Last Friday the capture or death of Osama Bin Laden lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri seemed imminent. Instead, on Monday morning, three missiles from an Israel Air Force helicopter ended what several thousand Pakistani troops could not—the violent career of a major jihadist.
To watch Al Jazeera's nonstop coverage of the aftermath of Sheik Yassin's death, including the sentimental mood music and image collages, you'd have thought that the Hamas founder had more in common with Princess Di than with al-Qaida No. 2 Zawahiri. Virtually everyone on Al Jazeera has referred to Yassin's death as "martyrdom," whichis a common enough convention in Palestinian political discourse, but in the end a very confusing one: If the man was martyred—rather than killed or assassinated, which is how Al Jazeera's English-language Web site describes his death—then the IAF was merely the agent of his destiny. After all, Yassin himself had said that his martyrdom would be the happiest day of his life. Maybe so, but current events in Gaza City hardly resemble a New Orleans jazz funeral.
It's unlikely that Arab governments would allow any similar public expression of grief on Zawahiri's behalf. Still, it's strange that Yassin's assassination has been so loudly condemned by world leaders. Why does even the White House find the killing of a man who planned attacks on civilians "deeply troubling"? The fear, of course, is that Yassin's death will escalate the level of Middle East violence and perhaps make Americans desirable prey for yet one more Islamist group.
Both Yassin and Zawahiri began their Islamist careers in the Muslim Brotherhood. Zawahiri helped found Egypt's Islamic Jihad in the 1970s, and Yassin started Hamas in 1987. Islamic Jihad was an elite group that recruited military and police personnel to achieve its aim of overthrowing the Egyptian government in a coup; in 1981 they killed President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel (today, incidentally, is the 25th anniversary of Egypt and Israel's treaty). Hamas is a much broader-based popular movement that offers social welfare programs while fielding a military wing that, until now, restricted violent operations to its local theater, Israel.
Islamic Jihad also focused on domestic targets until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime essentially eradicated the presence of Jihad and other groups in Egypt by the mid-'90s. Some members were killed, some imprisoned, and others fled, like Zawahiri, who went to Sudan and Afghanistan, and like the "spiritual leader" of Jamaat Al-Islamiyya, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who came to Brooklyn and New Jersey.
With the groups' leadership decimated or spread to the winds, different factions emerged each promoting different tactics. It was around this time that some leaders decided to attack the United States. It wasn't because they suddenly hated the United States more, but because the Mubarak regime had made it impossible for them to operate at home. Their ideology didn't change, just their target—from the near enemy to the far enemy. Moreover, attacking the United States not only galvanized support—and won financing—by showing that the groups were still active, it also represented an innovative and radical design that would distinguish its architect from the rest. Remember, Sheik Omar was indicted and jailed for his leading role in the attack on the 1993 World Trade Center, long before Zawahiri played his part—whatever it was—in the Sept. 11 strike.
So, does Hamas now hate the United States more than ever before? That's how many people read Hamas' press release, which held the "terrorist American administration" responsible for Sheik Yassin's death and hinted at future reprisals. Targeting the United States would certainly mark a departure for Hamas, but if the group does so it's probably not because Monday's attack suddenly tapped a previously unknown jihadist reserve of anti-American sentiment. The more likely possibility is that the killing removed the one thing standing between Hamas and operations against Americans and U.S. interests: Sheik Yassin.
Did Ahmed Yassin secretly cherish the United States and all it stands for? No, he probably wanted to avoid giving America cause to lend more support to Israel or to involve itself militarily. Indeed, Yassin's strategy suggests that he was one of the few Palestinian extremists who recognized that the United States does, in fact, try to restrain the excesses of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
But there's another, maybe more important, reason Yassin limited Hamas' attacks to Israelis, albeit civilians as well as soldiers. The man without any formal religious training who let himself be known as a "spiritual leader" was a masterful publicist. Yassin recognized that, unlike the Egyptian groups whose early struggle was played out in front of a local audience, the Palestinian groups were beholden to world opinion. The PLO and others had jeopardized their avowed cause and damaged their reputation with attacks abroad. But as long as Hamas only targeted Jews in Israel, it at least appeared to be a legitimate resistance movement whose war was with the Zionists alone.
It's immaterial whether or not Yassin really believed his own rhetoric. The fact is he was a charismatic and detail-oriented leader—he personally approved Hamas' first female suicide bomber—who made sure everyone stayed on message. Now with his death comes the fight to see who will assume control of Hamas.