Almost two months after Jeff Stein revealed in the New York Times that most of the counterterrorism officials and members of Congress to whom he’d spoken couldn’t tell him the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, he finds out that incoming Democratic House Intelligence Chair Silvestre Reyes, who believes we need more troops in Iraq, also can’t tell them apart. Worse yet, he doesn’t seem to know the most basic facts about Al Qaeda, thinking them to be a combination of Sunni and Shia, but “predominantly—probably Shiite.”

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up a l Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

Al Qaeda’s Sunni roots account for its very existence. Osama bin Laden and his followers believe the Saudi Royal family besmirched the true faith through their corruption and alliance with the United States, particularly allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

It’s been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center.

Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?
Apparently so. But then again, there’s only so much you can expect from someone when you’re only paying him $165,200 a year and requiring him to work three days a week.

Reyes also could not correctly identify Hezbollah as Shia, making one wonder how on earth he has even the faintest comprehension of the civil conflict in Iraq, or why, just like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah has an interest in it. And the two have opposing interests, specifically because one is Sunni and one is Shia.

Reyes tries to explain himself by describing the situation as “complex” and saying although “we ought to expend some effort into understanding them…speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” This is unmitigated bullshit used to mask criminal laziness and dereliction of duty. As Ezra says, “I've read at least a couple books on the Middle East, terrorism, and Iraq. And believe me: You can't get through the intro of these books without being treated to an extended disquisition on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who falls where, and how their ancient enmity set the stage for all that has come since. What Reyes' ignorance means isn't that he's got a poor memory for categories: It's that he's not made even basic efforts to educate himself on the relevant concepts.” Absolutely right. The most cursory exploration of the multitude of relevant literature makes continued ignorance on this subject nearly impossible, as a delineation of the differences are so fundamental, so crucial, to understanding these issues, that it is, as Ezra says, the first thing you’ll read in any text.

There’s not a single elected official in this country who has any legitimate excuse for not knowing the most basic aspects of the terrorist groups who have targeted Americans and have a vested interest in control of Iraq. Such astonishing ignorance is not only irresponsible, it’s incompetent—and we’ve had enough of fucking incompetence in Congress these past few years to last us a very long time. I don’t give a good shit whether there’s an R or a D after your name: If you don’t know this stuff, especially when you’re the incoming Intelligence Chair, you’re not doing your goddamned job. Period.

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