin Laden lieutenant. Bin Laden himself is also known to have had at least one meeting with Imad Mughniyeh, the shadowy head of Hezbollah's military wing who is widely known to be Iran's man in Lebanon, during the mid-1990s.
Similarly, both groups have been busy in the Palestinian territories. In August of 2000, for example, a raid by the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Services uncovered a massive West Bank bomb-making factory run by Hamas in conjunction with al Qaeda. For its part, Hezbollah has deep ties to both Hamas and the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad, actively providing terror training and arms to both Palestinian fundamentalist movements. This kind of cooperation is hardly a thing of the past: all three organizations — Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and Hamas — are reported to have met in Lebanon in March of 2002 to coordinate strategy against the U.S.
Hezbollah's appeal for al Qaeda is also understandable. Despite holding only twelve seats on Lebanon's 128-seat parliament, the group — supported by Iran and sustained by Syria — maintains a powerful voice in Lebanese politics and virtually free reign throughout the country. And since the summer of 2000, Hezbollah's reputation has grown to near-mythic proportions among supporters. It is now the model of emulation for Palestinian radicals, based on the perception that the group was the driving force behind Israel's precipitous, and ill-advised, withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May of that year. Regular calls about the need to "Lebanonize" the Palestinian dialogue with Israel now emanate from the West Bank and Gaza, proof positive of Hezbollah's widening appeal.
The movement's holy warriors have wasted no time in capitalizing on their newfound notoriety. In an interview this March with London's Sunday Times, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's General Secretary, revealed plans to redraw the military equation between Israel and the Palestinians by supplying groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with short-range Katyusha rockets. The organization is even said to be working to develop weapons of mass destruction. The group is reportedly accumulating chemicals weapons components at two facilities in Lebanon, with the ultimate goal of weaponizing them on short range ballistic missiles acquired from Iran.
All of this makes Hezbollah an attractive partner for al Qaeda — and a growing danger to the United States and our Middle Eastern allies. Speaking recently on Meet the Press, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham said as much when he cited the "urgent" need to deal with the new dynamic in Syria and Lebanon, "where the next generation of terrorists are being prepared."
For now, it is still too early to tell whether the Bush administration is prepared to open a Lebanese front in the war on terror. One thing, however, is clear: with its mounting popularity and growing capabilities, Hezbollah is a powerful ally for al Qaeda. Just as clearly, a symbiosis between the two terror groups could have devastating regional consequences.
With its bold new vision for the Middle East, and its plans for regime change in Baghdad, the White House has too much at stake to allow such an alliance to become a reality.