Mahan Abedin has a revealing interview with Omar Bakri Muhammad in Asia Times Online. Omar Bakri was the head of al-Muhajiroun, a Jihadi group in the U.K. Soon after the 7/7 attacks, he left the U.K. for his home country of Lebanon, where he settled in Tripoli and now directs the Iqra Islamic Trust. Since Omar Bakri is an old hand in the Jihadi movement and plugged into the militant scene in Lebanon, his speculation on the prospects for transnational Sunni militants there is worth considering.
Omar Bakri doesn’t think Lebanon is a good environment for al-Qaeda for the following reasons:
- The Sunnis in Lebanon are Hanafis and don’t like Salafism.
- The population of Lebanon is diverse and very nationalistic. (So they don’t mind theological difference and they don’t like outsiders with transnational agendas?)
- Many of the Islamic groups and most of the religious leaders are tied to Lebanese intelligence, so the security environment would be very difficult for AQ.
Nevertheless, Omar Bakri acknowledges that Zawahiri has alluded to designs on Lebanon in his messages. If AQ wants to come, Omar Bakri believes it will find a home in the Palestinian camps, where they have a lot of supporters. But he doesn’t think Lebanon is a major focus for al-Qaeda at the moment.
When Lebanon does become the focus, it will be to attack UNIFIL (the UN force in southern Lebanon) and American targets. And it will be members of al-Qaeda in Iraq leading the charge. Omar Bakri believes there is already strong links between Salafi militants in the Palestinian camps and AQ in Iraq. Some of them went to fight alongside AQ in Iraq, and a few have already returned. If AQ shifts its focus to Lebanon, these individuals can be activated.
To put OBM’s analysis in context, its worth reading Andrew Exum’s article on Jihadi returnees. Like OBM, he agrees that the autonomy of the Palestinian camps is attractive to foreign Jihadis. He goes further than OBM by positing that the political instability of Lebanon is an added incentive. I agree. Nevertheless, they will have a very tough time in Lebanon for the reasons OBM outlines.
One final bit from OBM’s interview: he alleges that Syria is pushing the story that al-Qaeda is already stirring up trouble in Lebanon because it wants to undermine the Lebanese government, giving the impression that it can’t maintain its own security. The West, Saudi Arabia, and the Hariri faction dispute the presence of AQ in Lebanon for exactly this reason.