On Wednesday September 23 Lebanese authorities announced the arrest of the country’s top al-Qaeda operative, who along with another Lebanese suspect had planned to stage simultaneous suicide bombing attacks in Beirut against the embassies of Italy and Ukraine, both participating members of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The suspects had also planned to kill individual employees of a number of western embassies in Lebanon, and were preparing to target Lebanese security officials and the judiciary. Acting on information provided the week before by Italian intelligence, a total of 10 suspected participants in the plot were picked up: these were the ringleaders, Ahmad Salim Miqati and Ismail Muhammad al-Khatib, and 8 others including Lebanese and Palestinians.
Ahmad Miqati, described by Lebanon’s public prosecutor, Adnan Addoum, as “one of the most dangerous people wanted in Lebanon,” belonged to an Islamist group that staged a bloody uprising four years ago in the north Lebanese region of Dinniyah. He is alleged to have maintained contacts with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, gathering potential recruits for the Iraqi insurgency, and was attempting to establish al-Qaeda cells in Lebanon. Addoum also hinted at ‘unconfirmed information’ that Miqati had played a role in the killing last year of an American missionary nurse in Sidon. After being been condemned to death in absentia by a Lebanese military court, Miqati had remained, until his arrest, a fugitive in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh. The camp is notorious for the shelter it offers to fugitives and Islamist militants. Miqati’s arrest triggered the subsequent arrests.
Al-Khatib was described by Addoum as ‘the head of the al-Qaeda organization in Lebanon’ and like Miqati, is understood to have promoted the establishment of al-Qaeda cells, and actively recruited fundamentalist youth for the insurgency in Iraq. The two figures, and the groups they headed are thought to have been closely linked. Events took a dramatic turn four days after Al-Khatib’s arrest when he was suddenly hospitalized after suffering a cardiac arrest, and succumbing to a second attack the same day. This provoked riots in his home town of Majdal Anjar, where protestors dismissed the official account of his death and accused the Lebanese government of pandering to the United States by inventing false charges of ‘terrorism’.
The Lebanese government itself, however, was keen to celebrate the dismantling of the first network in the country linked to al-Qaeda. But the more interesting complexion on events was the public acknowledgement of the role played by Syria in the arrests. The uncovering of the plot is well timed to lighten the pressure the international community is recently piling on Lebanon and Syria. Earlier in September the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its 20,000 troops from Lebanon, and at the same time applied pressure on Lebanon to elect a new president, one that would be independent of Syria. The circumstances of the arrests have yet to be made fully clear. Coinciding as they do with Syrian redeployment of its troops from the Beirut area would strongly indicate that the arrests were not entirely independent of this fact.