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The al-Qaedification of Lebanon?

Rising extremism and violence in Lebanon is being blamed on Hezbollah-induced "spillover" from the Syrian war. The reality is far more complex.

A Lebanese friend who recently accompanied me to Tripoli in northern Lebanon decided that no city tour was complete without a late-night drive down Syria Street — in the wrong direction. Syria Street is the frontline of ongoing fighting between the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen, which killed 27 people in just 12 days in March.

When our drive coincided with the sudden explosion of nearby fireworks, I showcased my battle readiness by cowering on the floor of the car. As for the battle readiness of more resilient entities, the proliferation of al-Qaeda flags in Bab al-Tabbaneh perhaps underlined the contribution Syria's war is making towards the professionalism of some participants in Lebanon's domestic strife — providing as it does a training ground for militants.

On 18 March, The Washington Post reported that, “al-Qaeda appears to be steadily building its support networks and capacity in Lebanon, where fears are growing that a new influx of militants from the Syrian border region could bolster the terror group’s ranks and stoke instability”.

Indeed, recent gains by the Syrian military have resulted in the geographical displacement of certain jihadi forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Post, the “influx of fighters into Lebanon is one more example of the Syrian war’s overflow across borders”.

While there’s no denying the detrimental regional reverberations of the war, mainstream international media has become dangerously enamoured with a mantra that the spate of contemporary al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks is reducible to “spillover” from Syria. The second part of the mantra is that the blame for this lies with Hezbollah for inserting itself into the Syrian conflict on the side of the government.

Media analysis that ignores history and obfuscates fact is nothing new. A closer look reveals much about who the ultimate beneficiaries of this “spillover” consensus are, as well as about the prospects for the future of Lebanon. Whatever one’s views on the morality of the matter, Hezbollah's cooperation in Syrian government violence does not take place in a vacuum and should not be cast as the primary factor fuelling the establishment of Lebanese al-Qaeda franchises.

As Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website, wrote in an email to me: “The attacks on Hezbollah and Shiite targets [in Lebanon] by Sunni jihadis are of course related to Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, but it's not like these groups were very friendly towards Shiite Muslims or Hezbollah and Iran before”.

He also commented that the promise by some groups to cease such strikes in the event of a Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria is “an effective way of justifying the attacks and drawing recruits among” the Sunni population of Lebanon.

Political jihad

Let us focus for a moment on the previous lack of friendliness referenced by Lund. One particularly significant jihadi presence on Lebanese soil that predated the war in Syria is Fatah al-Islam, which took up residence in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli and was defeated by the Lebanese army in a protracted battle in 2007. An egregious example of collective punishment, the army’s devastation of the camp reminded of the state’s contemptible tradition of  apartheid-esque treatment towards the domestic Palestinian population.

Shortly prior to the start of the battle, acclaimed journalist Seymour Hersh had written for The New Yorker about reported efforts by prominent Sunni officials and their associates to exacerbate Sunni extremism in Lebanon as a means of counteracting Hezbollah. Billionaire future prime minister Saad Hariri, for instance, was said to have paid bail for al-Qaeda-trained militants arrested while endeavouring to inaugurate an Islamic mini-state in the country.

The then-government of Fouad Siniora was also implicated in jihad, it seems. Hersh quotes former British intelligence agent Alistair Crooke on the emergence of Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared: “I was told that within 24 hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the [Siniora] government’s interests”.

Following the Nahr al-Bared showdown, numerous Fatah al-Islam militants were imprisoned in Lebanese jails, most notably Roumieh north of Beirut. Intermittent jailbreaks — possibly facilitated by prison guards — have seen some of these militants turn up as combatants in the Syrian war. As far as “spillovers” go, it appears that things can spill both ways.

In other instances of prison-related spillage, the de facto rule that Sunni Islamist inmates enjoy over Roumieh’s Bloc B — where they have access to internet, laptops, and mobile phones — means that terrorist operations in Syria and Lebanon can be managed from within the prison complex. This arrangement naturally calls into question the point of having jails in the first place.

When I asked Radwan Mortada of Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper why officials don’t put an end to the Roumieh command centre by, say, cutting the internet connection or confiscating technological devices, he responded that political interests in maintaining the arrangement are too great. According to his analysis, the electoral utility of Sunni fundamentalist organisations stems from their assistance in cultivating an image of a persecuted community facing an existential threat from Hezbollah, which is portrayed as having entered Syria for the sole purpose of Sunni extermination.

It’s no secret that Lebanon’s system of institutionalised sectarianism encourages politicians to exploit sectarian discord. In a creative statement this past January, Future Movement leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri sought to not only displace the blame for discord but also to miraculously expunge Hezbollah from the domestic composition of Lebanon: “The Lebanese, and the Sunnis among them, refuse to be part of any war in Lebanon or the region between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda”.

Never mind the small business of Hariri’s own New Yorker cameo, or the fact that some former Fatah al-Islam fighters have been recycled into newer al-Qaeda-linked organisations.

Sectarian reinforcements

Mortada contends that only one of the three main al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in Lebanon, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, presently views the country as an arena for jihad. The other two groups — Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front — consider Lebanese territory to be of use only insofar as it abets the jihad in Syria.

Some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent Lebanese history were, after all, claimed by the Azzam Brigades. In November 2013, for example, twin suicide bombs killed 23 people at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, while the attacks claimed by the ISIS and al-Nusra have entailed less powerful explosions and fewer casualties.

Mortada’s thesis was confirmed in his interview last month with a commander of the al-Nusra Front, who explained that al-Nusra and ISIS operations in Lebanon have thus far been intended as “messages” to Hezbollah regarding its involvement in Syria, but that the failure to transfer the jihad to the Lebanese arena is not for want of capability. As Mortada notes, the commander did not deny the possibility of just such a transfer in the near future.

And the ground is becoming ever more fertile thanks to the increase in popularity among Lebanese Sunnis of extremist ideology and movements — a popularity that depends substantially on politico-clerical propaganda placing Sunni existence in Shiite crosshairs. In addition to the three aforementioned al-Qaeda-esque groups, radical Sunni cleric Ahmed al-Assir of the southern Lebanese city of Saida has also been shaking things up.

Al Jazeera’s Nour Samaha interviewed Assir in June 2013 shortly before his bloody showdown in Saida with the Lebanese army, an institution he has repeatedly accused of being in cahoots with Hezbollah and Iran. In her corresponding article, Samaha pinpointed some of the reasons for his newfound fame. The previous year, she recalled, Assir had given “an explosive [mosque] sermon… in which he accused Hezbollah and Amal, another Shiite-dominated party, of selling a toy machine-gun in Dahyeh, Beirut's southern suburbs, which [encouraged attacks on] the prophet's wife, Aysha... Investigations into the alleged toys revealed [they] did not actually exist”.

As noted by Samaha, “the results of the investigations went unnoticed by many across the country, already riled by Assir's statements, and also by most of the media”.

None of this is to imply that Sunni-Shiite tension in Lebanon is merely a product of Sunni-specific paranoid delusions and hatred engineered by crackpot clerics and manipulative politicians. Lebanon is no stranger to sectarian feuding; its civil war — which lasted from 1975-90 and was exploited to the max by external parties — was characterised by incidents like the spontaneous roadside execution of motorists based on the religious sect specified on their identity document. Needless to say, the war isn’t exactly forgotten history.

The fact that Hezbollah is the only civil war-era militia officially permitted to retain its weapons is a source of anxiety for many Sunnis, despite the indispensable role these weapons have played in defending Lebanon against Israeli predation. Furthermore, it is not incomprehensible that the contemporary rise of Shiite political and social power in places like Lebanon and Iraq would be seen as threatening by Sunni communities, especially within a context that reduces human beings to their sectarian affiliations.

But although Sunni unease is not entirely devoid of rational foundations, these foundations are being twisted beyond recognition by jihadi rhetoric. From a political, military, and social standpoint, it is in Hezbollah's interest to avoid sectarian conflict, which is part of the reason the party’s rivals find the prospect of intensified conflict so appealing.

Like Assir, jihadis in Tripoli and elsewhere have bestowed foe status upon the Lebanese army and essentially upon the state itself, tailoring various attacks accordingly in response to the army’s alleged collusion with Hezbollah.

Of course, when the police detain people with beards and other apparent indicators of possible terrorist orientation, this does little to contradict Sunni claims regarding state prejudice and persecution (even when the detained turn out to be Shiite hip hop artists).

The terrorism industry

In his email to me, Lund remarked on a boost in jihadi popularity in Lebanon due to the Syrian war: “For the small and scattered groups of Lebanese jihadis it's been a boon to see these far bigger and better funded jihadi factions like Jabhat al-Nosra [the al-Nusra front] rise to power across the border”. He added: “Syria's breakdown basically gave them their own Afghanistan next door and that helps them build capacity and draw recruits”.

The mention of Afghanistan should set off alarm bells in the mind of anyone wary of potential repetitions of history. Beyond the obvious relevance of the Afghan parallel — given the origins of al-Qaeda in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) and the war’s function as a magnet for international Islamist militants — it should be remembered that the mujahideen enjoyed considerable backing from the United States and Saudi Arabia, two not insignificant players in the Syrian conflict.

Of course, the US has gone to great pains to disassociate itself from the terroristic elements of the rebels fighting Assad, adding the al-Nusra Front to its hallowed list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations in 2012. Such moves ostensibly prevent US weapons and funds from ending up in the hands and pockets of jihadis.

Following the designation, the US continued to assist in supplying the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA), with various complicating factors. For one thing, you can never guarantee that supplies won’t change owners. For another, as Lund has pointed out and the BBC’s former Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar has echoed, there is no FSA in the first place.

Saudi Arabia also denies sponsoring jihad in Syria, although some observers have begged to differ. In a GlobalPost report conducted in partnership with National Public Radio, journalist Reese Erlich — author of the forthcoming Inside Syria — asserts that hundreds of Saudi jihadis are travelling to the country “[w]ith the tacit approval from the House of Saud and financial support from… Saudi elites”, and that “wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups”.

Erlich quotes Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a Saudi economics professor and human rights activist, who argues that Saudi Arabia’s support for al-Nusra resembles a scaled-down version of its efforts in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan but that, in the end, “[n]obody wants instability”.

From the perspective of the rational human being, this assessment sounds like mere platitudes. But the terrorism industry functions according to anti-human logic. The creation and maintenance of enemies like al-Qaeda justifies not only gargantuan defence expenditures translating into corporate profit but also state repression and the trampling of rights in the name of national security.

A few pertinent details from Iraq: three and a half years after the US promised that its mind-bogglingly expensive warmongering would bring about a “united, stable and free country” as well as “defend the world from grave danger”, The New York Times reported that “[a] stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the September 11 [2001] attacks”.

However, the spillover from such imperial escapades tends to generate little attention in mainstream media discourse, partly because war means money for US companies. As for the allegedly Hezbollah-induced spillover from Syria, it’s worth recalling that, for all of the US establishment’s perpetually-professed concern for Lebanon’s stability, it presides over $3 billion-plus annual donations to the state of Israel — the entity responsible for, among other crimes, the slaughter of approximately 1,200 persons in Lebanon in a matter of 34 days in 2006. The majority of those killed were civilians, with destruction facilitated by rush shipments of weapons from the US.

That handy little practise of divide-and-conquer

In addition to being comrades-in-arms-deals, Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia have co-propagated a view of Iran as global nemesis, with Hezbollah as its terrorist emissary. Among the organisation’s terroristic qualifications, one could argue, is its function as the only effective resistance to Israeli terror.

Israel’s own involvement in Syria has ranged from air strikes to medical treatment and financial donations for wounded rebels. In a January report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — think tank of the Zionist lobby in the US — Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari speculates that “other forms of assistance” may be underway as well, ostensibly with the aim of “preventing or at least slowing the movement” of groups like al-Nusra and ISIS and thwarting al-Qaeda’s ability to establish “a front with Israel”.

In reality, however, jihadi expansion along Israel’s northern border isn’t really at odds with Israeli objectives. As noted by Amal Saad Ghorayeb, Lebanese academic and author of Hibzu’llah: Politics and Religion, the “spillover” into Lebanon of al-Qaeda-inspired attacks serves as a means of “eliminating/wearing out the [Hezbollah] Resistance by opening multiple battle fronts and overextending its security and military forces”.

Furthermore, it’s not clear why Israel would be opposed to giving al-Qaeda a more prominent place on its list of alleged existential threats. These, of course, are regularly invoked to excuse Israel’s fortress-like appearance and modus operandi, and to avoid having to atone for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

No discussion of the escalation of sectarian strife in the area is meanwhile complete without a mention of that handy little practise of divide-and-conquer. In an op-ed last year for Al Jazeera, Toronto-based analyst Murtaza Hussain emphasised a concerted effort to force a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the idea of an inherent and archaic hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims: “Western powers and their local allies have sought to exacerbate these false divisions in order to perpetuate conflict and maintain a Middle East which is at once thoroughly divided and incapable of asserting itself”.

While there’s no denying Assad’s murderous brutality, there’s also no denying the superior brutality inflicted upon the region in recent history by the West and its friends, who according to the law of perpetual conflict stand to profit from an amplified al-Qaeda presence.

And while Hezbollah’s entrance onto the Syrian battlefield postdated that of Sunni jihadis — which underscores the defensive nature of its actions, undertaken to preserve resistance capabilities — it has also eased the job of those hankering for sectarian war on Lebanese territory.

What all of this means for Lebanon is that the country will continue to enjoy the same two options it always has: residing on the edge of the abyss or residing within it.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.