Prospects for Jihadis in Lebanon

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Very good points. The one thing I would add, though, would be that while, yes, Lebanese intelligence has ties to a lot of the jihadist groups, so too do other security agencies — namely the Syrians and the Jordanians. Each and all of these security services can exploit individual groups for what they see as their own interests. And I haven’t even mentioned the Saudi involvement! So it’s a wee bit more complicated than Bakri says.

    In fact, I could go on at length as to why Lebanon is the *perfect* place in many ways for AQ-linked groups. Depressing…

  2. Hi AM, I wish you had gone on at length. It would be interesting to draw up a list of things that attract Jihadis to Lebanon and things that repulse them. Sort of like Oxford Analytica’s drivers and restrainers:


    Abu Mus`ab Suri has his own list of drivers and so does Abu Bakr Naji (arms proliferation, geography, etc.).

    But I have noticed that things Jihadis identify as positive factors are actually not beneficial, such as failed states. AQ loved them in the 90s (eg Somalia), but found that they made for lousy operating environments (see the CTC’s Horn of Africa report). So it might be helpful to separate the issue of Lebanon’s attraction into two parts: things that attract Jihadis and for good reason and things that attract Jihadis, but shouldn’t.

  3. I think I’m with Exum on this one. Of course the middle class merchants of Manara and Karakas aren’t down with the Saladfists but they don’t need to be: The camps are just fine for a base of operations, along with a handful of villages in Beqaa and some neighborhoods in Trablus. It’s pretty much all any budding Jihadi needs. As for the security services infiltrating groups…I wouldn’t bet on it mattering. First, the Lebanese security services are pretty much laughably inept. The heavy lifting was always done by the Syrians so they’ve had to build a lot of skills since 2005, in an environment we could be nice and call ‘distracting.’ They lack the operators, background and tactics needed to run deep cover operatives into jihadists groups like the Jordanians can. The other issue is that Salafists on ‘Jihad Break 08’ aren’t exactly going to walk into a famous Salafist mosque in Tripoli and ask to join their Kafr-Smiting program. They know better. They’ll go to the camps or apartments of their old roommates from Fallujah. And Bakri and others are somewhat understating the relationship between some of the camp groups — partic in Ain el-Hilwe – and AQI. They don’t have relationships, they’re the same thing. Scores of chebab from trablus and AeH went to fight with Abu Musab in Iraq, they’ve kept the relationships. And while the larger groups have been somewhat successfully cooped by the Hariri political machine, it’s likely only a temporary friendship. Any significant clash will send all the palestinians together, just as you saw PFLP guys fighting alongside the Fatah Islam jerk-offs in Nahr Bared last year. Camp folk stick together against the outsiders and the Lebanese Army is still remembered as a brutal force from the 1960s when they were allowed to enter the camps and disarm people they didn’t like. even in moderate and closely controlled places like Bourj Baranjne and Sabra, people are paranoid and seething towards the Lebanese military. so it won’t take much for a situation the LAF can’t handle to kick off.

  4. Would be interesting to hear the role of Hezbollah and their intelligence services stand in this. Surely, Hezbollah seems like the perfect vehicle to oppose the Salafists? How good is their intel-ops? Have they “inherited” the Syrian networks? Etc.

  5. It seems to me that:
    1. The Syrian Intelligence has maintained a large network in Lebanon, hence manipulates some Salafists, and thus, would penetrate AQ if it operates in Lebanon. Syria’s Mukhabarat transporated Jihadists from Lebanon to Iraq.
    2. Hezbollah’s security branch has also its own infiltration of -indeed- radical Sunni groups, which it funds.
    3. Syrian and Hezbollah’s penetration of Salafi Jihadists -not all of them- sometimes overlaps and in many areas, doen’t.
    4. The Lebanese military intelligence has some presence inside the Salafi groups.
    5. So does the Lebanese Internal Security Forces.
    Therefore a large sector of the Salafi Islamists are compromised by non Salafi intelligence. But still, there are fully independent sectors of Salafi Jihadism that escapes all of the above. And this it where AQ has support.
    Hence Omar Bakri is right that Lebanon will be more difficult to penetrate but not impossible for AQ.

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