After a missile attack on Israel from south Lebanon on December 27, 2005, the Organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq, or the Land of the Two Rivers, issued an audio-recording for its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which he claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was ordered by al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. The attack, combined with the statement of responsibility, raised questions about al-Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon. Following the attack, Lebanese authorities arrested a group of al-Qaeda members or followers of the Salafi-Jihadist movement. While the Lebanese authorities did not disclose details about the arrested suspects, the news leaks raised several questions about the presence and nature of the Salafi-Jihadist movement in Lebanon.
Al-Qaeda’s Presence in Lebanon
Among Arab societies, Lebanese are least affected by Salafi ideas (al-Jazeera Channel, January 13, 2006). Since independence, Lebanon has been a multi-cultural state with a fairly open society, making Salafi-Jihadist ideology less attractive. This explains why most of the arrested men were not Lebanese. Nevertheless, questions remain about the reasons behind the increase in the number of the movement’s followers in Lebanon: some sources indicate that there are more than 100 Salafi-Jihadist followers in the country (al-Watan, January 15, 2006). The attack on Israel also raises questions about the movement’s true motives in Lebanon.
Among the names announced by Lebanese authorities, four of the suspects were Lebanese nationals. The rest of the accused include seven Syrians, one Palestinian and one Jordanian. They were all accused of the attack on Israel. Among the Lebanese were Khader and Malek Nab’a, who are relatives of the suspects in the Dinnieh incidents of 2000 (see the indictment in Lebanon-based al-Nahar newspaper, July 11, 2000).
In addition, Khader Nab’a is associated with the appearance of the Salafi-Jihadist movement in Lebanon, when the leader of the al-Ahbash religious sect, Nizar Halabi, was assassinated in 1995. Since Salafi-Jihadist ideology is less popular in Lebanon than in other Arab countries, recruitment takes place among relatives and friends. The exceptions to this were the suspects in the Dinnieh incidents, since most of them were Lebanese veterans of the Afghan war. Yet, most of the individuals arrested in Lebanon after the Dinnieh incidents were not Lebanese nationals. Indeed, recent arrests of Salafi-Jihadists have uncovered plans to target U.S. interests, restaurants and diplomats (see feature on the record of al-Qaeda in Lebanon, al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 23, 2004).
Attacking Israel to Increase Popularity of Salafi-Jihadist Movement
The attack on Israel appears to be an attempt by Salafi-Jihadists to gain popularity among the Arab public after it began losing support in the Arab world due to its violent operations and targeting of civilians. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains one of the major issues that affect Arabs. This does not mean, however, that the conflict with Israel is not important for Salafi-Jihadists; on the contrary, it is considered an “ideological priority.”
Nevertheless, it seems that Israel is not the main reason for al-Qaeda to increase its operations in Lebanon. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the ideology of Salafi-Jihadists is generally not popular among Lebanese. Additionally, south Lebanon will not become a base for Salafi-Jihadists because the region is controlled by the Shiite party Hezbollah. Salafi-Jihadists hold intense animosity toward the Shiite sect, which makes unlikely any coalition between the two parties.
The primary reason behind al-Qaeda’s increasing presence in Lebanon is that since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian withdrawal that ensued as a result of that assassination, Lebanon has entered a state of security upheaval. According to Moroccan researcher al-Mahjoub Habibi, the Salafi-Jihadist movement is facing difficulties operating in many regions of the world, and the lack of security in Lebanon is drawing the movement’s members to the country (http://www.rezgar.com, March 31, 2005). Habibi, a secularist, also argued that Jordan will serve as new ground for al-Qaeda; like Lebanon, it is close to Israel and fits into al-Qaeda’s strategy of establishing a Caliphate after dominating Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Al-Qaeda and the Salafi-Jihadist movement are always trying to establish a presence in regions suffering from a lack of government security. In light of this analysis, the recent attack on Israel was likely an attempt by Salafi-Jihadists to recover the popularity lost with the Arab public over its recent choices of targets, and to move closer to establishing its presence in all of the Middle East.