Al-Qaeda: Lebanon's Unbloodied Victor

The powerful, all-but-paralyzing myth of Israeli and U.S. military invincibility lies in smoking ruins—with Al-Qaeda rising strengthened from the ashes.

While Israel's propaganda machine, its U.S. media acolytes, and the Bush Administration chatter, cluck, and fear-monger about Lebanese Hizballah being the "A Team" of terrorism, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are reaping the rewards of the recent Lebanese war. At day's end, Hizballah is what it always has been: a localized insurgent organization with some international terrorist capability; the latter is a lethal nuisance- not a national security threat to anyone, not even Israel. It was Hizballah's local insurgent wherewithal that drove Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and defeated the IDF there last month. A more global strategy, a la Al-Qaeda, would not have served Hizballah well. No number of destroyed Israeli embassies could have accomplished for Hizballah its local successes.

Hizballah, along with its ally Iran, has a fatal handicap-a known return address. Hizballah is viable today because the United States and its allies have allowed it to remain so. While Western leaders long have whined about terrorist training camps in Somalia, Kashmir, Mindanao, and Yemen, they have for 25 years all but ignored Hizballah's camps in the Biqa Valley. The Hizballah insurgents that twice beat the Israelis in southern Lebanon trained at those camps, and they exist at the sufferance of Israel and the West. Hizballah is a running sore that the West decries but chooses not to stanch, let alone heal.

Because Hizballah's foes could be put paid to it at a time of their choosing, it is tough to take the group's A-Team rating with a straight face. Even more absurd is the idea that this Shi'a group has muscled aside Al-Qaeda and its allies as the leading threat to America and the West allies. Though this argument serves Israel and keeps funds from the U.S. Congress flowing at a torrent, the Shi'a-be they in Lebanon, Iran, or elsewhere-are regarded by Sunni militants as a detestable, heretical boil on the Islamic world.  No Shi'a state or group is going to rally and lead the Muslim world, and long after Nasrallah's 15-minutes of fame end and the last Hizballah T-shirt is in tatters, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and their allies will lead the Sunni militant movement, and they will be seen as the major gainers from the recent Lebanon war.

Al-Qaeda and its allies benefit most from Hizballah's defeat of the IDF; Israel, after all, was the first to yell uncle and look for un help. Al-Qaeda itself, and its supporters and admirers, already believe they have won the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where a diverse, often heterogeneous assortment of insurgent organizations have taken the American military's best shot and have not only survived, but thrived. Those insurgents are now on the offensive against U.S. forces that they know are too small to prevail and will not be massively reinforced.

Still, Sunni insurgents expected to beat the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Al-Qaeda and its allies rank the bravery of U.S. soldiers far below that of its Red Army adversaries, as well as what they regard as the savagery of the Israeli military. Thus, the IDF's defeat, with the emerging insurgent Iraq and Afghan victories, delivers to the world of Islamic militancy-Sunni and Shi'a-a singularly important message:  Islam's Afghan-jihad victory in Afghanistan was not a fluke. Alongside the USSR notch carved into the militants' AK-47 in 1989 are now notches for three U.S. defeats-9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq-and three major Israeli defeats, Lebanon (2000), Gaza, and Lebanon (2006). The powerful, all-but-paralyzing myth of Israeli and U.S. military invincibility that once dominated Muslim minds now lies in smoking ruins.

With no fixed address and a continued ability to attack in the United States, Al-Qaeda-at the head of Sunni militancy-is well placed to exploit Hizballah's victory. Having publicly saluted Shi'a Hizballah and urged Sunnis to support it against Israel, Al-Qaeda also will use the war's outcome to reinforce the political points that power its popular appeal. First, it will point not only to the inability of Arab and Muslim regimes to protect their nationals, but also their willingness to support infidels, citing the Arab Leagues condemnation of Hizballah as evidence. Second, it will showcase the U.S. and West's willingness to allow Israel to do as it pleases militarily, citing the G-8's lackadaisical approach to a ceasefire while Israel gutted Lebanon's infrastructure as an angler would gut a trout. Third, it will claim Muslim blood is worthless in Western eyes, citing casualty rates that suggest 12 dead Lebanese for each dead Israeli.

The reality and aura of Hizballah's victory, along with the reaffirmation of the Al-Qaeda political message, will benefit Al-Qaeda. And we in the West? Well, so far our leaders can only muster a childish name-calling campaign-"Islamo-Facists" anyone?  One can imagine Osama's speechwriters trying to find the Arabic for "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." 

 Michael Scheuer is a former senior CIA officer; the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies Eyes; a CBS News terrorism analyst; an adjunct professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University; and Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.