In July 2005, French scholar Olivier Roy argued that Iraq and Palestine are not factors in the prevalence of the Salafi-Jihadist movement. He based his argument on the fact that there are no Iraqi or Palestinian members in the Salafi-Jihadist organizations. Now, however, this argument must be reconsidered. Afghan authorities have expressed their concern over the “hordes of Iraqi suicide bombers” following the arrest of Noman Eddin Majid, aged 35 years, from Diyala governorate as he was trying to sneak into Afghanistan (al-Hayat, February 3). In addition, the perpetrators of the Amman bombing on November 9, 2005, and most of those in the recent disbanded terrorist cell in Amman as well, were Iraqis (Terrorism Focus, March 7). As for the Palestinians, the attention is becoming increasingly focused on Lebanon with its Palestinian refugee camps, particularly Ain El-Hilweh, instead of the West Bank. (Approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon.)
While the recruitment of Salafi-Jihadists in Lebanon is not restricted to Palestinians and includes some Lebanese nationals, young men from refugee camps are more fertile material for recruitment. Following the news of the arrest of Salafi-Jihadists in Lebanon and the announcement made by the movement of its responsibility for blowing up a location for the Lebanese army on February 1 (the movement delivered the threat through a phone call to the Sada al-Balad newspaper a day before, according to the paper), Lebanese authorities arrested 31 suspected jihadists. In light of this claim of responsibility and the arrests, it is important to examine the forms of recruitment that the Salafi-Jihadists use in Lebanon (al-Watan, February 8).
It seems that the activities of the Salafi-Jihadist movement focus on the poor Lebanese and Palestinian communities. The increasing connection with the Iraq factor is due to two reasons: the unattractiveness of the secular Palestinian organizations in the refugee camps compared to the increasing attraction of the Islamist groups, and the waning control of the Future/Hariri Party over the Sunni community.
Palestinian Refugee Camps
Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp was the base for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in the 1980s. The camp was a stronghold for the “Palestinian revolution” organizations, and it remains to this day under the power of Palestinians to the extent that the Lebanese army does not venture inside it (al-Hayat, February 26). The power of the secular organizations, however, is moving to the Islamist organizations, especially since the secular organizations have been implicated in cases of corruption and have not met the demands of the Palestinians. The commander of Fatah’s militias in Lebanon, Colonel Mounir Maqdah, proposed “forming a Lebanese-Palestinian military force to eradicate this fundamental group [from Ain El-Hilweh].” This clearly indicates the increase in the power of Islamist groups and the Palestinian organizations’ fear of losing their control, especially when newspaper sources talk of “returnees from Iraq” who aim at declaring “Lebanon’s loyalty” to the “Foundation of Jihad in Iraq” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 4).
An indication of the spread of the influence of the Salafi-Jihadist movements amidst Palestinians in Lebanon, promoted by the “returnees from Iraq,” is what Hazem Amin in al-Hayat calls the “al-Qaeda terminology.” The volunteers in Iraq are in touch with their parents in a way that connects the parents with information about jihad activities. This terminology is so widespread that Shiites are now described as “heretics” (al-Hayat, January 25), which is a new feature in the Lebanese sectarian system. In addition, death threats were made by the al-Qaeda Organization in Bilad al-Sham to Shiite Lebanese figures (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 27, 2005).
While this is the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, the influence of the Salafi-Jihadist movement is not restricted to them. There are Sunni Lebanese nationals who have headed to Iraq to volunteer in fighting the Americans (al-Hayat, January 26). Likewise, there was a transformation in the village of Majdal Anjar, which used to be the stronghold of “traditional Salafism,” since the arrival of Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani, who later became a close companion of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after he reached Iraq with his 16-year-old son, and where they both later died. Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani was Mustafa Ramadan. He began to spread his jihadist ideas since his return from Denmark around 2003 (al-Hayat, January 27), and was able to form a nucleus for the jihadist movement. The influence of those ideas applies to the Sunnis in Lebanon—not just to the Palestinians.
Lebanon-based Addiyar newspaper indicated on February 7, following the burning of the Danish Embassy and the riots in Beirut, that Saad Hariri is losing control over the Sunni scene by eliminating the subsidies for the poor among the Sunnis and making the al-Mustaqbal movement exclusive for the rich and powerful. As a result, Salafi-Jihadist movements (al-Qaeda, Usbat al-Ansar, Jund al-Sham) and the Islamic Liberation Party are, according to Addiyar, now controlling 90 percent of the Sunni scene (Addiyar, February 7).
Despite the reliability of the 90 percent figure, the Salafi-Jihadist movement is attracting a host of poor Sunnis who were badly affected after the death of Rafiq Hariri. The media always spoke of the role Hariri played in restoring the balance between the Sunnis and the other sects in Lebanon. This becomes evident if we review the backgrounds of the people who volunteered in or returned from Iraq; they were mostly poor who did odd jobs like selling coffee and steamed beans in the street, or were unemployed in the first place.
The developments related to the Salafi-Jihadist presence in Lebanon shows that those influenced by the ideology will begin to move out of the Palestinian refugee camps and into southern Lebanon. This development means that Hezbollah will be threatened in its historically-controlled region. For Hezbollah, this development comes at a time when the party is under pressure to disarm and to end ties with Syria. This means that Hezbollah will not allow the Salafi-Jihadists to extend into their influenced region. While Salafi-Jihadists consider Shiites as infidels, on February 23 Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah listed, for the first time, the “Jama’at al-Takfeer” (Excommunication Groups, which is how officials in Arab governments describe Salafi-Jihadists), as one of the three beneficiaries of the bombings of Shiite shrines in Iraq, along with the United States and Israel (for full audio of his speech, see https://www.moqawama.org/sound/details.php?linkid=351).
The above factors show that the Salafi-Jihadist presence and movement into Lebanon is facing many obstacles, but is also becoming a new force in the country. At the same time, however, the socio-political developments in Lebanon are creating the conditions for that presence.
While Sunnis in Lebanon were historically led by old families like al-Huss, Karami and al-Sulh, from the 1990s until his assassination in 2005, Rafiq al-Hariri became the most prominent leader of Sunnis and enjoyed their support. That is why he was described as the “most Sunni personality” (al-Jazeera, February 13). One of the most important factors in the popularity of Hariri among Sunnis was his concentration on the grassroots level by helping poor Lebanese.
Among the implications of the assassination was that Sunnis have become prone to polarization by different ideologies, among which is the Salafi-Jihadist ideology. Due to the positions of the above-mentioned political forces—such as the Palestinian organizations and Hezbollah—there will be conflict between them and Salafi-Jihadists. The result will be that the spread of the Salafi-Jihadist ideology in Lebanon will become a destabilizing factor in the country.