Is Al Qaeda about to expand the 'field of jihad' to Lebanon?

It hasn't happened yet, but support for Al Qaeda and similar movements is growing among Lebanon's Sunni community as the country's Shiite Hezbollah fights on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

By , Correspondent

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    Lebanese army soldiers stand near a booby-trapped car (black, in background) loaded with explosives in central Beirut, February 12. On Wednesday, Lebanon's army arrested Naim Abbas, a senior Al Qaeda-linked militant known as a 'mastermind of car bombs.' Hours after Abbas's arrest, security forces found two booby-trapped cars, including this one with more than 200 pounds of explosives.
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A slew of car bombings, suicide attacks, and cross-border rocket barrages of Shiite areas of Lebanon over the past nine months by groups allied to the goals of Al Qaeda is raising concerns that the organization could formally expand its operations into Lebanon.

So far the attacks on Shiite areas appear less of a strategic push by Al Qaeda-linked militants to establish a base in Lebanon and more of a tactical backlash to the armed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad provided by Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party. And Al Qaeda’s leadership has made no explicit announcement designating Lebanon a legitimate “theater of jihad."

Yet the war in neighboring Syria and rising tensions between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis is creating a more fertile environment for Al Qaeda in Lebanon, analysts and Islamists say.

Recommended: Do you understand the Syria conflict? Take the quiz.

“In 2006, [Sunni] people [in Lebanon] were not very interested in Al Qaeda, but now it has become a legend among the youth,” says Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric who lives in Tripoli. “If Al Qaeda wants to move, there would be many people here who would support them.”

On Sunday Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, rejected allegations that the attacks by Sunni radical groups were due to his party’s intervention in Syria. He said Hezbollah had no choice but to fight in Syria because “Lebanon is a target for the Takfiri groups and part of their project, and their priority was to come to Lebanon after finishing with Syria.” Takfiri is a term used to describe Sunni extremists who view as apostates all those who do not follow their austere interpretation of Islam.

Lebanon’s relatively small size (less than half the area of New Jersey), complex religious demographics with 18 officially recognized faiths, traditionally moderate Sunni community, and pervasive state security apparatus so far has weighed against Al Qaeda becoming active in Lebanon. Al Qaeda tends to thrive in larger, confessionally homogeneous countries with loose government control or in a state of armed conflict with extensive remote terrain in which to hide and plan.

Jihadi transit

Lebanon played a useful role for Al Qaeda as a transit hub for volunteers from across the Arab world, including some Lebanese Sunnis, seeking to join the insurgency in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. But even its proximity to Israel and the post-2006 presence of more than 11,000 mainly European United Nations peacekeepers in the far south has failed to persuade Al Qaeda to invest much attention in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis historically have avoided Islamist militancy and tend to favor mercantile enterprises in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon over picking up a gun.

But Sunni discontent has risen in recent years at the growing influence in Lebanon of the powerful Hezbollah, a sentiment that has been further aggravated by the war in Syria where Hezbollah fighters battle rebel groups. In the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, such as the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, the black flag of Al Qaeda has become a common sight.

“We are softer than other [Salafists] because Lebanon is an open society. You cannot compare us to Iraqis or Afghans,” says Abu Bara’, a Sunni Salafist cleric and commander of a local militia in Bab Tebbaneh, using his nom de guerre. “But the reason [for increasing militancy among Lebanese Sunnis] is that the Sunnis feel under pressure because of the war in Syria and because of Hezbollah. We feel our backs are to the wall.”

The Sunnis of Bab Tebbaneh are locked into frequent factional fighting with the adjacent Jabal Mohsen district, whose residents are Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs. The cyclical armed clashes between Bab Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are a microcosm of the war in Syria and have come to symbolize Lebanon’s current sectarian divisions.

The empty buildings along the frontline Syria Street are riddled with fresh bullet holes or blackened with smoke from past clashes. Barriers of sandbags or hastily cemented cinderblock walls block passage between the two communities while Lebanese troops keep watch from armored personnel carriers parked on the street.

Abu Bara’, who spent time in prison a decade ago for blowing up a KFC restaurant in Tripoli, says local residents in Bab Tebbaneh support Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria franchise which has claimed some of the attacks in Shiite areas of Lebanon. But, he added, “Until now, I haven’t seen an order from [the leaders of ] Al Qaeda to fight Hezbollah."

“If you want to talk about Al Qaeda growing here, yes, it is, in sentiment and ideology, but not under its official name,” he says. “It is hard for Al Qaeda to declare Lebanon a land of jihad because the demographics are a major obstacle and the Salafist movement [here] is still weak.”

Growing attacks

Since Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrallah confirmed last May that his fighters were engaged in Syria, Shiite areas of Lebanon have been struck by eight car bomb attacks (six of them driven by suicide bombers), at least 15 rocket barrages, all but one fired from the Syrian side of the border, and five roadside bomb ambushes against suspected Hezbollah vehicles. A seventh suicide bomber blew himself up in a passenger van two weeks ago, killing only himself.

The three main groups that have claimed responsibility for attacks in Shiite areas of Lebanon are Jabhat al-Nusra, the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Of the three, only Jabhat al-Nusra is an official Al-Qaeda group. ISIS is a Syria-based offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq while the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades is an extremist group composed mainly of Lebanese and Palestinians based in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa Valley.

Last week, the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades released an 18-minute video showing footage of a twin suicide bomb attack claimed by the group, against the Iranian embassy in Beirut in November, in which 30 people were killed and more than 150 wounded. One of the suicide bombers, a Lebanese Sunni from Sidon, accused Iran of persecuting Sunnis across the region and said he chose to blow himself up “to cause more losses for the enemy."

Also in the video was a warning from Sirajeddine Zureiqat, the group’s spokesman, directed at Hezbollah and the Lebanese army.

“Your oppression of the Sunnis is creating Al-Qaeda in the hearts of the Sunni youths and a [reason] to confront you and to face the humiliation suffered by our people,” he said.

On December 19, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, told Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite television that his group now had a Lebanese wing which had claimed responsibility for a rocket barrage against the Shiite town of Hermel in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley three days earlier.

“We were looking to enter in order to protect Lebanon’s Sunnis from the [violence] of Hezbollah,” he said. “When Hezbollah disclosed [its] involvement [in the Syrian war it] opened the door wide for us to enter Lebanon and wake the Sunnis up.”

Real or imagined?

There are mixed views as to whether “Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon” actually exists as a separate entity or is merely a term adopted by the parent organization for attacks against Hezbollah and Shiite areas of Lebanon. For many followers of the group, the terminology is unimportant.

“Nusra means ‘support’ in Arabic so we are all Jabhat al-Nusra for the oppressed in Syria. It’s not the label that is important, it’s the action,” says Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Salafist cleric in Tripoli who narrowly survived a deadly car bomb attack against his mosque last August.

Given such sentiments, the Future Movement, the mainstream Sunni political party led by former prime minister Saad Hariri, is struggling to maintain relevance amid a drift by younger members of the community toward more militant stances. In a speech on Friday marking the ninth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik, for which five members of Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at an international tribunal in The Netherlands, Mr. Hariri urged Lebanese Sunnis to avoid being dragged into “crazy wars” between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda “that will only lure Lebanon into a sectarian pyre.”

“They [both] represent destructive concepts and tools to drain the [Lebanese] state and … for endless wars among Muslims,” he said.

But such calls for moderation and adherence to the Lebanese state are falling on deaf ears. Many Sunnis who once supported the Future Movement, particularly those in the volatile regions along Lebanon’s northern and eastern borders with Syria, express dismay and anger at Hariri allowing his party members to sit alongside representatives of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s newly-formed government. The new government was announced on Saturday after 10 months of negotiations between rival factions.

“Hezbollah’s actions in Syria are uniting the Sunnis … and that will provide the ground for fighters,” says Sheikh Bakri, whose sitting room is decorated with eight black-and-white Al Qaeda flags. “I have another 10 in other rooms,” he jokes.

“Any region with instability is ideal for Al Qaeda,” the thickly-bearded portly cleric says. “There is too much sectarianism, too much fighting, too many [mini] governments. The environment is ready. The situation is ideal for [groups like] ISIS.… Personally, I think the volcano is sleeping and suddenly it erupts and is everywhere.”

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