TCS Daily


Al Qaeda... in Lebanon

By Olivier Guitta - February 16, 2006 12:00 AM

It's been a year since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in downtown Beirut. Since then, Lebanon has erupted to the forefront of the news: the Cedar revolution, the Syrian Army's withdrawal and the political assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders. But if that was not enough for a small country that has been suffering for the past thirty years, a new dangerous player is emerging: Al Qaeda.

In an explosive interview with the French daily Liberation, Ahmed Fatfat, the new incoming Lebanese Interior Minister, revealed details about Al Qaeda's presence in Lebanon. Fatfat noted:

"For the past forty-five months, Al-Qaeda has been trying to settle in Lebanon. The organization infiltrates combatants and recruits on the ground. We recently dismantled two groups suspected of belonging to this network. One month ago, we stopped thirteen individuals, coming from various countries of the Middle East,­ who were preparing attacks inside the country. We also have just stopped five people implied in attacks against military positions."

Regarding the December rocket attacks against Israel from the south of the country that Zarqawi (Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq) claimed responsibility for, Fatfat confirmed it was indeed the work of Al Qaeda. He added that it was an attack carried out by the Palestinian terror group FPLP-GC based out of Damascus, but financed directly by Al Qaeda. Finally Fatfat affirmed that FPLP-GC answers directly to Damascus and that a branch of Al Qaeda could be manipulated by Syrian security services.

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah of February 9 seconded Fatfat's assertions. Quoting an Iraqi source, the journalist stated that Al-Qaeda is leading a large infiltration operation inside Lebanon, where it already has sleeper cells.

"It seems that the Iraqi Al-Qaïda branch has been thinking for a long time to transform Lebanon into a strengthened base, and to make in particular the area of Tripoli (in the north of Lebanon) a new Afghanistan since several of its bases are in this city", specified the source. He added that the interrogations carried out by the Lebanese police force of 13 Al-Qaïda members brought precise details on the infiltration operation, carried out under the direct supervision of Zarkawi. "Some 700 experienced militants of the terrorist network would have left Iraq for Lebanon", adds this anonymous witness.

Lastly, when questioned by Al Hayat about Al Qaeda's presence in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia terror group Hezbollah which controls much of the south of the country, did not deny it. He pointed to the possible implication in the December attack of elements in the Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian camp "who have pledged their loyalty to al-Zarqawi". He acknowledged that it was a "dangerous and unacceptable" situation but thought it was "unlikely" that Hezbollah would clash with Al Qaeda in the future. Nonetheless, Hezbollah must not be happy about Al Qaeda's settling in Hezbollah land and a Sunni-Shia conflict might be brewing.

Also: if Syria is really behind this Al Qaeda branch, does it mean then the de facto end of the relation between Damascus and Hezbollah?

Lebanon is already one of the most complicated and dangerous places in the world. And with the addition of Al Qaeda to the equation, things might even get more out of control. It will be interesting to see how things develop. But for one of the first times since September 11, the holy alliance of Sunni and Shia terror groups against the West might turn out to be not-so-strong after all. Lebanon is one of the most crucial countries in the war on terror; it's not by chance that everything started in Beirut in 1983 when the US and French Marine barracks were blown up killing 241 Americans and 58 French.

Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs consultant based in Washington DC and a TCS contributor.

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