September 24, 2018
Phil Johnson, Ph.D.
Mr. Radwan Mortada is a TV news producer for Al Jadeed TV and a journalist for Al-Akhbar newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon. He is also a friend of mine and today I had the pleasure of sitting down with him in Beirut to discuss the constantly evolving and ever-confusing situations in Lebanon and Syria. Mr. Mortada’s research expertise involves radical Islamist groups. He is connected to everyone who is anyone related to ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nousra and any number of other armed military groups. Some of these groups have attempted to use him (and his news organizations) to produce propaganda pieces. Others have kidnapped and imprisoned him. So let’s say he has “first-hand” experience with radical terrorist groups.
Here is my “stream-of-consciousness” version of our conversation – because that’s exactly what it’s like to talk to Radwan. It’s just a free flow of information on topics that take on their own direction with important information mixed with fascinating bits of gossip.
For example, he mentioned that he would like to introduce me to the wife of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of ISIS. Apparently, his wife is now in Lebanon seeking asylum and is no longer Baghdadi’s wife. She claims that she didn’t know he was “al-Baghdadi” when she married him. Now if that’s not a lesson on the importance of “vetting,” I don’t know what is! 😀
Speaking of ISIS, Radwan confirms that as a terrorist group, they are indeed basically finished. What remains is a chaotic, scattered group that may still cause problems in pockets of the world, but their brutal days of “Caliphate-power” are over.
Of course when you start discussing the issue of “who is actually fighting who” in the Syrian conflict, the answer turns out to be “everyone is fighting against everyone and everyone is flighting in partnership with everyone.” The common theme is that those who are involved have one core goal: Their own national interest. And the issue that sparks cross-group cohesion is always the same: Israel and the U.S. The common hatred for these counties has made the strangest of bedfellows in the Middle East. Fight with your friends, align with your enemy – as long as it keeps you in power and enhances your strength against the U.S. and Israel.
And speaking of Israel, I asked Radwan about the speech that Hezbollah’s leader, Nazrallah, made last week (in Lebanon) regarding potential war with Israel. Apparently, Israel has made several strikes against Syrian convoys attempting to transport weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Mr. Nazrallah, in a speech last week, assured his followers, and Israeli listeners, that Israel’s efforts were too late. Hezbollah (a paramilitary group in Lebanon, backed by Iran) has already procured “smart weapons” capable of hitting specific targets inside Israel. It’s a curious state of affairs when a military group like Hezbollah holds three seats in the legitimate Lebanese government, but runs an army that is much stronger that the Lebanese army. (Oh, and speaking of the Lebanese army – they were crawling all over the Beirut Airport today – I got “rebuked” for taking a picture. But honestly – wouldn’t you have taken a picture? What the heck were they doing there in such large numbers? The picture only captures a portion of them… again, because I got “rebuked.” :-P)
But back to Hezbollah. In fact, everyone I spoke to in Beirut expressed their fears and concerns regarding Hezbollah – not only because of the fact that they are running a parallel government/military operation in Lebanon, but because everyone knows that the greater the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel, the more likely Israel is to preemptively strike Lebanon. No one wants that. No one.
So, with ISIS basically out of the way, who are the new players in Syria and the region? As I wrote about in July, the largest threat are the Shiite militias – backed by and trained by Iran. But other groups, including al-Qaeda are threats as well. According to Radwan, a new “al-Qaeda-connected” group, known as the “Guardians of Religion” is an up-and-comer in the world of Islamic radicalism. Interestingly, according to Radwan, the group is led by Hamza bin Laden – yes, the son of Osama bin Laden. He’s all grown up and apparently a bit raw about how things went down with his dad. This group, as well as all others operating in the Syria/Lebanon/Iraq theater present direct threats to all U.S. interests.
And speaking of the U.S., I asked Radwan what he thought about U.S. President Donald Trump. His response was matter of fact: “He’s crazy, just like the media says.” Radwan is particularly upset with Trump’s decision to defund UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). I asked Radwan if he was aware that UNRWA funded textbooks and anti-Israeli education in the “occupied” Palestinian Territories that promote violence, hatred and war against Israel. He was not. (Or maybe he is aware – I mean after all, he has a figurine of a Crusader in his office – one of many items that I call his “collection of bitter irony.”) I told him that some Americans aren’t happy with their tax dollars funding organizations that would like to eliminate the existence of Israel. He nodded. Sort of a “dead-eyed” nod.
Then Radwan asked me about this whole Trump slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He sarcastically asked me if it was making America great. I told him only if by “great” you mean a growing stock market and economy, more jobs, less unemployment, correcting unfair trade imbalances, walking away from ridiculous international agreements, strengthening the military, reducing debilitating regulations, nominating conservative Supreme Court justices, better control of U.S. borders and less terrorism.
But you know, “great” means different things to different people in different parts of the world. If I expected agreement, I would have fewer friends. And if I only talked to people who saw the world the way I do, then you wouldn’t have this article to read.