Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Worrying signs emerging from Lebanon about the growth of al Qaeda, have triggered a general unease and anxiety in security and diplomatic circles. The wave of bombings that targeted Beirut and the South and the arrest for several cells whose members have confessed to belonging to al Qaeda, in addition to Abu Musab al Zarqawi claiming responsibility for an attack on Israeli settlements using Katyusha rockets, have all heightened the fear that al Qaeda is seeking a permanent base in Lebanon. Ahmad Fatfat, the Interior Minister, said he had “impressions” that al Qaeda was seeking to increase its activity in Lebanon. Leading figures in the March 14 coalition went as far as speaking about training camps in northern Lebanon for Sunni militants.
Security sources have indicated that a number of extremists, Lebanese and Palestinian, who left for Iraq a few months ago to join the insurgency and fight against the Americans, have returned after strengthening their ties with main leaders in al Qaeda. These militants might have even received orders to return to Lebanon to engage in jihad and form a key base for al Qaeda as a basis for “al Qaeda in Bilad al Sham” (al Qaeda in Syria). These sources stressed that extremists were inclined to announce the creation of “Wilayat Lubnan” or the province of Lebanon, with members drawn from several Islamist fundamentalist organizations. The security forces’ recent announcement that they had discovered a militant cell with 13 members from different nationalities, including Lebanese, supports this view. In addition, the role of these extremist groups in mobilizing Ahmad Abu Adas remains to be unclear. He appeared in a video recording and claimed responsibility for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a huge explosion on 14 February 2005.
As the Interior Minister and the authorities continue to claim that they have no reliable information about the growth of al Qaeda in Lebanon, experts have derided their remarks because “there is no ground for such a movement to grow” in multi-confessional Lebanon. They also point out that Hezbollah would not allow these groups to gain a foothold in Lebanon. Instead, they accuse Syria of exploiting this “fundamentalist front” which it once controlled through its presence in Lebanon.
Western diplomats have been observing al Qaeda’s activities in Lebanon with serious attention. Sources told Asharq al Awsat the US has asked Beirut, as well as other capitals, to keep a tight rein on the movement of individuals across its borders but denied that it had offered the Lebanese authorities electronic tools to monitor the crossings.
In a report, parts of which were seen by Asharq al Awsat, a western embassy in Beirut indicated, “groups [were] sending fighters to Iraq from the Palestinian refugee camps and elsewhere” across Lebanon. It warned against the dangers of “these groups becoming loose in Lebanon”, adding “It is difficult to believe that the Syrians were unaware of the activities of these groups, especially as some of them were very close to the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Anjar.” The report also revealed that “Syria allowed these groups more freedom that they would enjoy in the country itself, fearing they would be exploited to “destabilize the region.”
Dr. Radwan al Sayyid, professor of Islamic Studies at the Lebanese University, rejected the premise al Qaeda was active in Lebanon because Hezbollah would stand in its way. In Lebanon, he said, “We have Palestinian and Lebanese extremists and fundamentalist militants some referred to as Salafi, which espouse violence. They are divided into two groups: The first group is disorganized and its members have, for the most part, been caught and are currently languishing in Lebanese jails because they do not cooperate with the authorities. The second is under the control of Syria’s security services and it is exploiting it according to its wishes. Its members are dormant and do not act unless they are ordered to do so by Syria.”
However, four months ago, a new leadership emerged, “under the leadership of the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command Ahmad Jibril in support for the Syrian security forces under the banner of “al Qaeda”. They include many Arabs who came in their thousands to Syria to cross illegally into Iraq. Starting six months ago, none of them have crossed the border. Those who insist on joining the insurgency clash with the Syrian security forces. They are the ones Syria publicly announces.”
“I do not believe there is such a thing called al Qaeda. What I see is the naming of Syria’s intelligence services and those working with them, including some who are being naively exploited. There is a minority that is politicized and they are not unequivocally Salafis, including Hashim Minqarah who belonged to Harakat al Tawhid and was detained by the Syrians in 1985 and released in 2000 after the intervention of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati. These individuals where chased by the Lebanese and Syrian authorities and then exploited for their own benefit.”
According to al Sayyid, no more than 500 Lebanese are currently cooperating with the Syrian forces, in addition to several Palestinians who he described as “enthusiastic young men who support Osama bin Laden”. Al Qaeda, he said, had two main goals: a tactical aim, which is to cause trouble for the Americans and a strategic aim, which is to establish an Islamic state. In light of this, it would not be able to succeed in Lebanon “because it cannot achieve a certain reputation unless it fights Israel. This is impossible and it appears that it does not even have the intention to attack Israel.” He described the current developments as the acts of a number of enthusiastic men and a general atmosphere controlled by the Syrians.
Home to some 80 thousand Palestinian refugees, the Ain al Hilweh camp, on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, lies outside the control of the Lebanese government. According to media reports, it is the main center for al Qaeda in Lebanon, with the extremist Asbat al Ansar (the League of Partisans) group joining forces with al Qaeda. It is certain that this group is the main source of Palestinian fighters in Iraq but it has yet to pledge publicly allegiance to al Qaeda, perhaps because it does not want to embarrass other Palestinian factions. Its statements announce the deaths of fighters in Iraq and the muezzins around the camp have “celebrated” the announcements of fallen fighters in Iraq.
Inside Ain al Hilweh, one clearly notices the presence of an Islamist current sympathetic to the Iraqi insurgency. Some vendors hang the portraits of the deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in their shops publicly announce their allegiance to “Sheikh Osama”, or Osama bin Laden, whom they see as a “great Islamic leader”. The internet is the main communication tool between al Qaeda and affiliates. Visitors to certain Islamist websites can see pictures of “the martyrs of the camp” prominently displayed.
When Ziad al Jarrah was named as one of the September 11 2001 hijackers, his family who live in the western Bekaa valley, refused to believe he was guilty and, instead, accused the CIA of drumming up charges against him. In the wake of the attacks, politicians and the inhabitants of the region adopted a unified position and denied any links between Ziad and al Qaeda. However, unanimous tip offs to the media painted a different picture: Ziad has traveled to Afghanistan from where he returned a different person. A number of stories later emerged about the popular support al Qaeda was said to be enjoying in the area.
The first real discussion of the presence of Islamist extremists in Lebanon with foreign ties took place in 1998 when unknown assailants murdered 4 Lebanese judges in Sidon. In 2000, the army clashed with Islamist militants in al Dinniyah, east of Tripoli in north Lebanon. Afterwards, the star of Abu Mihjin, founder of Asbat al Ansar, rose quickly. He mysteriously disappeared from Ain al Hilweh and it was claimed he had moved to Iraq, prior to the US led invasion in 2003, to join al Qaeda in Iraq. His group continues to send fighters to join the insurgency against what they refer to as “the Crusaders and the rejectionists”. In 2003, a militant cell, which planned to bomb and target foreign embassies across Lebanon and to train men to send them to Iraq through Syria was uncovered. Lately, it was announced that two new cells with links to al Qaeda were discovered in Beirut and Sidon.