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
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."
(Inter Press Service)