On November 20, 2013, news from Pakistan was replete with articles deploring the recent explosions of Sunni-Shia “sectarian violence.” Incidents were reported in Rawalpindi and Multan, two heavily populated provinces, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the troubled province that borders Afghanistan where a curfew had to be imposed in Kohat and Hangu districts. One newspaper editorialized that with regard to the potential for religious turmoil, “Pakistan is a powder keg and the slightest spark can set it off.”
Twenty years have passed since Pakistan’s Sunni Islamist leaders Amir Saeed and Qazi Hussein Ahmad rubbed shoulders with Lebanon’s Shiite warlord Imad Mugnahya at the 2nd Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (PAIC).
Appearing in Khartoum, Sudan, from 2-4 December 1993, Saeed represented the jihadist Lashkar e-Taiba movement, and Hussein the more traditional Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
Founded in 1940, the JI was led for years by the famed Mualana Abdul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and it was the first organization that sought to replicate the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hussein was indeed a welcome guest at PAIC 2. The gathering was the second meeting of the so-called “Terrorist Internationale,” an organization founded and chaired by the Sudanese intellectual and Muslim Brother, Hasan al-Turabi.
Like Turabi in the Sudan, Maududi and the JI had played an important role in his nation’s future religious and political leadership. That leadership respected all members of the diverse Islamic community. And while many skeptics felt that the historic Sunni-Shia divide could never be bridged, first Maududi and then Turabi argued otherwise. The JI path had been forced to take a number of detours; it began as a nationalist movement, rejected that, and then adopted Pan-Islamism. By the time of the PAIC meeting 1993, it appeared to have achieved a satisfactory modus vivendi with Shiite Islam. As for Turabi, at PAIC 2 Turabi and friends appeared to have succeeded in bridging the historic Sunni-Shia divide — at least within their various emerging Islamist and Jihadist communities.
The PAIC 2 reunited many members, invariably Sunni, of the international Muslim Brotherhood. Also welcome were a large number of Shiite leaders. Significant events at PAIC 2 included the presence of Amad Mughnaya, the Lebanon Hezbollah terrorist whose activity throughout the Levant, everyone knew, was paid for by Shiite Iran. Mughnaya met in secret session with the Saudi pariah Osama Bin Laden; the two Jihadists, one Shiite the other Sunni, had already formed an alliance, and Al Qaeda members were being trained in bomb making at Hezbollah sites in Lebanon, while Hezbollah had appeared at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Also present, Hassan Nasrallah who represented the Hezbollah of Lebanon political leadership was also present and it was said met in private sessions with Hasan al-Turabi.
Mughnaya was also seen with the Egyptian Sunni jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, the associate of Osama Bin Laden and founder of the Egypt Islamic Jihad, and with Egyptian Mustafa Hamza leader of Egypt’s revolutionary Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. As for Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s confidante, by the time he was released from prison in Egypt in 1984 he had already used the Iranian example to redefine the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement. Unquestionably, he admired the determined Islamism of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. He also saw Iran as a potential funding instrument, hoping that Egypt Islamic Jihad could benefit from Iran’s largesse as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Zawahiri was thought to have made contact with the Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi of the Society of Combatant Clergy and Mohammad Javad Larijani Parliamentarian, both of whom were present at PAIC 2, along with a number of other unnamed Iranians.
Also at PAIC 2 were the Muslim Brothers Abd al-Sabur Shahin, and the noted cleric Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, and the noted Egyptian Brother and Muslim unifier Tariq Ramadan, who arrived from Switzerland. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was slowly emerging from years of persecution in Egypt, supported the emerging Sunni-Shiite rapprochement, but it still maintained an arms-length relationship with Iran. Its leadership was unable to forgive the Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-Sunni diatribe given publicly in February 1979, shortly after his return to Iran.
Other Muslim Brothers who welcomed a rapprochement with Shia Islam included Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Ibrahim al-Sanoussi of the Sudan, Mufti Mustafa Ceric from Bosnia, Djokhar Dudayev from Chechnya, Muhammad Ali Mahdi of Somalia, Abd al-Majid al-Zindani of Yemen, and Usman Muhammad Bugaje of Nigeria representing Islam in Africa.
A figure of particular interest, and an individual known to many attendees, was the Pashtun Jihadist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, a Sunni and founder of the Hezb i-Islami (Islamic Party) movement in Pakistan in 1972, was able to count on 30,000 dedicated fighters during the war in Afghanistan. After that war ended Hekmatyar continued to receive the support of many organizations including the Hizb-e-Wahdat, a mujahidin congeries of nine Shia movements based in Iran. However, though he had once received the substantial support of Saudi Arabia that relationship had frayed given the warlord’s past personal relationship with the Iranian Shiite revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Khomeini-Muslim Brotherhood tie had its foundation in the work of Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqassin Kashani (1884-1961), the paramount leader of Iran’s Shiite universe who formed a close relationship with Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. Kashani had founded in 1943 an Iranian Shiite branch of the Ikhwan called the Devotees of Islam. He was followed by Navvab Safavi (1923-1956), a young man who flew to Egypt in 1953, “to solidify his ties with the Muslim Brethren.” Eventually, Safavi was caught in the Shah of Iran’s net and was executed. Among the clerics who protested his execution was “an obscure, middle-aged cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini.”
During the PAIC 2 in Khartoum, it was rumored that Hekmatyar had met on more than one occasion with former military officials from Pakistan. The Afghan and the two Pakistanis were cementing ties forged during the war in Afghanistan. During the nineteen eighties the Pakistan JI was perfectly willing to break bread with Shiites, but Pakistan leader General Zia ul-Haq was not. He was Sunni Islamist through and through. In 1988 he had chosen Pervez Musharraf, then a relatively unknown brigadier, to quash a Shiite revolt in Gilgit. (It was rumored that in response a Shia airman from Gilgit was responsible for the death of Zia in a plane crash in August 1988.)
Zia-ul-Haq’s death focused a spotlight on the military commanders who were thought to be plotting a coup. Especial focus was given to Mirza Aslam Beg, the very Islamist military leader and friend of jihadists like Osama Bin Laden, and Islamist intellectuals like Hasan al-Turabi and Rachid Ghannouchi. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait General Beg, then the Pakistan Chief of Military Staff, was understood to be seeking an “Islamic Solution” to the Gulf problem.
Beg’s fortune had changed drastically with the arrival of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister in December 1988. And, at the time of his forced retirement in 1991, it was known that Beg had been blocked from seeking a Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan alliance that would square the circle and directly challenge the United States and Israel, two countries he despised. Among those to accompany Beg to Khartoum in 1993 was retired Lt. General Hamid Gul, the sinister director of Pakistan military intelligence (ISI) from 1987-1989. Both submitted papers and were known to be plotting a return to power,
From Iraq, Muhsin Abd al-Hamid of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP, or Hizb al-Islami al-Airaqi) made an appearance. Established in 1960, the IIP was said to be the major Sunni political organization to emerge following US invasion. The IIP was the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was rumored that Hamid and a representative of the Dawaa. The Dawaa (Islamic Call), the oldest Shiite Islamist movement in Iraq were to meet with Turabi to resolve some differences. The Dawaa was founded in 1957 by Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. In the nineteen eighties it had cooperated with the IIP in what was considered a surprisingly ‘open gesture’ for the time.
Finally, southern Sudanese claimed that an African present at Khartoum was Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky, the head of the emerging Islamic Movement of Northern Nigeria. Zakzaky proudly proclaimed his relationship with the international Muslim Brotherhood. He led a movement that was Sunni but many of its leaders received education and training in Shiite Iran.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
The first event that had a deleterious effect on Sunni-Shia cooperation occurred in 1996, when the PAIC ceased most of its operation, and when Osama Bin Laden departed Khartoum. Thanks in large part to the organizing effort by Hasan al-Turabi, Sunni and Shiites had cooperated effectively in the Balkan Wars of the mid-nineteen nineties. During that conflict, Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, antagonists on the world stage, had managed to work together. Iran provided arms, Saudi Arabia provided much of the war’s financing. Iran worked with Turkey, the PAIC and the Sunni Islamists to move arms to the mujahedeen that ended in a signal Muslim victory in Bosnia. Elsewhere, Sunni and Shia elements had both been active in the Islamist revolution in Somalia. In Iran itself an office to support Jihadist operations from Central Asia to the Caucasus was opened in the same building that housed Hezbollah elements.
Close cooperation among jihadist organizations was made difficult when Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda moved to Pakistan in June 1996. It disintegrated further when Al Qaeda moved to Afghanistan, a far outpost in the Dar al-Islam. In effect, what was lost was not only the Khartoum venue where various Islamist and Jihadist movements could freely congregate, also lost was the stabilizing hand of men like Hasan al-Turabi and his friends whose organizational expertise was forged in the Muslim Brotherhood.
On 23 February 1990, in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden recreated the Al Qaeda as the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.” With that, a fatwa was issued that carried a universal message to all Muslims, both Sunni and Shia:
“We — with Allah’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulama, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”
Although there were representatives of but five Sunni jihadist organizations that witnessed the founding, the World Islamic Front (WIF) promised the cooperation between Sunni and Shia jihadists that was begun by Hasan al-Turabi at the first PAIC conference held in April 1991.
A crucial change in that relationship was effected with the events of 9/11/2001, and the attack on the United States. The Islamist world was stunned by the rapid response that led to the occupation of Afghanistan by US troops. After that, communications between terrorist groups located from the Philippines to Mauritania was everywhere under threat. European safe-havens were lost. Funding of Islamist “charities” was under attack. And, with the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sunni-Shia modus vivendi in Iraq was ineluctably shattered. The peace imposed by the sometime-Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ended. With the death of Hussein and the occupation of Iraq by US forces, the Shia community, which comprised the majority of Iraqis, understood it was their opportunity to return to power. When that move was opposed by the Sunni Islamists — who were supported by their (WIF) allies loyal to Osama Bin Laden — the Sunni-Shia rapprochement began to crumble.
The second event, and one that was to hammer the next-to-last nail in the coffin that would bury the Sunni-Shia rapprochement, was the series of popular revolts that would be labeled the “Arab Spring.” Its genesis dates from December 2010 when a Tunisian self-immolated to protest his treatment by police. What followed was an explosion of anti-government events that led to the fall of the Egyptian and Libyan strongmen, Hosni Mubarak and Muamar Qadafi.
In nation after nation throughout the Muslim world pro-democracy rebellions sought to overthrow the status quo. However, what quickly became apparent was that domestic concerns trumped Muslim unity or Arab Nationalism. Shiite-led attacks sought to threaten the governments of Bahrain and Kuwait. There were Shia disturbances in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, something that greatly disturbed the Royal family in Riyadh. The Shiites were active in northern Yemen, and the internecine struggle in Iraq worsened.
The third event that was to nail the coffin shut was the revolution in Syria. There, in what was to become a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, the forces of Hezbollah and units loyal to Al Qaeda squared off. Former allies, they are fighting to control the sectors they controlled in Syria, and more recently in Lebanon.
With jihadists at war with one another, the Sunni-Shia rapprochement, the dream of many Islamist members of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, has died. The corpse will not be soon revived.
*J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at ACD.