al-Qaeda Branching into Lebanon, Hezbollah Unimpressed
Following al-Qaeda in Iraq’s recent claim of responsibility for late-December rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon, it appears that Lebanese security is taking steps with some haste to counter al-Qaeda’s ability to establish a foothold in Lebanon. It was reported Friday that Lebanese authorities had arrested 13 Al-Qaeda suspects in a sweep that netted them in different parts of the country. They were charged by a Lebanese military court with “establishing a gang to carry out terrorist acts, forging official and private documents and possessing unlicensed arms.”
Among the thirteen al-Qaeda suspects were seven Syrians, three Lebanese, a Saudi Arabian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian. Their statements under custody have been contradictory, as they appear to shift from claiming al-Qaeda membership to Jund al-Islam (the group claiming responsibility for the assassination of Rafik Hariri and twenty others in a February 2005 Beirut bombing) and vice versa. Their particular membership in one or the other group, at least in principle, should mean little, as neither of the groups issue membership badges, but rather are bonded by a shared ideology without a physical brand.
As al-Qaeda (including Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq) has increasingly indicated an intent to directly attack Israel, the leadership has chosen to establish a foothold in Lebanon and Gaza. Beirut’s Daily Star reported of an alleged al-Qaeda statement that warned the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon that they would face attacks from al-Qaeda if they did not conform to their ideology.
“We have been trying hard to enter the Sabra and Shatila camp, which is considered the symbol of Palestinian camps in Lebanon … Since this camp needs reform, you have to take these warnings seriously, because today we warn but tomorrow we will liquidate dozens of people…Our suicide bombings will target all the United Nations buildings inside and outside the camp, as well as agents such as [Palestinian officials] Abbas Zaki and Khaled Aref and several foreign embassies.”
The Palestinian residents of the camps seem to be summarily unimpressed with al-Qaeda’s apparent attempt to take control of reforming the camps in order to instill a Taliban-like rule. Said one Palestinian resident, “Osama bin Laden should go and fight the Zionists before coming here to reform the camps. We don’t live in an extremist Islamic country; Shatila is the camp of the martyrs, the camp of the struggle.” Regarding the direct threat to the UN buildings in the camps (clinics and schools), the man retorted, “Do they want to destroy them too?”
Hezbollah Shias also views the encroachment of Sunni al-Qaeda in Lebanon with wary eyes, quite happy to have another hand in attacking Israel, but quite displeased with the rise of militant Sunni Islam, especially on their own turf.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, warned al-Qaeda about setting up shop in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Qassem said, “We don’t know how many [al-Qaeda are in Lebanon] and we don’t know their plans or if they intend to do operations here. It’s important to caution everyone not to make Lebanon an arena for settling scores. It will be a dangerous development if that happens.”
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Moqtada Sadr called for a settling of differences between Shi’ite and Sunni terrorist groups in an interview on Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya channel. He said, “The Islamic world is being subjected to a strong Western aggression that requires us to join forces…I am with any movement that is dedicated to the principles of Islam and justice and rejects oppression whether it is Hizbullah or Hamas.” Whether or not he would cede control of any territory he may hold dominance over to achieve that, as Hezbollah refuses to do, he did not say.
It is worthy of note the increasing level of Red-on-Red infighting throughout the region: In Iraq, in the West Bank and Gaza, and now, potentially, in Lebanon. As it continues to develop, al-Qaeda’s recent moves to diversify from Iraq and seek new targets appears to include direct moves on Israel, which means establishing and recruiting from areas that are already controlled by other groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades (among others) in the Palestinian Territories. Many also expect that the first move by Iran in any hot conflict with the West will be to export terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East and enflame the entire region.
With all of them, the convergence point is Israel. But as diverse Sunni and Shi’ite groups of varying flavors of jihad begin to increasingly share the same battlespace, rather than the widely expected cooperation under the unifying Sun Tzu precept of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, it is more likely that what will be quite commonly heard and seen is ‘The enemy of my enemy is cramping my style.’ Sheikh Naim Qassem revealed as much, tipping Hezbollah’s hand in advance.