Ayatollah Fadlallah’s Legacy

Posted July 6th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died on Sunday, snuffing out one of the most important voices for reform and restraint inside the milieu of Shia Islamism. As I wrote in Fadlallah’s obituary in The New York Times, the cleric had made his name as an advocate for the Shia awakening in the 1960s and 1970s, and then as a justifier of suicide bombings by Islamists.

But he also won droves of supporters all across the Islamic world, including the non-Arab nations, because of his work on family law. He found that women should have an easier time winning divorces under Islamic law, and that they have the right to defend themselves from domestic violence. He directed vast sums of money to hospitals and charity groups, even setting up for-profit businesses like hotels and gas stations in under-served Shia areas and then funneling the proceeds to his social services network. Most of the Shia women I know, even those who sympathize with Hezbollah, considered Fadlallah their religious reference.

In January 2009, I interviewed him at his official headquarters around the corner from the mosque where he preached. He railed against the infighting in the Islamic world between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and between Muslims and Christians. Eventually, he said, America and Iran would arrive at a rapprochement, and so too would Israel and its neighbors (this last statement surprised me the most).

To a Westerner, it might be hard to distinguish among the different marjas, or “sources of emulation,” that devout Shia Muslims follow. They all believe that religious jurists have the right to issue fatwas on everything from marital relations to geopolitics. Beyond this common point, however, leaders like Fadlallah – and to a lesser extent, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf – have provided a very different model than some of their counterparts in Qom, who advocate the Iranian model of wilayat al faqih, or direct rule by the jurisprudent (that is, the ayatollahs govern directly.)

Fadlallah believed the authority of the clerics depended on their authority among the people (and not solely from their divine link to God). He also believed that Islamic resistance had to retain its “humanism,” and therefore he condemned acts and movements that considered terrorist – like the Sept. 11 attacks, and the ongoing efforts of Al Qaeda. “We are not at war with the American nation,” he told me.

There aren’t many religious leaders whose views carry such weight and yet are willing to criticize their own followers and the movements that they inspire. Now there’s one fewer.

Terrorist Talkers

Posted June 30th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

It’s a banner day for the topic I’ve been researching all spring : What tools beyond direct force can Western government use to engage, modulate or otherwise shape the behavior of listed terrorist groups? I’ve been studying in particular the use of intelligence community contacts, diplomacy, creative government engagement through aid and trade, and Track Two diplomacy (which we might as well call secret negotiations, since almost all of the important initiatives take place with the full knowledge of the governments involved).

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the material support statute, which holds that political advice amounts to assistance for terrorist groups, several advocates of off-line diplomacy have reiterated their arguments for engagement.

First comes Mark Perry, author of the book Talking to Terrorists published earlier this year. He argues that the United States, Europe and Israel gain nothing by boycotting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, because those groups are here to stay and represent large and growing constituencies. Perry broke the story in March that General David Petraeus had told the White House that America’s pro-Israel stance was harming core national interests in the Islamic world. Now, he’s gotten his hands on another CentCom document in which he reports that some military propose that Hamas should be integrated into the Palestinian Authority security forces and Hezbollah into the Lebanese Army. Both groups, the authors of the military memo argue, should receive American military training, even though they’re defined as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. (The officers were on a so-called “Red Team” tasked with challenging assumptions and considering alternative ideas.)

The CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel’s publicly stated view — that the two movements [Hamas and Hezbollah] are incapable of change and must be confronted with force. The report says that “failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior.”

Meanwhile, on the op-ed page of The New York Times today, the academics Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod write that informal diplomacy has played a crucial role in convincing terrorist groups to renounce violence and enter politics. They cite historical Track Two negotiations begun by private citizens in the transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Real Irish Republican Army. They also cite their own back-channel conversations with Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which they said have yielded important insights.

Private citizens can talk to leaders who are off limits to policy-makers, and can report their findings; in this instance, Atran and Axelrod write, Islamic Jihad reveals itself as recalcitrant and committed to fighting Israel, whereas a Hamas leader suggested he would consider not just a truce (hudna) but peace (salaam). Atran and Axelrod caution that off-line private diplomacy requires expertise and discretion: “Accuracy requires both skill in listening and exploring, some degree of cultural understanding and, wherever possible, the intellectual distance that scientific data and research afford.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct interaction with terrorist groups is sometimes indispensable. And even if it turns out that negotiation gets us nowhere with a particular group, talking and listening can help us to better understand why the group wants to fight us, so that we may better fight it. Congress should clarify its counterterrorism laws with an understanding that hindering all informed interaction with terrorist groups will harm both our national security and the prospects for peace in the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts.

Advocates of such talks usually take care not to oversell their potential, given that talking to terrorists rarely yields quick results and frequently yields none at all, except for political fallout when secret talks are leaked. All three of these authors have written publicly about their private conversations with leaders of listed terrorist groups. Their conversations were conceived as part of a concerted effort to convince the groups in question to renounce terrorism and violence and pursue their grievances in a legitimate political forum.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court ruling would affect these freelance diplomats, who tend to report their foreign terrorist contacts to the government and conduct their diplomatic experiments more or less with their government’s blessing. But for now American law – and grand strategy – have perhaps intentionally left in a fuzzily defined gray area the question of what kind of engagement best complements national counter-terrorism efforts.

Hezbollah’s Flotilla?

Posted June 24th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Is Hezbollah outfitting blockade-busters to send to Gaza? It appears not, despite some breathless innuendo put forth by an Israeli think tank with close ties to Israel’s intelligence community.

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel put out a report on June 22 entitled “The aid flotilla planned to set sail from Lebanon is supported by Syria and Hezbollah.” The detailed analysis compiles lots of details about the organizers of two Lebanese boats that plan to sail to Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade. One of the organizers, Yasser Qashlak, appears in a clip on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television network spewing racism:

A day will come when the ships will carry the remainder of the European garbage which came to my homeland [i.e., Israel] and return them to their homelands.

When it comes to the money point so boldly proclaimed in the headline, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center quite reasonably concedes (albeit far down, in paragraphs 15 and 16 of a 17-paragraph report) that it found no evidence to substantiate the claim that Hezbollah and Syria are behind the Nagi al-Ali and the all-woman-crewed Maryam.

Hezbollah is careful not to publicly affiliate itself with the Lebanese flotilla, out of fear of complications with Israel. Another reason is the understanding that it will harm their ability to represent the flotilla as reflecting a human rights effort. In response to many articles in the media, Hezbollah issued an explicit denial of its involvement. … The organizers of the ships repeatedly state in interviews with the media that they have no connections with Hezbollah.

That didn’t stop the Israel Defense Forces from trumpeting the report on its news page with the headline “Report: Hezbollah and Syria are organizing the Lebanese flotilla.”

Meanwhile the Lebanese flotilla organizers are finishing the process of getting clearance from the Lebanese government, which wants to stay as far away as it can from provoking Israel. The ships won’t fly the Lebanese flag, and they will sail first to Cyprus and only then to Gaza.

Lebanon and Israel officially remain in a state of war after signing a ceasefire in 1948. While Hezbollah – which is doctrinally committed to the destruction of Israel – dominates Lebanese politics, the government officially is under the leadership of Western-allied Prime Minister Saad Hariri, although one-third of its cabinet members come from Hezbollah and its coalition partners.

Hezbollah (like Hamas) has riled up its base about the Gaza blockade and the deaths of nine people aboard the Turkish ship that tried to bust it.  The deadly episode on May 31 fit neatly into Hezbollah’s narratives about Islamic Resistance about “the Zionist entity.” Not least, Hezbollah cashed in rhetorically on the fact that religious Islamists fought Israeli commandos, thereby provoking a policy revision a few weeks later – the first relaxing of the blockade, and in the worldview of Hezbollah and Hamas, an achievement for Islamists on an issue on which secular Palestinians had failed to force any change.

Israel Preparing for Flotillas Like on Eve of War” screamed a June 23 headline on Al-Manar. (Hezbollah also threatened this week to sue the United States for libel, claiming that Washington and its Arab allies had spent $500 million “to bribe people to criticize Hezbollah.”)

Challenging the Gaza blockade is a popular unifying cause in Lebanon, appealing to nearly every constituency, even those who oppose Hezbollah. Defending Palestinian rights in Gaza also provides a welcome distraction for Lebanese politicians currently struggling with the matter of the second-class status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

For Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s supreme leader and a gifted orator, the affairs of the boats and the siege have created a ripe opportunity to make rhetorical hay, and – once again – to position Hezbollah as the beneficiary of an effort to which it contributed nothing tangible. (Not unlike Hamas, the main, and perhaps unintended, beneficiary of the last flotilla.)

From Nasrallah’s most recent speech (translation by Al-Manar):

This is a lesson for some of those who preach the policy of humiliation, delusion and wishful thinking that only result in disgrace. On the other hand a policy based on power can accomplish a lot. …

There is a good chance today to end the blockade imposed on Gaza and this requires more Freedom flotillas. … We have to benefit from the Freedom flotilla to remind the world of Israel’s massacres

Book Coming

Posted February 1st, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in A Privilege to Die

Free Press has settled on a title for my forthcoming book. It’ll be called A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. It should be in bookstores this fall.