According to conventional wisdom, Hamas, Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda are all alike; they are all radical Islamist terrorist organizations. But are they? Are they all radical Islamist organizations? Are they all terrorist organizations? Are they all organizations? These labels are problematic. Al-Qaeda is arguably not even an organization. Regardless of whether one deems it so, it certainly stands in contradistinction to Hamas and Hizbullah. As for terrorism, it is a tactic, not an ideology. Each of these “organizations” variously employs this tactic. As for radical Islamism, each of these “organizations” varies in degree of radical Islamism both in theory and in praxis. Conflating these “organizations” is gross oversimplification. Hamas and Hizbullah differ from Al-Qaeda in tactics, strategy, and ideology.
Hamas (an acronym for Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamat al-Islāmiyyah or Islamic Resistance Movement) is a political party organized in response to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hamas was founded in 1987 by the Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at the time of the First Intifada. Hamas used suicide bombings, IEDs and rocket attacks against Israel from 1993 to 2005, but tapered off these tactics between 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Hamas was democratically elected by the Palestinian people (including Christians) to represent and further their interests in Gaza. The defeated incumbent party, Fatah, consolidated its power in the West Bank and began making trouble for Hamas in Gaza. In 2006, when Fatah outlawed the militia arm of Hamas, Israel backed Fatah by imposing an economic blockade on Gaza. Hamas responded by launching border rocket attacks on Israel. Following a six-month ceasefire, the conflict resumed and escalated resulting in the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza. Although Hamas’s charter calls for the replacement of the State of Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state, Hamas’ prime minister said Hamas would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and offer Israel a truce. Hamas has emphasized that its conflict with Israel is political, not religious. While Hamas’s charter may in theory reflect a radical Islamist bent, Hamas is clearly pragmatic in praxis. While many consider Hamas a terrorist organization, eighty to ninety percent of Hamas’s revenues fund athletic, educational, daycare, healthcare and religious facilities, substituting for civil society.
Hizbullah (the Party of Allah) is, like Hamas, a political party. Also in common with Hamas is Hizbullah’s genesis and its inclusion of a military arm. Hizbullah was founded to fight against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and to advocate for its constituency, the Shi’i population of Lebanon. Like Hamas, Hizbullah provides important social services to its constituency. Also like Hamas, Hizbullah is considered a resistance movement by its constituency and a terrorist organization by others. In contrast to Hamas, Hizbullah’s origin, like its constituency, is Shi’ite. Its founders were inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini. Its military arm was trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Like Hamas, Hizbullah’s charter calls for the elimination of colonialism and the establishment of an Islamic state, but, as is the case with Hamas, Hizbullah has mainly focused on eliminating the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and has worked within Lebanon’s political system, forging alliances across religious lines. Like Hamas, Hizbullah has a legitimate place in government, holding seats in the Lebanese government. Like Hamas, Hizbullah has garnered widespread support from populations outside its main constituency, including Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze. In a 2006-2008 conflict between Hizbullah and other groups and Prime Minster Fouad Siniora’s government, Hizbullah gained control of several West Beirut neighborhoods it wrested from militiamen loyal to Siniora. It then handed control of these neighborhoods to the Lebanese army. This action clearly demonstrates Hizbullah’s willingness to work within the system it is seeking to change and to play by the rules.
Al-Qaeda is a loose conglomerate of mujahideen with a takfiri ideology and a grand strategy of violent overthrow of jahili systems of government in order to impose sharia law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Purportedly, the scope of this strategy encompasses the entire world, but in reality it is aimed at the Muslim world itself. Following their illusion of victory after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, in their U.S. backed jihad, Saudi magnate Osama bin Laden and his Qutbian mentor, Ayman Zawahiri, set out to free the Arab world from corrupt jahili governments. When they failed to rally the support of the people, they declared them apostates too and began attacking civilians. When this failed to yield results, they turned their jihad on the U.S., which they saw as backing the corrupt regimes they sought to overthrow. Terrorism is their main tactic in this desperate jihad against the West. Their strategy is unclear; their goal, out of reach. In fact, their takfiri ideology is essentially self-annihilating since, eventually, they are bound to declare each other apostates when they fail to agree. Clearly, Al-Qaeda is quite distinct from both Hamas and Hizballah.
The tactics, strategy and ideology of Hamas and Hizbullah are distinct from those of Al-Qaeda. Whereas Hamas and Hizbullah are political parties, providing important social services to their constituents, Al-Qaeda is a loose conglomerate of disenfranchised mujahideen, desperately engaged in jihad against America out of a takfiri ideology, after failing to mobilize a constituency to rise up and take action against the corrupt governments in their own countries, the true targets of their discontent. Whereas Hamas and Hizbullah are successfully working within the systems they wish to change, Al-Qaeda is kicking against the pricks in fighting against the system. Clearly, conflating Hamas, Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda into one indistinguishable heap is gross oversimplification. This conflation is untenable.