BEIRUT – Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, announced in an audiotape broadcast April 21 that Islamic groups would play a pivotal role in the war against Jews, and encouraged militants to expel invading ‘Crusaders’ masquerading as peacekeepers, referring to UNIFIL troops deployed in South Lebanon.
"There have been three attacks on UN troops in the south since the deployment in 2006," says Andrea Tenenti from the press office of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
In June 2007, six peacekeepers from the Spanish contingent were killed in a car bombing in southern Lebanon, an attack that was celebrated by Zawahiri. An assault on Tanzanian soldiers came along the Litani River in July of the same year, and a roadside bomb exploded near a UN vehicle before a Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance of the ancient Phoenician city of Sidon, wounding two peacekeepers in January 2008.
Although no specific group has been formally accused of the crimes, the attacks have been attributed to Islamic fundamentalists, various movements of which have been around in Lebanon since the 1980s.
According to a report by the Saban Center at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Islamist militancy in Lebanon merged with Salafism a movement built on the belief that Islam’s purest form was practiced during the time of the prophet Muhammad when local and foreign Salafist jihadist leaders penetrated the generally nonviolent Lebanese Islamic community.
"Since its awakening, Salafist militancy in Lebanon was largely defensive and reflected the perceived severity of local crisis conditions," says the report. Today, Salafist recruits include individuals brainwashed into militancy, ordinary outlaws, as well as alienated individuals with deep economic and political grievances, says the report.
Palestinian refugee camps have proven the most common breeding ground for various forms of Islamic militancy. However, the report claims that such groups are relatively weak, which is largely attributed to the systematic security crackdowns by Lebanese authorities, large-scale foreign aggression against Lebanon, and violent clashes among rival Islamist groups.
Islamist activity has nonetheless been on the rise over the last few years. The brutal 2000 conflict in the northern region of Denniye between a group of Islamists and the Lebanese army heralded a new dawn of extremism. Islamists have also been accused of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Most recently, the Lebanese army fought a bloody three-month battle against the terrorist group Fatah el-Islam at the Nahr-el Bared Palestinian camp in 2007.
Fears of yet another Islamist uprising have been stoked since the latest message from Osama bin Laden’s deputy was aired, as it called for rejection of resolution 1701, which put an end to the 2006 July war between Israel and Hezbollah. To monitor the shaky truce between Lebanon and its southern neighbor, around 13,000 UN troops are currently deployed south of the Litani River.
"We take all threats very seriously," says Tenenti, adding that most threats against UNIFIL are video messages posted on the net or sent to the media. "We have been on high alert for some time," he said.
UNIFIL has beefed up the number of patrols currently controlling the region south of the Litani River to about 300 or so per day. The spokesperson underlines that UNIFIL maintains excellent relations with the local population, providing the people with medical and other services.
According to a high-ranking Lebanese security officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, what makes Zawahiri’s message particularly relevant to Lebanon is his call for transforming the country into a new theater of operations for extremists. However, the officer maintains that the fractionalization of the country would greatly limit the ability of fundamentalist groups to freely maneuver on Lebanese soil.
"Lebanon has been historically considered by al-Qaeda as a land of logistic support and not one of jihad," the officer said. "Its pluralistic social structure, consisting of various religious communities, allows for a more tolerant approach to religious practice."
Moreover, the officer stresses that the 2007 victory of the Lebanese army against Fatah El-Islam, which is allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, was a hard blow to extremist groups and reduced the chances of another conflict. "This [defeat] will undoubtedly make them [terrorist groups] wary of plotting any new attacks."
The source explains that Lebanese security forces have been able to curb the steady flow of jihadists from the Ain el-Helweh Palestinian camp in the south to Iraq in recent months. The refugee enclave, known for its connections to al-Qaeda, is home to rival extremist factions. According to the officer, Hezbollah’s influence over certain Islamist factions in the Palestinian camps has caused them to shift their support away from al-Qaeda, further weakening the group’s power in the area.
"Al-Qaeda has never adopted a formal hierarchy of power. It is usually comprised of different groups united by shared beliefs and a common enemy," the source says. According to the officer, Lebanese security forces have been able to thwart the efforts and arrest members of at least five terrorist cells in the Ain el-Helweh area, each of which consisted of five or six people.
The problem of al-Qaeda remains closely linked to the issue of armed Palestinians in Lebanon, as jihadist groups are a violent reality in the country’s many camps. However, the security officer says that the sphere of al-Qaeda’s influence will always be contained. "The very nature of society in Lebanon," he concludes, "plays against its ability to answer the call of Zawahiri."