Evidence of the contentious issue of al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon may have come to light with the warning on a jihadist forum spotted by Focus on January 13. Posted on the al-Ma’sada forum (www.alm2sda.net) by the “Auxiliaries of the Organization of al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” the warning referred to the killing eighteen months earlier of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, referred to as Lebanon’s al-Qaeda leader, in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. It accused “the PLO in Lebanon, in co-operation with the Lebanese state and Israeli Mossad” of responsibility for the car bomb which killed Al-Masri. The group threatened to “use the heads of the members of the infidel Fath movement in this camp as sword practice” and served notice on “the entire leadership of Fath with vengeance for the martyr’s blood.”
Al-Qaeda’s strength in Lebanon remains an open question. It was believed, by the Israelis at least, that the organization had a strong presence, with Syrian connivance, in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, where some 150-200 operatives had arrived from Afghanistan by Autumn 2002. This influx was held responsible, among other things, for an outbreak of fighting, as part of their effort to take over the camp. The organization last hit the news in September 2004 when Lebanese security, in a joint operation with Italian and Syrian security, foiled a plot to attack Ukrainian and Lebanese targets in Beirut. The group was also planning to assassinate employees working in Western embassies in Lebanon. As a result of this security operation the first arrests of suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Lebanon took place (see Focus, Vol. I, Issue 5).
The present posting is a relatively rare surfacing of al-Qaeda in this area. Western intelligence organizations will surely be watching such developments very carefully, for even a limited presence of the organization in Lebanon has potential regional political implications. Aside from the implications on the war on terrorism, it could possibly provide Syria with an excuse not to remove its forces that have been in Lebanon since 1976 – a charge made at the time of the September arrests. It also adds a complicating factor to the challenges facing the new Palestinian leadership, whether or not the threat to “the entire leadership of Fath” is credible.