Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Threat of al Qaeda and its Allies in Lebanon

One would have expected a more sophisticated analysis of al-Qaeda in Lebanon from the Besa center. The main point about al-Qaeda in Lebanon is not that they are there,  but that they are there apparently at the behest of the Syrians and to some extent the Hezbollah. The "other main point" is that their challenge to Lebanese authority was met with vigor and decisiveness, and put the Lebanese army on the map as a force for the central government and legitimacy in Lebanon. This "analysis" missed both those points.
It is hard to imagine that anyone gets into Lebanon if the Syrians do not want them in Lebanon. The connection of Fatah al-Islam to Syria is pretty well established. Similarly, only a child could imagine that al-Qaeda could be operating in southern Lebanon without cooperation of the Hezbollah and the Syrians.
It remains to be seen if the Syrians can control the genie they unleashed. On the other hand, the prompt and decisive action of the Lebanese army, on a scale and with a cruelty that Israel could never be allowed, may discourage such attempts in the future. The following statement is certainly silly, if not worse:
The fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al Islam poses a serious threat to the fragile stability of the Lebanese political structure.
No - the challenge to Lebanese army posed a serious threat, that's true enough The decisive liquidation of Fatah al Islam and the fact that Hezbollah and Syria had no choice but to acquiesce in it, is about the only good news there has been for the Lebanese government and its legitimacy in a long time. It is proof that the Lebanese government can function.
Ami Isseroff


Executive Summary: Not only do radical Shi'ites threaten the stability of the fragile Lebanese political system, but al Qaeda-backed Sunnis pose a significant threat. The recent fighting between the Lebanese army and the al Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al Islam organization in Nahr al Bared in north Lebanon, and the attacks against UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon, reflect the challenges of radical jihadi Sunni Islam on the stability of the country and the region. The Lebanese government's ability to face the challenge of al Qaeda appears limited, with the degree of its success largely dependant on international support and the consent of local power brokers such as Hizballah and the Palestinians.


Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations emerged in Lebanon after the end of the jihad (holy war) against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The radical Sunni Islamic organizations in Lebanon were affiliated with the Salafi Jihadist School, and were involved in terror activities against Western targets in Lebanon and in inter-Lebanese power struggles.

The occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces in 2003 gave al Qaeda and other "global jihad" organizations the opportunity to infiltrate Iraq and start a holy war against these coalition forces. Abu Musa'ab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda commander in Iraq, extended the operational capabilities of his organization to other countries in the region using their territory for building infrastructures, as transit for mujahidin (Islamic fighters) on their way to Iraq and as theaters or targets for terror attacks.

Lebanon was one of the countries that al Qaeda used to recruit volunteers, to conduct terror attacks against Western targets in Lebanon and to operate from their state against Israel. The war between Israel and the Hizballah in summer 2006 gave al Qaeda the opportunity to offer support to Hizballah and to express its solidarity with the people of Lebanon. When the war was over, al Qaeda became a key hardline actor  against the agreement between Lebanon (Hizballah) and Israel.

On the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawaheiri, called on the Lebanese to reject the UN Resolution 1701 that brought an end to the month long war between Israel and Hizballah. Zawaheiri said the Lebanese should not "bow to Western pressure" and called on them to organize a "popular holy war against Israel and the West. The greatest catastrophe in Resolution 1701," he said, "is that it recognizes the state of Israel and isolates the mujahidin in Palestine from the Muslims of Lebanon."

Since the 2003 war in Iraq and the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, Syria has adopted a policy of indirect support for the jihadi insurgency in Iraq and Lebanon, as a part of an initiative to destabilize the "new orders" in both states.

This article analyzes the growing threat of al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in the Lebanese theater: the confrontation between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army; the attacks against UNIFIL in south Lebanon and the rocket attacks against Israel. The allies of al Qaeda are operating simultaneously to destabilize the internal fragile political system of Lebanon and the implementation of UN Resolution 1701 by hitting UNIFIL and Israeli targets. Their intent is to escalate the conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

Fatah al Islam vs. the Lebanese Army

Fatah al Islam is considered by some Lebanese security officials to be a radical Palestinian group with links to al Qaeda; an organization with similar tactics and doctrine. The organization is far from being an ordinary armed Palestinian militia. Only part of its members are Palestinians and the rest originate from other Muslim countries, some of them jihadi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The leader of the group is Shaker al Abassi, a Palestinan with links to al Qaeda. Abassi has spent three years in a Syrian jail on charges of smuggling weapons and ammunition to Jordan. He was sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in the killing of the US diplomat Laurance Foley in 2002. Abassi was suspected of having links with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who stood behind the Foley assassination.

The fighting between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army started on May 20, 2007, when police surrounded a militant occupied apartment in Tripoli as part of efforts to track down suspects in a bank robbery. The militants resisted arrest by police, sparking a gun battle that spread to surrounding streets.

The battle moved from the streets of Tripoli to the Palestinian Nahr al Bared refugee camp, the stronghold of Fatah al Islam militants. During the first weeks of the confrontation, the Lebanese army did not enter the camp because of the virtual extra-territorial status that Palestinian camps in Lebanon enjoyed since the Cairo agreement.

However, later the Lebanese army brought reinforcements and held the Nahr al Bared camp under siege. Most of the Palestinians managed to flee the camp but a few thousand of its 40,000 inhabitants remained.

The refusal of Fatah al Islam fighters to surrender forced the Lebanese army to enter the camp and to fight the militants within the built up area, with limited success. After heavy helicopter and artillery bombardment on Fatah al Islam positions, they asked for a ceasefire to evacuate the families of its combatants. On August 25, 2007, 25 women and 38 children, including al Abbasi's wife and son were evacuated from the Nahr al Bared camp, but shortly after that both sides renewed the fighting. It ended, however, on September 2, 2007 with the occupation of the camp by the Lebanese army. More than 222 people, including 163 Lebanese troops, were killed during the standoff, but al Abbasi fled the camp that same night.

The fighting between the Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army is the country's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 Civil War, and constitutes a most significant challenge to the legitimacy of the Lebanese government.  

The Attacks Against UNIFIL in South Lebanon

On June 24, 2007, six UNIFIL soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb as their vehicle passed by in the Marjayoun-Al Khiam valley in south Lebanon. No one claimed responsibility for the attack but Lebanese security sources linked it to al Qaeda-affiliated organizations, such as the Fatah al Islam.

In an audio message on July 15, 2007, Ayman al Zawaheiri praised the June 24 attack as "a response against those invading Crusader forces who were occupying a beloved part of the land of Islam." That same day, another UNIFIL vehicle was slightly damaged by an explosive device in the area of the Qasmiyeh Bridge in south Lebanon. Again, no one claimed responsibility for the attack, but it appears al Qaeda-related.

Rocket Attacks Against Israel

On December 27, 2005, seven "Grad" 107 mm rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel. Two of them fell in the town of Kiryat Shmona, causing minor damage and the rest fell in open areas. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
On June 16, 2007, three Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon landed near the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. A fourth rocket failed to fire and was dismantled by the Lebanese army. The launch sites were near the town of Marjayoun in south Lebanon. Hizballah quickly denied responsibility for the attack and Lebanese sources claimed that al Qaeda-affiliated radical Palestinians carried out the attack.

Al Qaeda and its allies often don't claim responsibility for terror attacks immediately (even after the Sept 11 attacks), but they leave fingerprints that identify the attacks with the organization. Lebanese and other Middle Eastern security sources believe that both the attacks against UNIFIL and Israel are part of a long-standing initiative of al Qaeda and its allies to fight the infidels on the soil of Lebanon and to open a new frontier against Israel.


The Lebanese arena constitutes a relatively comfortable operating space for radical Islamic organizations affiliated with al Qaeda. The weakness of the central government, the religious and political diversity, and the attempts of outsiders to meddle in Lebanese affairs all come together to create the restless simmering pot which is Lebanon.

The fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al Islam poses a serious threat to the fragile stability of the Lebanese political structure. The Lebanese government has received pledges of support - military, financial and political - from the US, France, the Arab League and from mainstream Palestinian movements who fear that the actions of Fatah al Islam will damage their cause. The results of the current confrontation between the Lebanese government and Fatah al Islam will have significant impact on the internal political structure of Lebanon and the stability of the region.

The Israel-Hizballah War in Lebanon (July-August 2006) followed by UN Resolution 1701 has created a new situation in Lebanon. Hizballah has lost part of its control over the southern part of Lebanon with the deployment of the Lebanese army and the UN forces in the South. In contrast with Hizballah's acquiescence to the decisions of the Lebanese government and the UN resolution, al Qaeda and its allies are not committed to the ceasefire agreement with Israel. Zawaheiri has called the Lebanese to organize a "jihad" against Israel and the West, and condemned the UN peacekeepers in Lebanon as enemies of Islam.

For al Qaeda and its supporters in Lebanon, the new environment in the country is a "window of opportunity" to expand their influence and activities against Israel, the UN forces and Western targets in Lebanon. The developments in Lebanon have attracted jihadi elements who are determined to carry their jihad into Lebanon and Syria, ever closer to their prime goal – Israel. The Lebanese government attempts to eliminate al Qaeda's infrastructure and that of its subsidiaries in Lebanon for two main reasons;

1. Fear of the consolidation of radical Islamic elements who would then threaten the stability of the country.
2. The imperative to take steps demonstrating "decisive" activity against terrorism is especially relevant following the American war in Iraq and the pressure of the United States on Syria that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon.

The entrance of a new radical player into the sensitive and complex area of south Lebanon is enormously disruptive for all sides, and there is a common interest in arresting this development. The success of the Fatah al Islam combatants in confronting the Lebanese army in Nahr al Bared for more than four months will encourage other al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Lebanon to promote their jihad within the Lebanese theater and against Israel.

The Lebanese government's ability to face the challenge of al Qaeda appears limited, with its success in doing so dependent on international support and the consent of local power brokers such as the Hizballah and the Palestinians, mainly in south Lebanon.

The author holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University and is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzeliya. He was the former director of the IDF History Department.

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