Historically, Palestinian militant groups maintained that their conflict with Israel did not translate into hostility against the United States. Unlike al Qaeda, they did not call for global jihad against the West, and for the most part insisted their aims were limited to the issue of Palestine.
In a statement issued after September 11, for example, Hezbollah spiritual leader Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah stated that while his group opposed the U.S. government’s foreign policy “we want to be friends with the American people and we can by no means blame the American people and carry out such barbaric acts.” Similarly Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Rantisi, the political leader of Hamas, said of the 9/11 attacks: “We are against American policy, but our struggle is against Israel.”
However, in the months leading up to the current U.S.-led war in Iraq, leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah have issued a chilling series of statements calling for holy war against American targets in and beyond the Middle East. This rhetoric, which unequivocally advocates the use of terrorism and violence, goes even beyond the anti-American sentiments that have exploded in the region.
At a rally in support of Saddam Hussein held in Gaza on January 17, 2003, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, told reporters: “If Iraq is attacked… all American targets will be open targets for every Muslim, Arab or Palestinian.” Al-Zahar went on to say that “any attack against Iraq will be answered by resistance everywhere and American interests everywhere will be targeted.”
In February 2003, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin labeled the American campaign “a crusaders’ war,” and said, “America must be buried in Iraq so they can learn a lesson not to attack any Arab countries.” Yassin further warned in an open letter that “Muslims will have to threaten and strike Western interests, and hit them everywhere.”
In a departure from his neutral position expressed above, Dr. Rantisi told a Jordanian newspaper last month: “The sons of our Arab and Islamic Ummah [nation] should prepare themselves to declare war and to hit America and its interests everywhere in our cities.” He added that “it is time for the crusaders and the West to realize that we will explode the land with fire that will burn them if they launch a war on the Muslims.”
Rejecting the idea that American soldiers in Iraq would be seen as liberators, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, stated in early March 2003 that US forces would be received “with rifles, blood, arms, martyrdom and martyrdom operations.”
Whether these calls for jihad will be converted into action remains unclear. Last week, Rantisi thanked a Kuwaiti militant group associated with Hamas for announcing its intent to strike U.S. military forces based in that country. Nasrallah recently cast Hezbollah’s 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American servicemen died, as a prescription for the present situation. “When the Marines were in Beirut…we screamed in the southern suburbs ‘Death to America,’” he said, and “today, the region is being filled with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and fleets and ‘Death to America’ was, is and will stay our slogan.”
Although no Palestinian terrorist organization has launched an attack in the United States, the capability exists. Hezbollah has conducted several major operations outside of Lebanon, including the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. Hezbollah involvement is also suspected in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
Time has reported that FBI agents are looking for possible Hamas operators among the 1,000 Islamic extremists they are watching inside the country. Law enforcement officers are also monitoring certain materials that could be used to manufacture explosives like those used by Hamas suicide bombers.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has already warned that Palestinian-style terrorist attacks are “inevitable” in the United States. Consistent with the mandate for preemption found in the Bush Doctrine, the United States should seriously consider the threat posed by these organizations to its national security.
— Eric Leskly is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project in Washington, DC.