Friday, June 15, 2007

Sarkozy calls Damascus; Lebanon versus al-Qaeda

Joshua Landis follows Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to engage Hezbollah in an effort to stabilize a Lebanon racked by fighting. He also looks at reports that allegedly Syrian-supported Fatah al-Islam's failed attempts at Operation 577 to create all-Sunni caliphate in Northern Lebanon.

Fatah al-Islam militants were planning a string of terrorist attacks throughout Lebanon, including attacks on UN offices, large-scale bombings and assassinations, in a plot known as “Operation 577″ which was revealed during interrogations of arrested Fatah al-Islam members, London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat said on Monday. Citing Lebanese security sources, Al-Hayat said the goal of the plot was to lay the foundation for an “all-Sunni emirate in North Lebanon.”

Of particular interest is Counter-terrorism analysts Bilal Y. Saab and Magnus Ranstorp, from the Brookings Institution and the Swedish National Defence College respectively, study on the threat that al-Qaeda poses to the strengthened United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Initially the role of Salafist groups was defensive, rooted in the desire to defend its space against other ethnic groups and later, to dominate them. Now they have become more ambitious. OIF and events within Lebanon, particularly the perceived success of Hezbollah, soon presented opportunities for al-Qaeda to exploit.

The US invasion of Iraq offered global terrorism a new base of operations as it opened doors for al-Qaeda in the Middle East. Terrorism spread quickly inside Iraq and easily found Arab recruits eager to fight American forces. Spilling over to neighboring countries, salafist militancy was poised to become a key threat to the stability of countries throughout the Middle East. Lebanon, the weakest link in the chain, was no exception.

The spillover effects of the war in Iraq, the resurfacing of political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon following the May 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops (an event itself triggered by the assassination three months earlier of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri), the 2006 war between Israel and Hizb’allah, and the Sunni perception of ascending Shi’ite and Iranian power in the region gave new life and meaning to the salafist jihadist current in Lebanon. The story is now that of Fatah al Islam, the latest manifestation of salafist militancy in Lebanon.

It concludes by saying:

The terrorist threat to UNIFIL posed by al-Qaeda affiliated entities in Lebanon is not likely imminent and should not be exaggerated. It is nevertheless real and, contrary to what Lebanese officials continue to claim, uncaused by Syria. This hardly means that Damascus is innocent from what is taking place in northern Lebanon. Syria’s lack of real cooperation on arms smuggling and human trafficking along the Lebanese-Syrian borders seriously undermines any efforts aimed at fighting salafist jihadism in Lebanon. There is no doubt that salafist militancy in Lebanon, fueled locally by harsh living conditions and regionally by continuing bloodshed in Iraq, is gradually but surely growing. If Lebanese officials do not swiftly and seriously deal with the spread of salafist jihadism in their country, it is only a matter of time before this violent movement solidifies, finds new leaders, and reaches organizational maturity, at which point it would be much harder to contain and eliminate. The Lebanese Army’s battle with Fatah al Islam is likely to come to an end soon, but Lebanon’s war with al-Qaeda has just started.


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