With help from Iraq, al-Qaeda puts down roots in refugee camps
LEBANON’S NEW TERRORIST THREAT
With help from Iraq, al-Qaeda puts down roots in refugee camps
A propaganda video aired by al-Qaeda last September featured a young Saudi man, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, dedicating a poem to “Abu Mahjin, the Palestinian.” The video attracted little attention beyond the circles of those who study terrorism or work to prevent it. But its significance—bloody and unavoidable—is revealing itself across Lebanon, where a new front has opened between al-Qaeda and its enemies. The six United Nations peacekeepers murdered in a bomb attack on Sunday are among its latest victims.
Abu Mahjin is the nom de guerre of Ahmed Abd al-Karim al-Saadi. He is a Palestinian, but has lived in Lebanon since he was eight years old and now leads a Sunni Muslim jihad-
ist network at the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. These refugee camps, especially Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon and Nahr al-Bared in the north, along with Sunni Muslim enclaves in the city of Tripoli and elsewhere, have emerged as gateways for Islamist groups—some with explicit ties to alQaeda—to infiltrate Lebanon.
The extent of the penetration became evident in May, when fighting broke out between Lebanese armed forces and Sunni Islamists in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The conflict has since spread to other camps and to the capital Beirut itself, where terrorist bombs have targeted Christian neighbourhoods as well as centres of commerce and government. More than 150 people have been killed and more than 250 wounded.
Fatah al-lslam, the Islamist group battling the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Bared, is often described simply as sharing a similar ideology with al-Qaeda, and members of the group
deny any connection. In fact, links to the global terrorist network are extensive and intimate. In the summer of 2005, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote to al-Qaeda’s emir in Iraq, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, about the importance of the Levant—modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan—to alQaeda’s global vision. “It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt, and the neighbouring states of the Peninsula and Iraq,” Zawahiri wrote, before adding, “However, the centre would be in the Levant and Egypt.”
Since then, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni insurgent groups led by al-Qaeda, claimed that it has exported its franchise to northern Lebanon under Fatah al-Islam’s banner. A group iden-
tifying itself as al-Qaeda’s wing in the Levant has also released a video threatening attacks on Christians and demanding that the Lebanese army retreat from Palestinian refugee camps. The video appeared on a website used by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It is becoming clear that Iraq is the linchpin connecting al-Qaeda’s international network with its Lebanese franchise. Fatah alIslam’s leader, Shaker al-Absi, is identified by Jordanian intelligence officials, among others, as an associate of al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. air strike in Iraq in June 2006. Many of the militants now holed up in Palestinian refugee camps are also veterans of the Iraqi insurgency. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, has just returned from Lebanon where he visited the Palestinian refugee camps and interviewed the Sunni extremists who live there. Many are not in fact Palestinian, but have sought refuge in the Palestinian camps because they are traditionally out of bounds to the Lebanese army. Gerges told Maclean’s that the Ain al-Hilweh camp has sent “dozens if not hundreds” of its residents to Iraq.
“Iraq serves as what Afghanistan did in the 1980s for the international mujahedeen movement,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington who previously spent 29 years working for the CIA. “Iraq is the place where jihadists and alQaeda sympathizers go to get their combat experience, to get their expertise, and then they go back to their homelands.”
According to Gerges, those who return from Iraq are confident in the ultimate success of the global jihad. “They really believe that they are winning the war in Iraq,” Gerges said. “This psychological factor, more than anything else, presents the greatest challenge to the United States.”
The passage of Sunni Islamists between Lebanon and Iraq raises the question of Syria’s involvement. The Lebanese government believes Syrian intelligence backs Fatah alIslam—a charge denied by Syria. On the surface, it seems counterintuitive for the secular Syrian regime to sponsor Islamists next door in Lebanon. But power politics in the Middle East, and especially in Lebanon, are rife with Machiavellian duplicity. David Schenker, formerly the Pentagon’s top policy aide on Arab countries in the Levant and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that jihadists could not cross Syria to and from Iraq without Syrian connivance. “It’s an authoritarian government. It’s not North Korea, but it is world-class,” he said.
Schenker says Syria’s decision to allow Islamists to traverse its territory is driven by calculated self-interest. “It ranks its priorities. And its first priority is survival,” Schenker told Maclean’s. “It doesn’t want al-Qaeda to take up residence in Syria. That said, it threatens the regime’s survival if there is a pro-West democracy established in Iraq, or if the government of Lebanon survives and the international tribunal [into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri] comes to a successful conclusion, which will likely implicate senior regime officials. So if they see alQaeda as a useful tool to destabilize the government of Lebanon, then they will employ it, just as they have employed it in Iraq.”
How much direction Sunni Islamists in Lebanon are receiving from al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq and Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas is unclear. In June, Lebanon’s internal security force claims it broke up a plot to carry out multiple large-scale bombing attacks on targets in Beirut and across the country, including hotels, an international airport, govern-
ment buildings, bridges and roads. Riedel notes that the plot, designed to cause as much terror as possible, was “classic al-Qaeda.”
But this doesn’t mean that it was planned or directed from outside Lebanon. Al-Qaeda has evolved since the Sept, ll attacks of2001 and is now much more decentralized. Peter Bergen, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden and written extensively about al-Qaeda, likens its operational structure to the American military doctrine of “commander’s intent,” in which the broad goals of a mission are defined by a commander, and lower-ranking personnel, who are closer to the action, are free to decide how best to carry out their implementation. “Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, through their repeated public statements, have made it pretty clear what the goal is, and people operate on that,” Bergen said in an interview with Maclean’s.
Zawahiri has described United Nations
peacekeepers in Lebanon as “forces hostile to Islam.” This February he called on “the brothers of Islam and of jihad in Lebanon” not to accept the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, whom he described as “crusader forces.” Al-Qaeda’s disciples in Lebanon were listening. Six peacekeepers are dead as a result. M
CHRISTIANS ARE A TARGETABOUT 150 HAVE BEEN KILLED AND ANOTHER 250 INJURED SO FAR
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