Moqtada al-Sadr's penchant for 'community organizing'
By Frank Salvato
Radical Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is planning to disarm his Mahdi Army and oversee its transformation from Islamist fighting force into a civic and social service organization. al-Sadr wants us to believe that this cadre of anti-American jihadists is going to voluntarily lay down their weapons and all become "community organizers." The truth is that al-Sadr has been an attentive student, having studied the transformations of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza from violent jihadi organizations into armed factions validated by the electoral and political processes.
It has become clear to the wide array of jihadis fighting against US and Coalition forces in Iraq that they cannot win militarily. The superiorly trained and equipped militaries of the West – the US leading the way – are simply too potent to engage on the battlefield. Even in the streets of Anbar Province, where jihadis employ terrorist hit-and-run, urban guerilla tactics, the dark hearts of the jihadi taskmasters have come to understand that Allah will not have his bloodlust satisfied through direct and/or indirect military confrontation with the West.
So, Moqtada al-Sadr, understanding the limitations of his military abilities in his stand-off with the West, has chosen to take one step backward to take two steps forward. He is yielding on the military battlefield in deference to engaging on the socio-political battlefield. This is not a unique approach to circumventing the advancement of liberty by those who strive to oppress.
As I explained in a prior article, "Emphasis on US Middle East Policy Should Be Liberty, Not Democracy", oppressive groups in the Middle East have taken to employing the clandestinely coercive techniques Al Capone used during his bloody reign over the streets of Chicago in the 1920s. Just as Capone courted public admiration for his activity by opening soup kitchens for the poor and providing community services at a quality much higher than that of the government, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are using the civic and social service avenues to ingratiate themselves into the community. Through this new found public support they then enter the political arena, perverting the democratic process in order to gain power within the national government. This, effectively, validates their organizations as political movements, political movements with violent tendencies.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah did exactly this to gain a foothold in the Lebanese Parliament. Instead of violent revolution – as took place in Iran in 1979 – Hezbollah, while maintaining their militant stance against Israel and the West, engaged in civic and social service operations; constructing hospitals, schools (which teach doctrine acceptable to the Hezbollah dogma) news services and other social development programs. These programs and initiatives are funded primarily by the Iranian mullahs and to a lesser extent through donations through zakat and by Shi'ite Lebanese Diaspora in West Africa, the US and the tri-border area, along the common borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Through these "services" they garnered local support. Through this local support they engaged in the legitimate democratic political process and won. In the general election of 2005, Hezbollah won 10.9% of parliamentary seats and, thus, gained political legitimacy. Hezbollah remains of the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations and, until September 11, 2001, was the terrorist organization responsible for the most American deaths through acts of terrorism. They remain the greatest terror threat to the US today, even more so than al-Qaida.
In Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians have, through organizations like al Fatah and Hamas, followed much the same path as Hezbollah did in Lebanon. The first legitimization for the Palestinians came in their recognition under the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority; through political legitimization the Palestinian Authority was born. More recently, elections in Gaza and the West Bank stood witness to surprise landslide victories by Hamas over the al Fatah party. This has led to recent infighting, side-tracking their common quest for the eradication of the State of Israel. The point here is this: through the democratic process, a known terrorist organization has garnered political legitimacy.
This brings us back to Moqtada al-Sadr and his declaration that the Mahdi Army will henceforth be categorized as a civic and social services organization.
According to The Wall Street Journal (which has undergone a dramatic change since being acquired by NewsCorp I might add), a brochure, of all things, states that the Mahdi Army will now be a spirituality guided entity instead of an anti-American jihadist group. Allegedly, it will focus on education, religion and social justice. In direct contradiction to the brochure, which states that the Mahdi Army "is not allowed to use arms at all," al-Sadr, the report said, will continue to direct smaller, elite cells for limited military operations against US troops (seriously, what is a Middle Eastern Islamist tyrant without a militia?).
We in the West have to ask ourselves some pretty serious questions:
Sadly, past acts of tolerance in the face of actions taken by Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank prove the answers to the first two questions to be "yes." Armed with the fact-based understanding that only experience can afford; armed with the knowledge that jihadis are using Capone-styled tactics to gain legitimacy in the quest for a global Caliphate, we still have a chance to affect the answer to the third question.
Frank Salvato is the Executive Director and Director of Terrorism Research for Basics Project a non-profit, non-partisan, 501(C)(3) research and education initiative. His writing has been recognized by the US House International Relations Committee and the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention. His organization, Basics Project, partnered in producing the first ever national symposium series addressing the root causes of radical Islamist terrorism. He also serves as the managing editor for The New Media Journal. Mr. Salvato has appeared on The O'Reilly Factor on FOX News Channel and is the host of the NMJ Radio show broadcast global on NetTalkWorld global talk radio and broadcast live on BlogTalk Radio. He is a regular guest on The Right Balance with Greg Allen on the Accent Radio Network, syndicated on over 25 stations nationally and on The Captain's America Radio Show catering to the US Armed Forces around the world, as well as an occasional guests on radio programs across the country. His opinion-editorials are syndicated nationally and he is occasionally quoted in The Federalist. Mr. Salvato is available for public speaking engagements. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.