Experts: Split among radical Islamists widens

 When a new wave of terrorists blew themselves up in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula this week, the radical Palestinian Muslim group Hamas quickly joined Arab governments and Western leaders in condemning a “criminal attack which is against all human values.”

Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood said the bombings were “aggression on human souls created by God.”

The denunciations were unexpectedly harsh from such Islamic fundamentalist groups — Hamas which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings, and the Brotherhood which is determined to impose an Islamic government in Egypt.

But experts largely agree that radical Muslim organizations want to distance themselves from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists.

The fast widening rift is not reflected, however, among Western powers, who have tended to lump all Islamic radicals in one basket. The U.S. list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” for example, puts al Qaeda together with Hamas and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

Scholars of Islamic movements and some Western policy-makers, however, say distinctions now must be made to accommodate what they see as the growing split between such hard-line Islamist organizations and “holy warrior” groups such as al Qaeda.

“There is a fundamental difference between Islamic groups: most are sociopolitical reformists, others are religious extremists,” said Dia’a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on radical groups, whose views are widely quoted in Arab media.

Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, have national agendas, he said. They want to reorganize society according to the Sharia, or Muslim law. Extremist religious movements — al Qaeda and other global Salafist movements — are international revolutionaries, Rashwan said. Salafists excoriate not only non-Muslims, but also co-religionists who fail to follow their extremist views. They all are waging Jihad, or holy war, to spread their views among Muslims and to repel any “infidel invasion” of Islamic lands.

“Branding these two branches of radicalism the same way, as terrorist organizations, reflects a complete misunderstanding of the issue,” he said.

Rashwan said the confusion was a “fatal mistake” of the Bush administration in its war on terror. He said that to fight an enemy, one had to know and define it correctly.

“America doesn’t, and this is why it is losing the war on terrorism.”

U.S. policy makers and the State Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bearded and turbaned leaders from both branches of radical Islam frequently join voices in a call to destroy Israel and form an Islamic super state, a caliphate of all Muslim countries.

But the similarities are mostly rhetorical, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“The rift is widening, partly because most governments have become more open to engaging in a dialogue with hard-line Islamic voices if they give up violence,” he said in a telephone interview.

And in most Muslim countries, the population has proved much more willing to engage with national radicals than with “millennial” movements — that view Israel and the West as apocalyptic enemies — he said, pointing to Lebanon where al Qaeda-style extremist groups had little support while Hezbollah had become the leading political force among Shiite Muslims.

“I talk to senior officials in the U.S. government about this all the time,” he said.

By cracking down on al Qaeda but allowing more freedom to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood — the forebear of political Islam and a rising force in Egypt with over 80 lawmakers in Parliament — Arab states were in effect “creating more daylight” between revolutionary and reformist radicals, he said.

“Realistically, part of the U.S. policy is influenced by the attitude of host countries,” he said, explaining that the U.S. was more willing to engage with a group if local authorities already had. In Morocco, for instance, the government opened talks with the Justice and Development Party but rejected other hardline groups. Alterman said the U.S. had largely followed the same line.

The relative shift away from violence by the likes of Hamas, which won Palestinian legislative elections and formed a new government last month, however, left a vacuum that is being filled by more radical groups such as Islamic Jihad, a competing Palestinian group.

It has claimed responsibility for eight suicide attacks against Israel since a cease-fire declaration last year.

Israeli media have also reported mounting signs that al Qaeda had designs on the Jewish state as a next battleground. Israeli officials said recently that Palestinians have established contacts with followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. The officials also said al-Zarqawi had established footholds in neighboring countries — Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

Many Mideast watchers are, however, skeptical and see a political motive.

“Quite a few observers believe Israel tends to overstate al Qaeda links to Palestinian terrorism because they want to be seen as equal victims of a global movement against the West,” Jeremy Binnie, of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London, said by telephone.

Hugh Roberts, Egypt director of the International Crisis Group think tank, said the nationalist groups did not want to see their more militant members joining the international jihadists.

“Palestinian groups are already highly organized and well rooted organizations, they are very well placed to prevent al Qaeda from getting a solid foothold,” Roberts said.

Al Qaeda’s murky structure also has misled, experts also say.

Some attacks first blamed on al Qaeda, such as the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, have since been linked to local groups with only nominal links to the umbrella terrorist organization.

Still, the recent blasts in Egypt show that al Qaeda-type influences continue to spread in the Muslim world. Though Egyptian authorities blamed last week’s five bombings — three on a Sinai resort and two targeting international peacekeepers and police — on the semi-nomadic Bedouin tribesmen who populate the Sinai Peninsula, most experts say international jihadists likely played a role.

“It’s hard to think that a homegrown group of Bedouins could have, on its own, operated such complex and synchronized bombings,” even with know-how gathered on the Internet, Binnie said.

Roberts said, “the level of organization these attacks” demonstrated several al Qaeda trademarks.

Twenty-one people died in the blasts, most of them Muslims.

Since last November’s attacks on a Jordanian hotel that killed more than 60, al Qaeda has been increasingly criticized for killing civilians. And when bin Laden issued an audiotape earlier this month, many observers said his new call to support Palestinians against “Zionists” and “crusaders” was a move to boost declining popularity in the Muslim world.

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