JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Al Qaeda has recently boosted its presence in Lebanon and could attack foreign peacekeepers who have been stationed there since Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas, a top Israeli intelligence analyst said on Sunday.
An Israeli official quoted Brigadier Yossi Baidatz, chief of research in Military Intelligence, as telling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet that Osama bin Laden’s militant network was recruiting mainly in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. “There are major signs of a Global Jihad (al Qaeda) presence in Lebanon, especially the refugee camps, and one of their intentions is to attack the foreign peacekeepers,” the official quoted Baidatz as saying in the briefing. “They see the peacekeepers as symbols of the West,” he said.
The United Nations beefed up its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, as part of an Aug 14 truce ending a war that buoyed Hezbollah’s regional status as a force capable of taking on the Jewish state.
Lebanese and Western analysts have long identified some sympathy for al Qaeda among Lebanon’s disaffected Sunni Muslims, while pointing out that any spread of popularity would likely be off-set by the large number of Shi’ites in the country.
Al Qaeda doctrine is virulently anti-Shi’ite, as well as anti-Western and anti-Zionist. Hezbollah is mainly Shi’ite.
Lebanese and UNIFIL officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Israeli statement came amid a power struggle in Lebanon between the West-leaning government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — still reeling from the 34-day Israeli summer offensive — and pro-Syrian forces aligned with Hezbollah.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported last week that a senior U.N. official in Lebanon had warned U.N. headquarters of an alleged plot by militants with ties to al Qaeda to sneak into the country to assassinate anti-Syrian leaders.
Le Monde said a top U.N. official had been told of the assassination plot by Abbas Zaki, the Palestinian Liberation Organization representative in Lebanon, who said some 50 militants calling themselves “Fatah Al-Islam” had entered Lebanon to assassinate 36 anti-Syrian figures.
PLO security agents later confronted the group and arrested six of them, releasing four and turning a Syrian and a Saudi Arabian over to the Lebanese military, the newspaper said.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he could neither confirm nor deny the report but added that Annan was watching developments in Lebanon “extremely closely.”