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May 20, 2008 | 22:37 GMT

9 mins read

Lebanon: Exposing the Country's Jihadist Movement

Hezbollah's May 9 takeover of western Beirut exposed the weaknesses in Lebanon's mainstream Sunni institutions. As a result, Sunni jihadist factions in the country are gaining prominence with the help of Lebanon's neighbors, spelling trouble for the already brittle sectarian balance in the country.
In a matter of hours on May 9, forces from the Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah took over predominantly Sunni west Beirut and brought their political rivals to their knees. Hezbollah backed down from its belligerent stance almost as quickly as it implemented the takeover plan, allowing the country to drift back toward a relative state of normalcy within a few days. But the damage had already been done — Lebanon's Western-backed coalition, led by Sunni leaders Fouad Siniora and Saad al-Hariri, was exposed as a weak and inept movement whose fledgling al-Mustaqbal Sunni militia proved incapable of standing up to the Shiite militant group's prowess. Hezbollah's actions have sent an earthquake through Lebanon's Sunni community, with many Lebanese doubting if the al-Hariri name can continue to command the respect and loyalty of Beirut's Sunni community. Lebanon's Sunnis primarily live in the country's urban areas, with most residing in relatively liberal and cosmopolitan west Beirut. Many of these Sunnis have long looked to the al-Hariri clan's political and financial influence to protect Sunni interests against Lebanon's many competing factions. But the speed with which the Sunni leadership capitulated to Hezbollah's demands has shaken the foundation of Lebanon's Sunni movement. A smaller portion of Lebanese Sunnis live among the poor, rural population of Akkar in northern Lebanon, where a more radical strand of Sunni Islam is preached. In the aftermath of Hezbollah's takeover of west Beirut, a small but increasing number of Sunnis in Lebanon, including youths in Beirut, are being drawn to this radicalism and are now openly debating whether support for Sunni jihadists in Lebanon is their only salvation against Hezbollah. And this is exactly what Syria was hoping for. Syria has a goal of discrediting Lebanon's moderate Sunni leadership by radicalizing large portions of the Sunni community. That community, led primarily by the al-Hariri clan and its allies, acts as a proxy of Syria's rival, Saudi Arabia, and has long been a thorn in Syria's side — hence the massive car bombing in February 2005 that eliminated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri from the political scene. As Syria sets the stage to return to its kingmaker status in Lebanon, it has to ensure that it keeps Lebanon's Sunni community in check. And Syria intends to do so by playing its jihadist card.

Jihadists in Lebanon

The jihadist scene in Lebanon is extraordinarily complex. The al Qaeda brand name gets thrown around liberally by the mass media to describe these groups, but a closer look at the movement paints a very different picture. The main jihadist groups milling about in Lebanon include Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham and Asbat al-Ansar. These groups are concentrated in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, where they can afford a great deal of autonomy in their actions, build up weapons caches and keep a safe distance from the Lebanese army, who are legally not permitted to enter the camps. But for the most part, these militants are not jihadists in the true sense of the word. Lebanon has a very small minority of Islamists who adhere to concepts found in Salafism, an ultra-conservative sect that calls for a narrow interpretation of Islamic religious texts. According to jihadist sources in the region, these groups are better characterized as pseudo-Salafists who are more interested in getting on the dole of different intelligence agencies than working toward the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The jihadists are roughly divided into groups that work with the Syrian, Saudi, Kuwaiti and Qatari intelligence agencies. The multiple handlers, combined with a weak Salafist network, means most of these groups have to constantly worry about getting back-stabbed more than anything else, making it all the more difficult for a hardcore jihadist movement to take root in Lebanon. Take the example of Fatah al-Islam, a group that caught the world's attention in the summer of 2007 when its stronghold in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp came under fire by the Lebanese army. Fatah al-Islam was founded by Shaker al-Absi, a man who is wanted by Jordan for allegedly funneling money from deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to a Jordanian militant cell that killed U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Al-Absi was arrested in Syria in 2002 and then quietly released three years later after he struck a deal with Syria's military intelligence under which he would manage Syria's jihadist flow into Lebanon. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syria has operated a sort of jihadist supply chain into Iraq that was designed to keep the United States too busy to even think about regime change in Damascus. As Syria sought to pull itself out of diplomatic isolation, it gradually reduced the jihadist traffic into Iraq to prove its commitment to Washington. But the bulk of those jihadists were redirected to Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, where militant leaders like al-Absi maintained a close relationship with Syrian military intelligence officials. During the 2006 summer conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria apparently tried to reach out to the United States, claiming it would clamp down on "al Qaeda" and contain Lebanon, but was snubbed by Washington. After al-Absi learned that Syria tried to sell him out, he mysteriously disappeared during the summer 2007 firefight between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, leading his movement to split into two factions, with one continuing to work with the Syrians and the other now allegedly working with al-Hariri's group. Now that Hezbollah has humiliated Lebanon's Sunni community, it appears that Syria is looking to activate its jihadist assets to vindicate the Sunni leadership under the al Qaeda banner. In this vein, shortly after Hezbollah's takeover, Fatah al-Islam made a rare public statement that read "the killing, burning and humiliation to our Sunni people is not justified or accepted … Anyone who wants to bow the heads of our people in Beirut" will be confronted even if the price is "bloodshed." By vying for the leadership of Lebanon's Sunni community to counter Hezbollah, this Fatah al-Islam faction — along with its Syrian handlers — is discrediting the moderate image of the Lebanese Sunni leadership.

The Jihadist Strategy

Syria has already created the conditions for jihadist actions in Lebanon. Sources in the country have reported that a Tunisian fundamentalist leader has recently held a series of meetings with militant cells in the Ain al-Hilwa refugee camp near Sidon. The meetings were allegedly intended to issue directives on launching operations in Lebanon following Hezbollah's recent surge in Lebanon. A group operating under the name Jund al-Samaa (Soldiers of Heaven), under the supervision of an Algerian explosives expert, has also reportedly popped up on the militant scene in recent days. And Syria is apparently not the only player with an interest in ramping up Lebanon's jihadists. STRATFOR has also received an unconfirmed report that a large group of former al Qaeda operatives that had been arrested in the Saudi kingdom recently docked at the Dbayeh seaport just a few miles north of Beirut. The allegedly "rehabilitated" militants were deployed in groups of two or three to various parts of Lebanon, including Tripoli in the north, the Quraytem region of Beirut, the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp that borders Beirut's southern suburbs and the town of Anjar in the central Bekaa Valley. This leaked report could very well have been designed by Riyadh to send a warning signal to Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran, but it is also possible that Saudi Arabia — which has experience in jihadist management — is also entertaining the jihadist option in Lebanon to push back Hezbollah. This apparent rise of jihadist activity in Lebanon has put Hezbollah on edge in recent weeks. Though Hezbollah has long had a close working relationship with the Syrian regime, that relationship was thrown on the rocks after the February assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah on Syrian soil. The follow-on leaks of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations only reinforced Hezbollah's distrust of Syria's intentions toward the group. If Syria were to receive backdoor assurances from the West that it would be given the space to reclaim its influence in Lebanon as long as it took care of containing Hezbollah, deploying Sunni jihadists could be one way of getting the job done. A source in Hezbollah claims that the group's leadership has increased security measures in its strongholds in the southern suburbs of Beirut, fearing that they could soon become victim to a suicide attack by Sunni Islamists. But Syria needs to play its cards carefully. There is still no guarantee that Syria's demands will soon be met in Lebanon, particularly as Israel is currently mired in an internal political struggle. Moreover, Syria needs to ensure the Sunni militant focus stays on Lebanon and away from the Alawite-Baathist regime in Damascus — and that focus will become more difficult to manage once these groups get ramped up. In other words, there is still plenty of room for this jihadist strategy to backfire if and when it goes into effect. It appears that Lebanon has become the region's jihadist dumping ground as the surrounding Sunni regimes are figuring out how to manage their respective militant networks and keep "rehabilitated" jihadists occupied. The resulting rise of Lebanon's radical Sunnis runs a serious risk of sparking an intra-Sunni struggle in Lebanon and tampering with Lebanon's already brittle sectarian balance.

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