A new book by Lebanese journalist Hazem al-Amin argues that a small number of fundamentalist Palestinian leaders shaped much of what is now known as al-Qaida. The book, titled The Lonely Salafist, says Palestinians are not the largest group among al-Qaida members, but they have often been the most influential.
Author and journalist Hazem al-Amin calls them "the orphans of Palestine." He's talking about the second, third and fourth generation Palestinians scattered throughout the Middle East after their families were forced to flee their homes in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Over the years, he says, many no longer truly self-identify as Palestinians.
Fewer in numbers amongst the "orphans" are Muslim fundamentalists, who have exchanged their national identity for a broader Islamic identity. The result: Palestinian militants among the diaspora are not focused on attacking Israel, but what they perceive to be regional and global enemies. The author says behind al-Qaida's most famous leaders, you often find Palestinian mentors quietly pulling the strings.
Al-Amin says Osama bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, are among the well known "stars" of al-Qaida. But, he says, their Palestinian mentors were the keys to shaping al-Qaida's modern ideology and goals.
“The Lonely Salafist,” was released early this month. Al-Qaida's strength, according to author Hazem al-Amin, is as a set of ideas, not as an organization The Lonely Salafist, currently only available in Arabic, profiles several Palestinian al-Qaeda leaders, including the late Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a sheik known as "the Godfather of Jihad," who taught Osama bin Laden. "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues," was his often-quoted motto.
Al-Amin says Palestinian influence in al-Qaida does not mean the organization has a Palestinian agenda because fundamentalist leaders do not identify with their homeland.
American University in Beirut political science professor and author Hilal Khashan adds that al-Qaida may claim to want to take back what is now Israel for the Palestinian people, but its actions prove otherwise. "I think Palestine is peripheral to al-Qaida," Khashan says, "How many attacks have they launched against Israel?"
Al-Amin describes modern-day al-Qaida as more of a way of thinking than an organization. Like computer software, any militant group can take on the al-Qaeda agenda and ideology with or without any connection to established leaders. The author argues that what is known as the central al-Qaida organization, based in the tribal regions around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, is weak and fragmented. Al-Qaida as a way of thinking, he says, is a powerful threat to the Western world and to Arab governments.
Khashan argues that the strength of al-Qaida is exaggerated by Western politicians. He says the organization has a goal- to topple Arab governments and establish an Islamic state. But, he says, that goal is "nostalgic," not realistic."
"These are hate movements, they are anti-Western, anti-government, anti-Israeli, anti-everybody," Kashan says, "So this is their primary concern. But I don't think their activities help their objectives, which may be unachievable."
Al-Amin says The Lonely Salafist may draw criticism from people that do not believe it is possible for someone to lose their national identity. But he says while traveling Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq he noticed the small, but surprisingly powerful number of Palestinian leaders in al-Qaida. The research for the book began when he wondered why al-QaIda was not focusing on Palestine.