Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 5th, 2008
In the ongoing debate about roots and goals of al-Qaida and Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, Itani makes some important points. Most importantly, he suggests that Fatah al-Islam was not a Syrian inspired organization, as many Israeli (Barry Rubin: The Truth about Syria) and March 14th analysts insist. The Salafist movement had its roots in pre-Syrian controled Lebanon; it was given a further boost by connections to the Syrian Muslim Brothers during the civil war in opposition to the Syrian regime, it saw itself in competition to the Hizbullah, Syria's main ally in Lebanon, and Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders claim it as their own.
Al-Qaida in Lebanon (Thanks t_Desco)
By Fidaa Itani
Le Monde diplomatique/Middle East Online
Last year the Lebanese army besieged the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, where a previously unknown organisation, Fatah al-Islam, was dug in. These events, like attacks on the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) reflect the appearance of radical Sunni Islamist networks – some linked to al-Qaida, which is now treating Lebanon as a key base, says Fidaa Itani.
“We were forcibly thrust into a battle that does not concern us. I would rather not have had to fight the Lebanese army,” said Shahin Shahin, a Fatah al-Islam military commander, to a negotiator during the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared by the Lebanese army. It was not then yet known that he was a son of Osama bin Laden and a high-ranking al-Qaida official. His misgivings about the fighting reflected his organisation’s ambivalence towards Lebanon — whether to see the country as a battleground on which to confront the United States and its allies, or just as a rear base for the training and transit of al-Qaida operatives.
Two days after the army gained control of the camp, on 4 September, the head of Lebanese military intelligence, Georges Khoury, acknowledged that the Fatah al-Islam combatants were members of al-Qaida. But the roots of the organisation in Lebanon reach deeper into the past. In the 1990s, Lebanese courts found Salafists guilty of forming terrorist cells linked to al-Qaida. The militants were Lebanese following the example of Salem al-Shahal, who started Lebanon’s first Muslimun (Muslim) and Shabab Muhammad (Youth of Muhammad) groups in Tripoli in 1974. Shahal tried to impose sharia in the city, starting by attempting to prevent young people going to the cinema. His influence spread to several Syrian towns, but at the time Salafist values lacked solid roots.
In those days the Sunnis were middle class traders, shopkeepers and civil servants, or illiterate country people. They expressed their support for Arab nationalism and the Palestinian struggle by joining Nasserite or leftwing movements. However, several Sunni groups moved closer to radical Islamism after Syrian troops occupied Lebanon in 1976, bringing repression with them. At the same time the influence of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood started to increase, threatening the regime in Damascus with armed incursions by its military wing.
When the civil war in Lebanon ended in 1989, with the signature of the Taif accord, the Salafists, whose influence was still only limited, mainly targeted other Islamic organisations, al-Ahbash or the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (AICP). These attacks were an opportunity for the Salafist groups to perfect their intellectual and missionary skills, recruiting in many towns and villages. They were particularly successful with middle-class graduates, as well as with students of theology who had been in Saudi Arabia and stayed in contact with radical ulema there. But the groups still lacked cohesion, the best known being al-Hidayah wal-Ihsan (Preaching and Charity), which was reorganised by the son of the movement’s founder, Dai al-Islam al-Shahal.
On 31 August 1995, one of these groups assassinated Sheikh Nizar al-Halabi, the head of the AICP, and caused a stir. It was the first time that a Salafist group had eliminated an opponent. Members of the organisation confessed to committing the murder and persisted in taking exclusive responsibility to the end. However, the Lebanese authorities and Syrian intelligence (which controlled the country) chose to pin the crime on Abdul Karim al-Saadi (aka Abu Mahjen), the Palestinian leader of Asbat al-Ansar, which was based in the Ayn al-Hilwah refugee camp, near Saida in southern Lebanon. In 1999 the same group, originally formed by veterans from the war in Afghanistan, was blamed for the assassination of four judges in Saida central court.
Point of departure
At this point links between the Salafists and al-Qaida started to develop. An organisation that was probably Chechen, and certainly connected to Bin Laden, asked Bassam Kanj (aka Abu Aisha) to help infiltrate Muslim combatants into Israel. In 1988, Kanj had given up his studies in the United States, and taken a crash course in global jihad in Afghanistan. Following the request from al-Qaida he set up the Dinniyeh organisation, but asked for two years’ grace to establish it as an anti-Israeli resistance force, alongside Hizbullah.
In May 2000, Russian negotiators, who were supervising the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon with the Syrians, gave the Lebanese and Syrian authorities a recording of a conversation between Kanj and Chechen mujahideen, which led to a Lebanese army raid on Dinniyeh on New Year’s Eve 2001. At the same time the Syrian authorities, operating on the other side of the border, arrested radical Islamists, confirming the network’s trans-national nature.
Al-Qaida waited till the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, before openly calling for units to be set up in Lebanon. But al-Qaida also operates as a form of franchise, with a far from centralised organisation, leaving considerable freedom of movement to local units. It was well established by the end of 2005 when the Lebanese authorities first succeeded in catching the members of a network, subsequently referred to as the “Network of 13,” led by Hassan Nabaa, a Lebanese national. The group, which also comprised Saudis, Syrians, and Palestinians, supported al-Qaida and the Iraqi resistance movement, operating in Lebanon and Syria where it clashed on several occasions with the secret service, particularly in border zones. It is said to have shot down a Syrian helicopter.
The arrests prompted a controversy because the prisoners’ confessions contained details of their involvement in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, on 14 February 2005. But there is doubt about how the confessions were obtained, and the group’s alleged link with the young Palestinian Ahmad Abu Adas, who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on Hariri in an earlier video recording.
In Spring 2006, there was a split in Fatah al-Intifada, an organisation with close links to the Syrian regime that broke away from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah in 1983. About 70 of its members joined a Palestinian officer of Jordanian origin, Shaker al-Absi (Abu Ali), setting up Fatah al-Islam. The dissidents dispersed to Palestinian camps: Burj al-Barajneh (southern suburbs of Beirut), Ain al-Hilweh (Saida), Shatila (Beirut) and the two camps at Badawi and Nahr al-Bared, in the north. They were joined by some 50 militants led by Shehab al-Qaddur (Abu Hurayra), a Lebanese who spent most of his life undercover, after being arrested by the Syrians in Tripoli in 1986 when he was 14.
From the outset Fatah al-Islam was supported by the jihadist representative at Ain al-Hilweh, with the assurance of al-Qaida funding. Meanwhile some of its members received training from the military leader of the Jund al-Sham group, also located at the camp. This organisation was started in Afghanistan in 1999 by jihadists from the countries of al-sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) and adopted a radical stance.
The war of 2006
In July 2006 the 33-day war between Israel and Hizbullah erupted. The jihadist groups took advantage of the confusion to extend their influence. They also made use of the decision by the Islamic state in Iraq (instituted by al-Qaida) to expel any elements lacking specialist military skills or unable to blend in with the local population. Fatah al-Islam attracted many of these lost soldiers, prompting a hostile response by Fatah and other groups belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which wanted to “cleanse” the Ain al-Hilweh camp. The Lebanese army, which had just deployed in force to the south of Litani following the end of the fighting between Hizbullah and Israel, was worried about leaving these jihadists only a short distance from the 12,000 strong UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Fatah al-Islam decided to take refuge in the north, an area with a Sunni majority, considered friendly.
Several meetings paved the way for this move, not only with the local Salafists but also with members of parliament belonging to Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, concerned about Hizbullah’s growing influence. Al-Absi held talks with a Sunni MP from Tripoli, a doctor who once had leftwing sympathies and who expressed his fear that the Shia Hizbullah might turn on the Sunni. Al-Absi replied that, without entering into conflict with a force fighting Israel, he would not allow anyone to harm the Sunni.
So Fatah al-Islam established itself at Nahr al-Bared, publishing its first statement on 27 November 2006. Meanwhile a large number of combatants connected to al-Qaida passed back and forth through Lebanon, either via the official crossing-points or illegally across the Syrian border. Some dispersed, after a brief stay at Nahr al-Bared, to set up their own networks in areas with a high proportion of Sunni inhabitants. Recent recruits have come from other Arab countries, but also from Russia, Chechnya and Turkey.
At the end of 2006, Ahmad Tuwaijiri, a senior Saudi al-Qaida member, arrived in Lebanon. He met Fatah al-Islam leaders several times, as well as other Salafist groups. Funding flowed in, with public and private donations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait offered by prosperous businessmen who want to help the jihad.
The various Salafist organisations were also keen to regroup, the better to resist the Shia threat. The political crisis in Lebanon and occasional clashes between Sunni and Shia, and between supporters of the parliamentary majority and opposition, created a favourable context.
The local members of al-Qaida took advantage of the Future Movement’s pressing need for militia to counterbalance Hizbullah. Although it appreciated the risks involved in dealing with fundamentalist factions, Hariri’s party nevertheless adopted this short-term expedient in its struggle with Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Al-Qaida acted pragmatically, seizing the opportunity to raise funds to recruit dozens of additional combatants, organise more training sessions at Ain al-Hilweh, prepare plans for attacking UNIFIL in the south, and spy on the embassies of western and Gulf countries in Beirut.
A blind eye
Syria opted to turn a blind eye to such activities, leaving its opponents in the Future Movement to suffer the consequences. Syria increased pressure at home, disposing of many militants who subsequently took refuge in Lebanon.
In the first half of 2007, some 20 groups connected with al-Qaida were active, with visits by high-ranking operatives, the influx of combatants, and the departure of affiliated individuals for Europe (France, UK, Netherlands and Germany) once they had completed training. In partnership with Fatah al-Islam, al-Qaida set up a vast network that survived the fighting at Nahr al-Bared intact. It trafficked arms through Syria, purchased others from local dealers and seized PLO stockpiles at Nahr al-Bared.
The situation flared on the night of 19 May, when an intelligence unit of the Internal Security Forces decided to raid an al-Qaida group in Tripoli’s al-Mitayn Street. The men, who were also wanted by the Saudis, were giving technical support to the Iraqi mujahideen. But they were operating under the protection of Fatah al-Islam. Fighting very quickly spread to the camp at Nahr al-Bared. The conflict lasted 106 days, claiming the lives of 170 soldiers, 47 Palestinian civilians and 200 Fatah al-Islam combatants. Although more than 150 leaders and members of the organisation managed to slip away, 40 combatants were killed during the last few days of fighting, most of them executed with a bullet in the back of the head. The army occupied a deserted camp and prevented any civilian or humanitarian organisations from gaining access, even banning photographs in the vicinity. Army bulldozers flattened buildings, covering up any trace of fighting.
In June, a month after the fighting started, the Lebanese security forces discovered that Shahin was Saad bin Laden. He had managed to enter the camp a few days after the start of the battle and became popular with the combatants. The security forces had noticed his arrival in Lebanon a few months earlier. Saad, one of the most active leaders in the operations section of al-Qaida, had set up cells and support units all over Lebanon, in collaboration with al-Qaddur.
Despite the military setback at Nahr al-Bared the Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida have not cut back their activities in Lebanon. They are at work in the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Hilweh, the predominantly Sunni Beka’a valley and poor quarters of Beirut. When I met Shahin six weeks after the start of the fighting, he asked: “Do you really believe that we only have the 500 combatants encircled in Nahr al-Bared?” The assassination of political leaders, and attacks in Beirut and against UNIFIL, attributed to Fatah al-Islam in an army press conference on 4 September, confirm the scale of the organisation in Lebanon. The intelligence service provided further proof, following the arrest of more than 200 members of the Salafist and jihadist movement.
Commentators repeatedly ask why al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, never referred to the battle of Nahr al-Bared, simply blessing the 24 June attack on the Spanish contingent of the UNIFIL in the south. According to Shahin, al-Qaida was unhappy about becoming bogged down in the fighting inside the camp. It was also concerned at Fatah al-Islam’s political isolation, most of Lebanon’s political parties, including the Salafists, having withdrawn their support. The siege reduced al-Qaida’s margin for manoeuvre and prompted the army to carry out hundreds of raids and arrests.
Too high a price
However, as the political crisis in Lebanon grinds on, prompting all the factions to arm and train their combatants, al-Qaida may be able to lurk in the shadow of the largest Sunni group, the Future Movement, which is hiring combatants under the cover of private security companies. Hariri’s organisation has so far assembled about 2,400 militia, and plans to recruit 14,000 more in northern Lebanon alone. But the siege of Nahr al-Bared convinced part of Lebanon’s Sunni elite that an alliance with al-Qaida came at too high a price.
This fighting also prompted growing interest in the Sunni community for the Salafist cause. Christian soldiers damaged some of the mosques in the camp and desecrated copies of the Qur’an, particularly in Roumieh prison where the jihadists are being held. Several websites have appeared, openly proclaiming their support for al-Qaida and glorifying the martyrs of Fatah al-Islam. One writes: “Patience — al-Qaida is back in Lebanon: The end of Nahr al-Bared marks the start of al-Qaida.”
Exhausted by a local conflict with no prospect of a political solution, thousands of young Sunni envy the Shia, who have succeeded in monopolising resistance against Israel. They are pleased to see al-Qaida’s attacks in the West and its (albeit limited) success in Iraq. A new generation is returning to the mosques, drawn by Salafist and jihadist ideas, in the larger context of discredited Sunni authorities, including the Dar al-Ifta (a Sunni religious body), the Islamic solidarity funds and religious courts. These bodies are paying for their support for the Future Movement and for their corruption. There is a feeling of injustice and a lack of any hope of an issue to the conflict with Israel. Al-Qaida may play on both the fear of Shia and Hizbullah, the danger of the Sunni being sidelined, and on anti-US sentiment (whereas the government and official Sunni organisations are seen as Washington’s allies). Some think radical Islam holds the solution to these problems and are consequently prepared to follow al-Qaida.
But al-Qaida — though not necessarily all the groups claiming its support — seems to be treating Lebanon primarily as a rear base, a training camp and secure staging post on the road between Europe and Iraq. It is a place for technical innovation, where the organisation can develop new resources: small, radio-controlled aircraft carrying 30 kilo charges, remote-controlled explosive devices that can withstand the jamming system deployed on US armoured vehicles in Iraq, and even software so that al-Qaida leaders worldwide can communicate over the net and coordinate activities undetected by local intelligence services and the US National Security Agency.
Under these conditions, as Shahin explained, al-Qaida has nothing to gain from involving itself in Lebanon’s domestic strife.
It remains to be seen how the organisation will reconcile such relative neutrality with Zawahiri’s recent condemnation of UNIFIL and the attacks that followed. Will local groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaida agree to steer clear of Lebanese affairs? Whatever the answer, al-Qaida’s future in Lebanon looks secure. — translated by Harry Forster
Fidaa Itani/Le Monde diplomatique/Middle East Online
French version here (with four footnotes that are missing in this version).