“t_desco” Comments on “Al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” by Nir Rosen

Some comments by "Syria Comment" analyst "t_desco" on Nir Rosen's article, "Al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” by Nir Rosen

Rougier and the Saab/Ranstorp article, “Fatah al Islam, How an Ambitious Jihadist Project Went Awry” seem to be major sources. However, that article was probably based on “documents obtained from … interrogations of Fatah al Islam members” and it seems that Rosen also had access to the same documents:

“The origins of Fatah al Islam are nebulous, but based on meetings with Palestinian-faction leaders and security officials, as well as documents obtained from their interrogations of Fatah al Islam members, it is now possible to piece together the group’s history.”

Even Rougier does not claim that Fatah al-Islam was “created” by the Syrians and I don’t think that Rosen fully endorses his analysis because he immediately points out the major contradiction in it (without further comment).

Here is the paragraph in question:

Bernard Rougier suggests that the Syrians wanted to impede the Hariri strategy of controlling and enlarging an Islamist coalition that could be used to fight Hezbollah. To create division in the Hariri ranks, they inserted a Salafi jihadist group who wanted to fight Israel because it would divert Sunni support from Hariri. “Then it took on its own life. It had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country,” said Rougier. He distinguishes the local agenda, which views the real enemy as Shias, from the jihadist agenda, which “views the real enemy as the West, and Shias are third or lower on the list.” However, Syria’s strategic ally is Hezbollah, and Syria would not introduce anti-Shia and anti-Hezbollah elements into Lebanon. (my emphasis)

One could add that the Syrians are probably doing what Rougier describes by putting their support behind Sheikh Fathi Yakan who (in contrast the takfiris in Fatah al-Islam) is acceptable to Hizbullah.

As I said, there are many contradictions in the text, but the following is by far the most important, in my view. It is probably based on the interrogation documents (and also happens to be the main flaw in the Saab/Ranstorp article), the idea that Fatah al-Islam became more radicalized in Nahr al-Bared:

“While Fatah al Islam’s original goals may have been to liberate Palestine, more radical jihadists influenced its leaders, shifting their focus toward global jihad.”

This is in direct contradiction to the following paragraphs:

On November 23 an armed patrol of different faction members was sent to the apartment (in Bedawi; t_d). … The men escaped to the Nahr al Barid camp. The security committee raided the other apartments, but the suspects had already communicated by radio and the others escaped. One Saudi was shot in the leg. When an armed Syrian comrade on a motorcycle attempted to rescue him, he too was shot and both were taken to a camp hospital. The Syrian had documents signed by Shaker al Absi. During interrogations by Palestinian security officials, the two admitted to being members of al Qaeda in Iraq who had come to Lebanon during the July war for training, recruitment, and jihad. Up to eighty men like them had entered Lebanon via Fatah al Intifada. They claimed to have come not to fight Israel but to assassinate seventeen Lebanese officials, including members of parliament, sheikhs, and members of the security forces.

A Fatah al Intifada commander handed the two men to the Lebanese army. Camp officials also found cameras, four computers, and scanners used to make fake identification documents. They found CDs with footage of training and members swearing oaths of loyalty to Osama bin Laden.” (my emphasis)

You don’t get more radical than this. And it was only three days later, on November 26, that Fatah al-Islam was founded, so this nice story that the group somehow became more radicalized is totally bogus.

[End]

Also see:

It's al-Qaeda, Stupid! By Bilal Y. Saab at PostGlobal

This time in Middle East relations, it is crucial to get it right and fast. Why? Because the stakes are so high.

Failure to have comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis is going to have consequences and repercussions of a magnitude we have never seen before. In other words, failure, at the risk of sounding too cliché, should not be an option….

By spilling over from Iraq into neighboring countries and gaining new safe havens, al-Qaeda could start working on its tactical and strategic objectives. On the tactical level, al-Qaeda would work on triggering wars between its adversaries and has already begun trying. The recent firing of rockets by al-Qaeda in Iraq from southern Lebanon into northern Israel is only one example. We have seen that scenario before, only with different actors: the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon were largely in response to Palestinian attacks from southern Lebanon. At the same time, al-Qaeda would assiduously work on causing a war between Syria and Israel and a round two between Hezbollah and Israel. The biggest prize for al-Qaeda, obviously, is to ignite a war between Iran and the United States – something al-Qaeda's Iraq leader, Omar al Baghdadi, has talked about in a recent message. On the strategic level, al-Qaeda would start planning for one of its most precious goals: taking the fight to Israel's backyard by actively supporting Palestinian radical jihadists in their war against the Jewish state.

So how do you stop these terrible scenarios from happening and how do you reverse the powerful trend of radicalization? Through peace. …At Annapolis, the Bush administration got it mixed up. There is nothing wrong in rallying the pro-U.S. Arab states to better contain the long-term threat of Iran, but the real and more imminent danger is not the Islamic republic, it is al-Qaeda.

 

Comments (28)


1. Ziad said:

Their attacks are more against these so called moderate arab regimes,i dont think that Qaida is serious threat for arab regimes because Qaida and clones dont enjoy popular support even not in Saudi Arabia…they have been infiltrated by several apparatuses and who say that the moukhabarat are not one of them he is lying to himself.

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January 19th, 2008, 2:12 am

 

2. why-discuss said:

It also seeem that one of the major al Qaeda aim is also to get into south of Lebabon and launch terrorist attacks against Israel. To do so they have to neutralize Hezbollah and the Unifil.
Hezbollah are shia and represent one of the worst ennemy. To neutralize Hezbollah they just have to create enough confusion in Lebanon to have the international community implement forcefully 1559 with the help of the present lebanese governement who trust the US and the poorly equipped lebanese army to protect them from Al Qaeda .
If this happens and Hezbollah is neutralized, al Qaeda could start attacking the Unifil freely and get on Israel borders.
Israel been threaten, the US will intervene in South lebanon to destroy the al qaeda terrorists bases and bring Lebanon into an Iraq like situation.
The Israelis and the Unifil are maybe realizing that their best protection against sunni al qaeda terrorists is Hezbollah!
Having seen the military power of Hezbollah they may think it is better to use them as a fence against sunni terrorism. Between 2 evils…
This of course complicates the matter for the 14 March who does not wish to share power with Hezbollah, but I think they will be obliged to do so to avoid bringing the country under the rules of the terrorists, unless they accept that Lebanon become a US an international protectorate, with armies from all countries on its soil.

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January 19th, 2008, 9:36 am

 

3. t_desco said:

Why-Discuss,

I agree with the first part of your analysis. There are some indications that al-Qa’ida may have had a civil war strategy in Lebanon, e.g. the alleged plan of the Bar Elias cell to fire rockets at Sunni villages from the direction of Shia villages or the plans (“operation 577”) that were allegedly discovered in the Tripoli apartment after the siege that started the Nahr al-Bared conflict: assassination of politicians, attacks against the UN, a tunnel and a hotel in Beirut in order “to lay the foundation for an all-Sunni emirate in North Lebanon”.

The latter is the second important omission in Rosen’s article, the first being the al-Zarqawi – al-Absi link and his alleged involvement in the assassination of Laurence Foley in Amman (which would also contradict the theory that Fatah al-Islam only became more radicalized in Nahr al-Bared).

Regarding the second part of your analysis, I think that the Bush administration’s Lebanon policy is subordinated to its Iran policy and therefore the main goal seems to be to prevent any meaningful participation of Hizbullah in the Lebanese government.

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January 19th, 2008, 12:43 pm

 

4. t_desco said:

Another contradiction:

“As it turned out, the bus bombers had not actually belonged to Fatah al Islam but had spent one night in Nahr al Bardi before the attack, and following it they were said to have called the Fatah al Islam leadership” (Rosen’s source unclear).

However, Rosen had stated before that “Abu Midyan”, one of the commanders of Fatah al-Islam, “was said to have been behind the March 2006 bus bombings” (Rosen’s source probably Saab/Ranstorp).

The reports that I had posted here on SC named Abu Yazan (who was killed in the Tripoli apartment siege) as the Fatah al-Islam commander behind the Ain Alaq bus bombings.

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January 19th, 2008, 3:32 pm

 

5. MSK said:

Dear T_Desco,

I thought that Nir’s article was interesting, but contained a few flaws, and some more have been pointed out to me in recent conversations with journalists here in Beirut.

(1) He makes it look as if Fatah al-Islam (FaI) had received their monthly $100,000 “allowance” from the Hariris, by calling the last bank they robbed as “Hariri-owned”. Now, it really isn’t a big deal to wire large sums of money to people here without the bank really caring. I have friends who regularly get large sums wired on their accounts & all that happens is the bank manager calling them, asking what the money is for and accepting whatever answer is given without really investigating.

(2) That bank robbery was only the last in a string of robberies, so the argument that they only robbed it because the clerks didn’t want to hand over the “usual” monthly sum doesn’t hold.

(3) His description of Nahr al-Barid having been completely destroyed and vandalized by the Lebanese Army would have needed some sources, and be it himself, i.e. he would have needed to say “I went there and saw it all by myself”. Now, obviously he couldn’t’ve gone into every single house in Nahr al-Barid. And I know from people who were there with him that vandalizations happened, that the Leb Army really did have the kind of racist attitudes against Palestinians, but that Nir’s account is exaggerated.

(4) To call sources within the opposition, & particularly Hizbollah, on the M14 connection to FaI “credible” is as problematic (to say the least) as calling some LFers’ claims about nefarious HA operations as having come from “credible sources”.

In the end, he’s dangerously close to become the next Sy Hersh (whose main go-to guy during his stint in Lebanon was Michel Samaha, btw …).

–matthias*

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January 19th, 2008, 3:59 pm

 

6. Alex said:

T-Desco,

Thanks to your patient analysis, I am slowly starting to understand the “al-Qaeda” component of the Lebanese mess.

But the annoying part is that every piece of fascinating information is attached with a probability factor that one needs to keep in mind … there is nothing there that is reliable enough to allow us to analyze those people or who is behind them.

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January 19th, 2008, 4:15 pm

 

7. Qifa Nabki said:

T_DESCO

Thanks very much for your analysis. As your original response to my question spawned a new post on SC, I may as well respond to you here.

The more I read Rosen’s article, the more puzzled I am. It seems like he wants to associate Fatah al-Islam with both Syria and Hariri while simultaneously dissociating it from Syria and Hariri. His argument is:

1. Syria created (or promoted the creation of) Fatah al-Islam in order to undermine Mustaqbal/KSA efforts to build a credible Sunni militia in Lebanon. [This seems counter-intuitive].

2. Fatah al-Islam at some point ceased taking orders from Syria, and yet somehow continued to grow in size, ability, and funding.

3. Hariri/KSA at some point tried to co-opt Fatah al-Islam for their own purposes, but this failed as well.

4. Fatah al-Islam develops its own agenda, and starts assassinating Lebanese politicians.

Here are my issues and questions about both Rosen’s article, as well as the broader “al-Qaeda in Lebanon” theory.

a) If Fatah al-Islam has been the group responsible for killing all these Lebanese politicians, then who is funding and supporting them? If it is not Syria, then who?

b) If it is Hariri/KSA, then how do we explain the targets of the assassinations? This is surely a bigger contradiction than the conflict of interest posed by Syria supporting Hizbullah on one hand and a bunch of Sunni jihadists on the other.

c) If what Rosen is proposing is true (Syria created the group, Lebanese Sunni groups financed it and unsuccessfully tried to co-opt it), then who continued supporting the group through the various assassinations? If the government was at all involved, wouldn’t they have been monitoring the group very closely from the moment Hariri was assassinated?

d) Many of the assassinations required a degree of surveillance and coordination that would have been impossible to achieve without a very significant penetration into the local intelligence apparatus. How does a jihadist group (even a well-funded one) that is composed largely of foreign nationals achieve this kind of penetration and coordination without local assistance?

NB: I have no personal theory about who is behind the killings. If I had to make some sense out of the seemingly senseless pattern, I’d say that more than one group has been involved. Syria may have killed al-Hariri, underestimating the unprecedented response and subsequent seismic shift in the Lebanese political scene. This could have been followed by assassinations by several other groups seeking to destabilize the country, now that Syria was no longer providing stability.

But the al-Qaeda factor is still not sufficiently persuasive to me to explain the entire string of events.

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January 19th, 2008, 4:36 pm

 

8. ausamaa said:

The Mossad agents monitoring this site must be having a large smile on their faces…!!!!

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January 19th, 2008, 8:10 pm

 

9. Qifa Nabki said:

Not any more, Ausamaa, thanks to you. You just blew their cover!

Good job!!

Shoo Mossad agents! Bad Mossad agents!

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January 19th, 2008, 8:48 pm

 

10. t_desco said:

Dear MSK, Alex, Qifa Nabki,

thank you for your interesting and insightful observations.

In the version of the bank robbery rumor that I remember, the whole string of robberies was… a secret funding scheme for Fatah al-Islam. I found that rather funny… 😀

Regarding Seymour Hersh, I have said this before, the most important part of his report was the Prince Bandar story, and he got that from a source in Washington (his area of expertise), not from a source in Beirut.

Alex, I fully agree, it is always important to stress that the general reliability of these stories leaves much to be desired.

Qifa Nabki, I think I already answered some of your questions. 🙂

Rosen’s article is a good compilation of material from various sources. It is not comprehensive; important information is missing. And the sources are not all telling the same story. There are contradictions, and Rosen does not try to eliminate them by integrating them into a single narrative.

Neither Rosen nor Rougier suggest that Syria or M14 “created” the group. We can certainly discuss this idea, but we can’t say that this discussion is based on the article.

Regarding the assassination of Hariri, it seems that it is not well known that Ahmed Abu Adass was in contact with a group of extremists headed by Hassan Nabaa who was a member of the Dinniyeh group which is linked to al-Qa’ida. Brammertz has (indirectly) confirmed this, but his latest report doesn’t say that this group was involved in Adass’ disappearance. If the group was involved, then al-Qa’ida would become the main suspect (although there is still the possibility of manipulation).

The answer to your points a), b) and c) is that Fatah al-Islam is probably linked to al-Qa’ida, and al-Qa’ida has its own agenda in Lebanon (and its own sources of funding).

Your point d) is very interesting:

“Many of the assassinations required a degree of surveillance and coordination that would have been impossible to achieve without a very significant penetration into the local intelligence apparatus.”

How do you know? I mean, it is possible, but I find it difficult to make such a sweeping judgement without knowing the exact circumstances of every case. For example, how difficult was it for them to know that Tueni had returned?

Some time ago I wondered if the extremist groups had the necessary “manpower” to do the surveillance. Well, some days later Ahmad Moussalli, professor of political science and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut, told the Daily Star that he believes that “the people captured in Nahr al-Bared only represent a small fraction” of Fatah al-Islam’s manpower” (“Extremist groups cast shadow over Lebanon – analysts”, The Daily Star, January 11, 2008″).

It is also important not to commit the Fatfatist error to believe (or pretend to believe) that these extremist groups are merely a foreign or a Palestinian phenomenon. Fatah al-Islam, for example, was also able to attract people from Akkar and from Tripoli.

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January 19th, 2008, 9:46 pm

 

11. t_desco said:

To say something positive about the article, this is a perspective that for some reason seems to be missing from Rougier’s book and analysis:

““Fatah has a bad reputation here,” they said. “Fatah was good in the 1970s. They had principles, now they are dealing drugs, they run Internet places with pornography, they just want money and power.” Fatah had also thrown grenades at a mosque, they told me. Like many Palestinians, they worried that Fatah intended to abandon the Palestinian refugees who lived outside the occupied territories.”

“The Oslo Accords had been signed, and many Palestinian refugees felt abandoned, worried that the PLO was surrendering.”

As I said before, I think that Rougier is way too uncritical of Fatah and Oslo.

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January 19th, 2008, 11:09 pm

 

12. Zenobia said:

Excellent piece. i thought it was very coherent actually.
re: MSK comment about the destruction. The pictures seemed to confirm that. Obviously pictures can be crafted. But in the ones I saw… as far as the eye can see…. are destroyed buildings. Even if that were only a section of the camp- it is pretty shocking.

As for the funding issue. It does not seem hard to imagine that such entities…if tied to jihadist groups in Saudi or Iraq.. should be able to secure funding… a lot of funding even.

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January 20th, 2008, 7:31 am

 

13. why-discuss said:

Do these groups consist mainly of mercenaries? if yes, then it is nor surprising that they go to the best offer. They then appear to have different masters at any time and they puzzled any conherent analysis of who is funding, what ideals they follow etc…

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January 20th, 2008, 9:28 am

 

14. t_desco said:

I forgot to mention an important error in the article:

“Early the next morning Lebanese security forces raided apartments in an affluent district of Tripoli belonging to Fatah al Islam members, some of whom were foreigners. …

The following day fighters led by Abu Hureira attacked a Lebanese army location and slaughtered the soldiers.”

This is wrong and it also wouldn’t make any sense as Abu Hureira was trying to help his friends who were under siege in the Tripoli apartment.

Rosen should have read the article by Gary C. Gambill (an important source missing in the “compilation”):

“On May 19, a band of Fatah al-Islam gunmen robbed a bank near Tripoli (their third) and were tracked to an apartment in a wealthy neighborhood in the city. For reasons that are not entirely clear (but probably owe much to the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch three days earlier), this time Siniora sent the ISF into action (with a camera crew from Hariri’s Future TV station in tow to record the momentous event). The pre-dawn raid was a disaster – not only was it easily repulsed, but Siniora’s failure to inform the Army beforehand left Lebanese soldiers stationed outside Nahr al-Bared vulnerable to a withering reprisal hours later while most were asleep in their barracks (nine were found with their throats slit).”
(“The Rise of Fatah al-Islam”, Mideast Monitor, June/July 2007)

(my emphasis)

Why-Discuss, you ask “Do these groups consist mainly of mercenaries?”

No. I have never seen any report about mercenaries in the ranks of any of these groups.

Zenobia, do you think that the article was coherent despite the contradictions or did you not perceive them as contradictions?

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January 20th, 2008, 10:42 am

 

15. t_desco said:

Germany warns Jewish community of terror threat from Lebanon

German security authorities have issued a warning to the Jewish community of an increased threat of terrorist attack emanating from Lebanon, a senior Jewish official said Sunday.

Stefan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of German Jews, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) the warning had been received more than a week ago, on January 11.

He confirmed weekend news reports that increased precautions were being taken. The increased threat was to synagogues and Jewish schools across the country, and not just in Berlin, as was reported earlier, Kramer said.

Kramer referred to information from Lebanon and a possible link to the current trial in Dusseldorf of a Lebanese man, Youssef al-Hajj Dib, 23, on charges of attempting to blow up German trains with suitcase bombs in July 2006. …
Haaretz/DPA

Terrorwarnung erreicht die Hauptstadt

Zum anderen seien militante Islamisten im Libanon, vor allem Anhänger der Gruppierung Fatah al Islam, wütend über den Prozess gegen den Kofferbomber in Düsseldorf und das inzwischen abgeschlossene Verfahren gegen seinen Komplizen in Beirut. Der Mittäter des Kofferbombers Youssef el Hajdib, Dschihad Hamad, war im Dezember im Libanon zu lebenslanger Haft verurteilt worden. Ein Bruder Hajdibs gehörte zur Führung von Fatah al Islam. Er kam im vergangenen Jahr bei den Kämpfen ums Leben, die Fatah al Islam der libanesischen Armee im Norden des Libanon lieferte.
Tagesspiegel

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January 20th, 2008, 5:20 pm

 

16. Zenobia said:

T-Desco,

I really don’t see these supposed contradictions. Or what some are viewing as contradictions, I think, are simply complicated aspects of the story that show how- multiple agendas were being played out at once.
the account I read in the article about the initial conflict after the bank robbery, and the way the sleeping soldiers were attacked outside the camp… was not that different from what you layed out in the comment above. It is pretty consistent, even if the slaughter was not led by Abu Hureira… etc.

Qifa Nabki just misread what was said- in regards to his complaints. The article doesn’t say that Syria was behind Fatah al-Islam. It says that Fatah al-Intifada has part of its structure in Syria- some of the leaders. and then- this was dispatched into Lebanon, perhaps with the consent of Syrian services. However, Fatah al-Islam was an offshoot of Intifada that basically mutinied from any authority coming from either the parent group or individuals in Syria and from Palestinian security in the camp. It seems very clear to me- that the story is about different individuals (even if I can’t memorize who they are and who exactly said what) who were vying for power over the new movement and the agenda.
I also understood that although initially, Fatah al-Intifada has more to do with fighting israel, Fatah al-Islam was recruiting for the larger anti-western jihad and american presence in Lebanon. But the people were mostly foreigners. This is clear.
I have a friend in the Lebanese army who was fighting in Tripoli for the entire three months, and I asked him… who he thought he was killing. And I asked him- what the army was saying to its own soldiers about who the enemy is…. And he answered that these people they killed were from outside. He said there were a few Lebanese Palestinians who had joined them, but mainly they came from other arab countries, and it was clear. And the army was saying that – and at no time was the Army telling its soldiers that these people were coming from Syria or dictated to from Syria.

And nobody would call these people mercenaries. They are jihadists- and driven by ideology. However, money is needed to survive and arm themselves, therefore, the money must be coming from somewhere. Is this really that hard? There is plenty of money from Saudi Arabia and all over the gulf that is not from the kingdom directly. There is money from Iraq, it appears. There are weapons from Iraq and all over the place.
I don’t even understand why people find it incredulous that such rogue elements couldn’t set bombs off all over lebanon, or kill Hariri even. Yes, there has to be collaboration from internal entities- Lebanese ones….. but is that so hard to believe??? I think not. And thats probably why we will never get a straight answer to the investigations… because too many Lebanese will be implicated themselves.

As for the money and backing, I thought again that the article suggested that there is some evidence and claims that Syria or Hariri/KSA would have liked to control these people. That seems likely…. but these attempts failed. This is different than saying that either Syrian elements or Hariri/KSA were ‘behind’ Fatah al-Islam. thats just too concrete and non-rational. Noboby wants to light a fire that big….. it is so dangerous, as we saw. Its a fire nobody can control.
And as we sit here blogging, I am sure…the same and new individuals are busy recruiting more crazies to reorganize and rearm. they already managed to kill off one of the main military leaders responsible for the siege at Nahr al Bared.

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January 20th, 2008, 9:37 pm

 

17. Qifa Nabki said:

Zenobia,

What you say makes sense. Thank you for clearing it up.

And thanks, as well, to T_DESCO for further clarifications.

I will mull these over and pester you again if other objections surface.

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January 20th, 2008, 10:34 pm

 

18. nir rosen said:

In response to some criticisms of my article, it was based neither on the work of Bernard Rougier, though he is a friend, nor on the work of Bilal Saab, which I unfortunately had not read until I wrote my article. It was based on a few months of research in the camps. Indeed some parts of the article are ambiguous, it is not because I intended to state the the Syrians or the Hariris created Fatah al Islam, I dont think either one did, I just discovered contradictions I had trouble reconciling so I did not reconcile them, and reported it as I saw it.
With respect to whether I saw all the damage in Nahr al Barid that I described, I visited the parts of the camp that the army had opened extensively and met with many aid workers and residents as well, so I stand by what I wrote. Much of the group’s history is still a mystery and though my original article was over twice as long as the published one, I am still very confused by the whole thing myself. But I dont believe in conspiracies, and I certainly dont think either the Syrians or the Hariris could ever pull one off anyway.

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January 21st, 2008, 8:36 am

 

19. t_desco said:

Zenobia,

thanks for taking the time to clarify your comments. I agree with most of what you wrote, but I still think that the article contains some contradictions. Perhaps it was easier for me to spot a certain lack of coherence because I recognized that the information that Rosen had compiled came from different sources (most of it I had already read somewhere else) and these sources were not always in harmony with each other. For example, the idea that Fatah al-Islam somehow became more radicalized (which I think is wrong) came from this article by Bilal Saab and Magnus Ranstorp.

I see that I wasn’t clear enough about Abu Hureira. I do think that he led the charge against the army post, but Rosen got the time wrong. It did happen “a few hours” after the Tripoli apartment siege had begun, not on “the following day” as Rosen writes.

Regarding the financing of these extremist groups by Saudi businessmen, I remember one very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, ”U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists”, WSJ, July 26, 2007.

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January 21st, 2008, 3:15 pm

 

20. norman said:

Article:Al Qaeda-inspired militants stir up Lebanon:/c/a/2008/01/21/MNUIUID6S.DTL
Article:Al Qaeda-inspired militants stir up Lebanon:/c/a/2008/01/21/MNUIUID6S.DTL
Back to Article

Al Qaeda-inspired militants stir up Lebanon
Hugh Macleod, Chronicle Foreign Service

Monday, January 21, 2008

(01-21) 04:00 PST Beirut —

The attack on a U.S. embassy vehicle that killed four people last week represents a dangerous widening of political violence that includes international targets, and shows how al Qaeda-inspired extremists are attempting to push the politically deadlocked country toward civil war, some analysts say.

“Al Qaeda is now unleashed in Lebanon and they are here to stay,” said Ahmad Moussali, professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut. “Al Qaeda thrives in civil war and chaos. International players should be very careful in Lebanon.”

With parliament unable to agree on a successor to Emile Lahoud, Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23. It is the culmination of a yearlong political crisis that has seen the political opposition led by the Shiite group Hezbollah attempting to bring down the U.S.-backed government.

Last Tuesday’s roadside bomb in northern Beirut targeted a U.S. embassy vehicle on a road regularly used by American diplomats traveling to and from the embassy. The explosion also injured 21 people, including an American bystander who worked at a nearby evangelical church; no diplomats – the presumed targets – were injured. FBI investigators began inspecting the blast site last week.

The explosion was the first terrorist act here against an American target since nearly 300 Americans were killed by a suicide truck bomb attack against the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine barracks near the Beirut airport in 1983. Washington has blamed the Syria and Iran-backed Hezbollah for those attacks, as well as for the kidnappings of dozens of foreigners during the 1980s, charges the militant group has always denied.

Far from being the work of Hezbollah, last week’s attacks are seen by Beirut-based analysts as evidence of the continuing rise of al Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremists in this divided country, pressures they warn that could push the domestic political crisis into armed confrontation.

On Jan. 10, security forces arrested an alleged senior member of the Sunni extremist group Fatah Islam in Tripoli’s Abu Samra neighborhood, an area known as a stronghold of Islamist militancy. Fatah Islam, whose members include Saudis and north Africans as well as Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians, lost a bloody 15-week battle against the Lebanese army last summer in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. The army arrested more than 200 militants and says Fatah Islam is linked to al Qaeda.

The Tripoli arrest came three days after a broadcast by Fatah Islam’s fugitive leader Shaker Absi on a militant Web site in which he threatened to kill Army Gen. Michel Suleiman and his followers, accusing them of waging the Nahr al-Bared battle for political purposes, and to appease the United States. In recent weeks, Suleiman has emerged as a consensus candidate for president.

And just last month Gen. Francois Haj, the man tapped to take over Suleiman’s role as army chief and head of operations against Fatah Islam, was assassinated by a car bomb. It was the first attack on a high ranking army officer in decades.

Meanwhile, U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon have also been threatened and attacked by Sunni militants.

In a statement aired on Dec. 29, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden criticized Hezbollah for agreeing to the deployment of the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon following the end of the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in 2006. Bin Laden said the U.N. soldiers were on a mission to “protect the Jews.”

Some analysts said bin Laden’s message could have been interpreted as a rallying call by Sunni militants.

“Bin Laden’s threats represent a kind of edict, guidelines which are adapted by groups that identify themselves with al Qaeda,” said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Ghorayeb compared the attack on the U.S. embassy vehicle to the Jan. 8 roadside bomb that exploded when two U.N. soldiers drove through Rmaileh, 21 miles south of Beirut, close to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, a hotbed for Sunni Islamist groups.

“Both were very clumsily planned and were not high value targets. It was an assassination attempt but not along the lines of previous assassinations,” said Ghorayeb, referring to a string of well-planned assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon since the 2005 killing by an explosion of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. “It could well be an al Qaeda-inspired attack. There has been a resurgence of sorts. Fatah Islam were always clumsy.”

The recent attack on U.N. troops is the third attempt on the 13,500-strong peacekeeping force since the end of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. In June, three Spaniards and three Colombian soldiers were killed when a bomb destroyed their armored troop carrier. A month later, a bomb exploded near a U.N. position, causing no casualties.

At the peacekeeper base in the southern port of Nagoura, U.N. spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane said the mission will not be deterred by the recent attacks and threats.

“Security for UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) is paramount. But we will not change our patrolling and have taken measures to mitigate attacks. UNIFIL Gen. Claudio Graziano recognizes there are extremist groups who want to destabilize the south.”

With the failures of French-led diplomacy and an Arab League initiative to mediate in Beirut’s current political crisis, some analysts see security deteriorating even further this year.

“The attack against the U.S. embassy vehicle moves the whole Lebanon issue up a gear and makes it more of an international concern,” said American University’s Moussali. “But domestically, it simply shows that now anything can be blown up. Unless we can find a political compromise fast, we’re heading down the road to chaos.”

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/21/MNUIUID6S.DTL

This article appeared on page A – 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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January 21st, 2008, 5:24 pm

 

21. Qifa Nabki said:

Nir (if this is really you),

Thanks for contributing to this thread and for helping to clarify our discussion of your article.

With respect to the “seventeen Lebanese officials” whom Fatah al-Islam reportedly had designs to assassinate, how many of them are among those killed? Is al-Hariri among them?

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January 21st, 2008, 7:41 pm

 

22. Qifa Nabki said:

T_DESCO (and Nir Rosen)

I had meant to ask you about this earlier, as this quote is actually not very recent, but since it appears again in the article that Norman posted, here goes:

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb on the Unifil and American embassy attacks: “Both were very clumsily planned and were not high value targets. It was an assassination attempt but not along the lines of previous assassinations,” said Ghorayeb, referring to a string of well-planned assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon since the 2005 killing by an explosion of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. “It could well be an al Qaeda-inspired attack. There has been a resurgence of sorts. Fatah Islam were always clumsy.”

Saad-Ghorayeb seems to be arguing that these two attacks bear the imprint of Fatah al-Islam’s “clumsy” style, in contradistinction to the previous attacks on Lebanese politicians and journalists which were far more professionally executed.

This was my reason for asking about the identities of the seventeen Lebanese officials mentioned in connection with Fatah al-Islam. Saad-Ghorayeb is not a M14er — she describes herself as “close to the opposition”, so she could not be accused of trying to carve out room for some of the earlier assassinations being the work of Syria, on ideological grounds.

I’m curious as to how you read her analysis.

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January 21st, 2008, 7:48 pm

 

23. t_desco said:

Unfortunately, I saw Nir Rosen’s comment only after responding to Zenobia. Thanks to Alex (I guess) for releasing him from the spam purgatory…

OK, it is also possible that both the Saab/Ranstorp article and the Rosen article are based on the same documents, let’s call them “source Q”… That doesn’t detract from the fact that the theory of Fatah al-Islam’s “radicalization” based on “source Q” is totally bogus as Rosen’s own article shows.

Why did I think that Rosen’s article could be based on Saab/Ranstorp article? Well, I noticed that Rosen had linked “Abu Midyan” (and not Abu Yazan) to the Ain Alaq bus bombings:

Rosen: “Abu Midyan, who was said to have been behind the March 2006 bus bombings north of Beirut that killed three Christians and injured twenty, refused to fight the Lebanese army because his enemy was Israel.”

The only other article in English linking “Abu Midyan” to the bus bombings is that of Saab/Ranstorp:

“Abu Midyan, the commander of the cell which was behind the double attack on a bus in the mountains of Ein Alak in March 2006, also had reservations about the transformation. After relinquishing his military responsibilities in the leadership council, Abu Midyan refused to participate in the confrontations with the Lebanese army.”

The “radicalization” theory:

Rosen: “While Fatah al Islam’s original goals may have been to liberate Palestine, more radical jihadists influenced its leaders, shifting their focus toward global jihad.”

Saab/Ranstorp: “The group started as a Palestinian entity supporting the struggle for the liberation of Palestine while at the same time spreading a certain Islamic message. Infiltration of extremists (many of whom were Arab fighters who fled Iraq because of sectarian infighting) into the organization’s leadership and shura committee radicalized Fatah al Islam and transformed it into an al Qaeda -like entity. Fatah al Islam gradually morphed into a formidable local terrorist network that had an ambitious agenda which fit neatly in al Qaeda’s manifesto and global insurgency.”

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January 21st, 2008, 10:20 pm

 

24. t_desco said:

Qifa Nabki,

I think the simple answer is that different cells can have different levels of experience and technical expertise. The Bar Elias cell was very sophisticated, as was the attack on the armored vehicle that killed the Spanish UNIFIL soldiers.

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January 21st, 2008, 10:47 pm

 

25. Zenobia said:

T-Desco,

ok, so I am sure you have talked about this many times before and I missed it, but can you explain WHY you reject the ‘radicalization’ theory. And as well, what is YOUR account then of this development….or what is the alternative to this idea. I am not familiar with what you might have already said on this subject, but i would really like to know since sort of intuitively their story… Rosen and Saab/Ranstorp makes sense to me….
thanks

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January 22nd, 2008, 12:05 am

 

26. t_desco said:

Zenobia,

I find the ‘radicalization’ theory dubious because of the many links that seem to exist between Fatah al-Islam and al-Qa’ida, for example:

– the al-Absi – al-Zarqawi link and his alleged involvement in the assassination of Laurence Foley in 2002;

– the “CDs with footage of training and members swearing oaths of loyalty to Osama bin Laden”; according to the article, they were discovered three days before Fatah al-Islam was even founded; and, again according to the article, two members of the pre-Fatah al-Islam group confessed that they had “come not to fight Israel but to assassinate seventeen Lebanese officials, including members of parliament, sheikhs, and members of the security forces”, in direct contradiction to the ‘radicalization’ theory;

– the participation of members of the Dinniyeh group (like Abu Hureira) in Fatah al-Islam; they are very radical and close to al-Qa’ida.

In addition, the ‘radicalization’ theory relies on the premise that they wanted to fight Israel but somehow did not know or realize that Hizbullah was “controlling the border with Israel and preventing other groups from conducting attacks”. This seems rather naive and also not very plausible.

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January 22nd, 2008, 6:51 pm

 

27. Zenobia said:

T-Desco,

ahhh. ok. very helpful. i understand better what you are saying. Not that they aren’t radical, just that they were so- right off the bat.
yes, i agree… very much.

i suppose it could come down to who within the organization one is actually talking about.
i thought that maybe the idea of a progressive radicalization… was not referring to the leadership so much as the membership.
I mean to say….is it possible that the leadership and some of the upper level… (living in the nice apartments and eating better food etc…or whatever)… those affiliated already with Al-Qaeda…were recruiting on all levels… both persons who were already radicalized but also … others who were less so… and then became integrated into the plans…
It just seems hard for me to accept, (or perhaps it is just a bit scary to accept) that several hundred people came to Tripoli… already of the mindset of Al-Qaeda…. that seems amazing to me… but i guess, entirely possible too.

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January 23rd, 2008, 1:12 am

 

28. Shai said:

Just got an email with a Newt Gingrich speech. Better get ready for McCain… you’re gonna be hearing a lot of this sort of thing soon…

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April 9th, 2008, 12:44 pm

 

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