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Qaeda gets mileage from Mideast tension.

LONDON: 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.

"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.

Muscat Press and Publishing House SAOC 2009

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Apr 23, 2010
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