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Al-Qaeda’s Lebanese Ambitions

Al-Qaeda could expand its activities into Lebanon exploiting the current conflict there. Such a move, already publicly urged by Al-Qaeda leaders, could not be ruled out despite the gap between the predominantly Sunni Muslim group and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah, which ended with a 34-day war with Israel last month. Al-Qaeda’s ambition to expand in the region was stated in a letter from its deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri to its then chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was intercepted and released by the United States last year. Zawahiri talked about the priority attached to being successful in Iraq so it could then be used as a platform to extend their activities into the Levant, meaning Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

At this point, it’s not clear whether or not they have a basis for successful activity in Lebanon, since the stronger Muslim sect in Lebanon is Shia, However, it could not be ruled out in light of the recent past experience. Although Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization and Al-Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim group, there is substantial evidence of a working alliance between the two dating back to the early 1990s. The trial of Al-Qaeda militants in the United States has revealed not only ideological links, but also operational connections between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.

Since September 2001, there’s been some evidence of Al-Qaeda activity in the Palestinian refugee camp Ein El Hilweh in north Lebanon. On February 1, 2002, the British daily The Times reported that a senior Al-Qaeda operative traveled to Lebanon in January to discuss the relocation of Hezbollah leaders. The operative was identified as a Yemeni national traveling under the alias Salah Hajir. Intelligence of the arrival of the senior Bin Laden operative in Lebanon and the meetings with Hezbollah leaders provided the first indication that Al-Qaeda is seeking an accommodation with the Iranian-backed terror group with regard to an operational coalition in Lebanon. There have also been reports that since arriving in Lebanon, Salah Hajir met with leaders of a radical Sunni Islamic organization called “Usbat al-Ansar” (‘the League of Partisans’) based in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon. The United States has added Usbat al-Ansar to its list of 27 organizations linked to Al-Qaeda that have been placed under economic sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department. Usbat al-Ansar is a loosely organized Sunni Wahabbi group comprising both Palestinian and Lebanese members, many of whom have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. Its main power bases are the Ein al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, in Sidon in south Lebanon and the Nahr al-Bared camp in Tripoli in north Lebanon.

On September 25, 2001, Usbat al-Ansar issued a statement denying links to Al-Qaeda, accompanied by praise for Bin Laden and vitriol against Jews and ‘Crusaders’, but there is evidence to suggest that strong links exist. A number of Usbat al-Ansar operatives are believed to have returned to Lebanon in January 2002, after fighting alongside Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. The Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Hilweh, which is off limits to the Lebanese security forces, is home to about one hundred members of Usbat al- Ansar group.

On December 29, 2005 six Katyusha rockets were fired at the northern towns of Kiryat Shmona and Shlomi, three landing in residential areas and another three in an open field. Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed it had launched Katyusha missiles at Israel from Lebanon as part of a “new attack” on the Jewish state; a statement posted on the Web. “The lion sons of Al-Qaeda launched … a new attack on the Jewish State by launching 10 missiles … from the Muslims’ lands in Lebanon on selected targets in the north of the Jewish State”, said the statement, attributed to Al-Qaeda and posted on an Islamist Web site. “This auspicious attack was a response by the mujahideen (holy fighters) to the oath by the mujahid sheikh Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda … which the (Jews) and idolaters’ servants in Muslim countries failed to grasp. The future shall be bitterer and more harsh”, the statement said.

Al-Qaeda has highlighted the recent conflict in Lebanon in its messages to supporters, with Zawahiri urging them this month to fight United Nations forces there as “enemies of Islam”.

In a tape released on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, Zawahiri said, “I call on every sincere Muslim who is able to reach south Lebanon to rush to defeat the Zionist forces invading Lebanon … to strive with everything at our disposal to set up a Jihad base on the borders of Palestine”. This statement reflects Al-Qaeda’s mindset viewing Lebanon as a potential future new front of confrontations as a “Jihad front”, calling recruits to join Jihad against the Western International forces in Lebanon in the same fashion and model it started in Iraq. A warning sign for this new faze will be seen if a religious radical Islamic “Fatwa” will be issued by a prominent Islamic scholar or more, calling the nation of the believers (Umma) to join Jihad as a personal Islamic religious duty (Fard ‘Aiyn) as we have witnessed in the past in Afghanistan and Iraq as the new emerging front of Jihad.

Hezbollah may have all the incentives to encourage attacks by other radical Islamic faction, loosely affiliated Al-Qaeda elements, or “home grown” local Lebanese supporters as a proxy to target and attack the International forces from which the organization can benefit without being directly involved or claiming responsibility. Hezbollah as a “GLOCAL” (Global and Local) terror organization can provide the logistic infrastructure, arms, funding, safe houses, intelligence on soft targets etc. without being directly involved in carrying out actual attacks. Terror attacks in shape of suicide attacks targeting patrols, posts, installations, head quarters of the Western forces, may generate an impact of instability and chaos in south Lebanon similar to the Iraqi arena. South Lebanon as an unstable ungoverned zone may appear an attractive arena to wage Jihad. it is all a matter of a strategic decision rather than operational terrorist capabilities, which are very much available by Hezbollah on the ground.

Media coverage of “plastic bags” of Western soldiers can be expected to create a tremendous psychological impact on public opinion in the West that will demand the pull out from south Lebanon in light of the casualties and chaos. Considering this possible scenario, it is more than logical that Hezbollah will maintain its current policy of defiance to disarm and keep its operational terror and armed capabilities for the future challenges in Lebanon and its internal power struggle. However, some security analysts are skeptical that Al-Qaeda could forge an alliance across the sectarian divide with Hezbollah. These analysts see the recent statements more as a bid to avoid being eclipsed by Hezbollah, which has won admiration around the Arab world for taking the fight to Israel and surviving the ensuing bombardment. Hezbollah’s leader boasted on September 22, 2006 they still had more than 20,000 rockets intact. In his first public appearance since the start of the war with Israel on July 12, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told a mass rally in Beirut that his group would not hand over its weapons until a new government was established in Lebanon. “The current government is unable to protect Lebanon, or to reconstruct Lebanon or to unify Lebanon,” he said, calling for a new “national unity government”.

Lebanon may be turned by Hezbollah backed by Iran, in cooperation with Al-Qaeda, to a secondary front of (Jihad in addition to Iraq) by assistance from Sunni terrorism to conduct a war of attrition within a low intensity conflict (LIC) framework against the Western forces in the south.

The presence of Al-Qaeda cells or elements in Lebanon, and the cooperation with the radical Islamic terror organizations sponsored by Iran may pose a potential real and immanent threat to American and Western interests all over the Middle East.

The threat to Israel has also grown with Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the territories ruled by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). In particular, the organization is enhancing its cooperation with Hamas’ operational infrastructure. The interrogation of some 500 Palestinian operatives from Hamas and Fatah Tanzim during the first half of 2001 indicates that Hezbollah, with the backing of Iran, is working to build a terrorist infrastructure and operational cells in P.A. controlled areas.

This infrastructure would be invaluable for Al-Qaeda, allowing its operatives to infiltrate, recruit new operatives, and build new sleeper cells that would combine forces with the Islamic militant organizations already operating in the Palestinian arena. All of these groups share a common ideology and methodology of terrorism. If Al-Qaeda will be able to establish a foothold in Lebanon, this would allow the organization’s members to infiltrate directly from Lebanon or indirectly through Jordan or the Syrian borders with Israel in order to join forces with the well-organized platform of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in carrying out terror attacks inside Israel.