The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.
The Palestinian leader of Islamic Jihad in Lebanon says that his group will remain focused on Israel, its primary enemy, regardless of what the United States does in Iraq.
Abou Imad Al-Rifal, well over 6 feet tall and easily 250 pounds, fingers a string of prayer beads throughout an hourlong interview at the Jihad offices in southern Beirut.
"Our fight with Israel is not linked in any way with the American war on Iraq or any other thing that happens in the region," Al-Rifal says. "This is a very stormy region. But our fight with Israel, with the occupation forces, will continue until we have regained all the occupied lands. Our conflict with America is not a military one, it's political. Our only military conflict is with the Israeli occupiers." U.S. officials say Al-Rifal's organization is an offshoot of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group that claimed credit for assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and that has developed close ties with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Al-Rifal denies any al-Qaida link for Jihad in Lebanon, however, and insists that his organization is focused entirely on Israel.
The Islamic Jihad flag shows the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, with two clenched fists emerging from either side and two AK-47 assault rifles rising from the top. The Arabic lettering across the top is from the Koran, an exhortation that "God will support those who resist and fight."
Al-Rifal says that, in his opinion, U.S. pressure on Iraq has more to do with oil, the defense of Israel and a desire to solidify U.S. hegemony in the region than the stated American goals of fighting terrorism, disarming Saddam Hussein and opening the way to a more democratic Iraq.
"It's not a war on terrorism," he says. "It's a war on those who are against American interests -- or against Israeli interests. In this war they include groups like ours -- legitimate resistance groups that are fighting Israeli aggression. And meanwhile the United States supports the world's biggest terrorist, which is Israel."