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We ought to know Shiite from Sunni

Published October 22, 2006


For the past several months, I've been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?"

A "gotcha" question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, it's fair.

And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I'm not looking for theological explanations, simply the basics: Who's on what side today, and what does each want?

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for al-Qaida operatives. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with proteges in northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of al-Qaida.

It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other. But so far most U.S. officials I've interviewed haven't a clue. That includes not only intelligence and law-enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

A few weeks ago I took the FBI's temperature. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau's new national-security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Yes, sure, it's right to know the difference," he said. "It's important to know who your targets are."

So next I asked he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed.

Okay, I asked, trying to help: Which one is Iran, Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second.

"Iran and Hezbollah," I prompted. He took a stab: "Sunni."


Al-Qaida? "Sunni."

Right. And, to his credit, Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about al-Qaida while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam's Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some in Congress.

Take Rep. Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

"Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" I asked him a few weeks ago. Everett responded with a low chuckle.

"One's in one location, another's in another location," he said. "No, to be honest with you, I don't know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something."

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the CIA's recruiting of Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. "Do I?" she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. "You know, I should."

She took a stab at it.

"It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs," she said. "The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it's the Sunnis who are more radical than the Shia."

Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my "gotcha" question.

But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism simply don't care to learn much about the enemy we're fighting.

And that's enough to keep anybody up at night.

So what's the difference?

Sunnis and Shiites differ over leadership of the Muslim community. Shiites, who account for 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's 1.3-billion Muslims - and are concentrated in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon - believe Islam's leader should be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. Sunnis say leaders should be chosen through consensus. Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, who was killed while serving as the top leader, or caliph, of Islam in the seventh century.

Sunnis believe that the first caliphs - Mohammed's successors - and their heirs are legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 09:48:54]

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