LONDON (Reuters) - Progress in Middle East peace efforts would hurt al Qaeda by toppling a treasured pillar of its propaganda, although its adaptable militants would try to repair the damage by exploiting other anti-Western grievances.
So say Western counter-terrorism analysts, casting a fresh eye at the role of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in militant radicalization following comments by Western leaders suggesting links between the conflict and transnational extremism.
The dispute has venerable status in al Qaeda’s repertoire of grievances, involving direct physical confrontation between Muslims and Jews, the religious significance of Jerusalem’s holy places and Arab perceptions of U.S. bias in favor of Israel.
These factors fit neatly into al Qaeda’s simple, populist message that Islam is under attack from an aggressive West that occupies Muslim lands and desecrates Islam’s holiest places.
Western worries about radicalization have grown following a November 5 killing of 13 people at an army base in Texas, a failed December 25 attack on a U.S. airliner, a December 30 suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees and a string of arrests of suspected militants in the United States in 2009.
A solution in the Middle East, remote as it may seem, would help drain the pool of potential militants, analysts say.
“It doesn’t matter what bin Laden thinks about Palestine, or whether al Qaeda will stop fighting,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist on violent Islamism at Princeton and Harvard universities and the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
SYMPATHISERS “LOOK THE OTHER WAY”
“What matters is the role the Palestinian issue plays in mobilizing new recruits and in creating a pool of sympathizers who look the other way when jihadis fundraise and plot.”
“Virtually everyone who has studied jihadi recruitment up close will say that Palestine is important in this regard. It is obviously not the only factor or grievance, but it is the single most recurrent issue evoked by individual recruits.”
In the English city of Bolton, community worker Yusuf Tai agrees. He finds the dispute outranks even the Kashmir conflict among the town’s Muslim minority, many of whom are Kashmiris.
“Israel-Palestine is the single biggest issue to mobilize the community. It gears people up like no other issue,” he said.
“If Palestine was resolved, al Qaeda would still have its narrative to peddle, but it would go to a smaller constituency.”
That view is contentious to some. Israel denies any link between its conflict with the Palestinians and violent Islamism.
“The Middle East conflict is not territorial, it is a conflict of values, between extremist Islam and the enlightened West,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Analysts concede the Israel-Palestine dispute is not the main, or even the most immediate, driver of global attacks.
In the past 30 years, grievances have included Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Bosnia, the Philippines and the presence of U.S. forces in the Arabian Peninsula.
And transnational militants have not made Israel a priority target. The list is thin: attacks on Jewish targets in Kenya in 2002, Tunisia in 2002, India in 2008, and a Tel Aviv suicide bombing by a Briton of Pakistani descent in 2003.
Moreover, radicalization rarely starts with a geopolitical link. Its early moments seem to be driven by ties of kinship and friendship and the psychology of peer group dynamics.
The danger, experts say, is that unresolved conflicts like Israel-Palestine provide the connective tissue linking otherwise disparate militant groups and foster a tolerance for al Qaeda among Muslims who are not otherwise ideological.
Western officials are taking notice.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on April 13 he sees a Middle East peace agreement as “a vital national security interest,” as America battles Islamic militants abroad. U.S. General David Petraeus told a Senate hearing on March 16 that al Qaeda exploited Arab anger over Palestine “to mobilize support.”
British Security Minister Lord West told parliament on February 22 that Middle East peace “would make a huge difference to extremism; it would change it fundamentally.”
Jacques Pitteloud, a former coordinator of Swiss intelligence, told Reuters that was no doubt the dispute and the “perceived double standards of Western foreign policy” were significant factors enabling jihadist recruitment.
“This does not mean we need to play into the hands of al Qaeda. But if the issue were solved peacefully it would go a long way to addressing militancy,” he said.
Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told Reuters the theme of Israel-Palestine “is played endlessly by al Qaeda and the issue of injustice morphs seamlessly into Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no question that it hurts us.”
DON‘T EXPECT QAEDA TO “GO AWAY”
Matti Steinberg, a veteran of Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies, agreed the dispute was a supreme priority for al Qaeda from a theological standpoint, but added the group did not need it as an excuse to attack U.S. interests worldwide.
“It could be argued that a resolution would, if anything, spur al Qaeda to escalate attacks. Al Qaeda sees resolution as a threat, non-resolution as an opportunity,” he said.
At a time of considerable frost in their vital U.S. alliance due to differing views of peacemaking and Israel’s settlement on occupied land, some Israeli officials have been irked by comments like those from Petraeus linking the Palestinian conflict to Washington’s travails.
“Some U.S. generals seem to be looking for excuses for their failures in Iraq and Afghanistan by blaming us,” said one Israeli political source familiar with government thinking.
Some Western officials say privately they find it hard to address Palestinian grievances without appearing to be making concessions to Islamist militants.
But analysts point out that there is a world of difference between al Qaeda’s solution to the dispute -- the destruction of Israel -- and the international community‘s, which is two states designed to provide security for both parties.
“The world should not expect al Qaeda to go away if there is a solution in the Middle East. There could be other issues that would be taken up,” said Peter Neumann, director of the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London.
“But the argument is that the West should be seen to make an effort and be even-handed, and that will go some way to advancing things.”