Fears of al-Qaeda forging links in Lebanon

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"IT'S going to be us and al-Qaeda against Hezbollah." Sitting in a disused warehouse in the Bab-al-Tebbaneh district of Tripoli, a Sunni fighter explains how the ad-hoc militia that he helped command in the recent fighting are preparing for the future.

Softly-spoken and courteous, speaking to The Scotsman on condition of anonymity, he pauses to offer cigarettes. "When we hear al-Qaeda are threatening the Shia, we do celebratory gunfire," he says.

Al-Qaeda has had major setbacks recently. In Iraq, at least according to the CIA, it has suffered "near-strategic defeat", while missile strikes have killed some top figures in Pakistan.

It is believed to be looking for new fronts to open. In the past month, jihadi websites have been abuzz with discussion on how best to exploit the situation in Lebanon. With internal security in disarray and sectarian tension at a peak after Hezbollah's humiliating take-over of Beirut last month, the country could offer an opening.

When Hezbollah, a Shia party, brandished its power, some of Lebanon's Sunnis felt humiliated. Their Grand Mufti, Qabbani, warned that they had "had enough", bringing fears his words could be interpreted as a signal to fight back.

"After the Mufti's speech, we received funding from rich Sunni individuals," claims the Bab al Tebbaneh fighter. "What happened has pushed us into more co-ordination. We have more contact. We are ready. This is happening all over the country. We have no problem with al-Qaeda coming in, if they want to defend the Sunnis."

Lebanon has swung repeatedly between bursts of optimism about the "Switzerland of the Middle East", with its beaches, night-life and ski resorts, and tragically destructive wars involving Israel, Hezbollah, and other Lebanese and Palestinian factions.

Sunnis in Lebanon, a majority Muslim country, are chiefly interested in getting back to business and work. But in some areas they are demanding a more radical response. If Sunni Muslims feel vulnerable, it could be a good time for Sunni extremists, some with ties to al-Qaeda. Analysts are worried.

"Extremists are at the peak of their possible popularity and recruitment … they could cause a security upheaval," said Timur Goksel, a security expert at the American University of Beirut.

Unlike some of his comrades, the Bab-al-Tabbaneh fighter is not a Salafist – a Sunni fundamentalist – which makes his tolerant attitude to al-Qaeda all the more disturbing.

Tripoli has a history of Salafism. But although they have grown in visibility in recent years, the Salafists are not as powerful as they were in the 1980s. After Hezbollah and allied fighters shelled the city last month, however, Sunni public opinion is increasingly demanding a more radical response.

"The Future Movement (Lebanon's mainstream Sunni political party] are all engineers and doctors," says Araby Akkawi, a well-connected local. "The feeling is that you need an extreme Muslim group to face another extreme Muslim group."

Khaled Daher, a former parliamentarian from north Lebanon, echoes this: "The Future Movement's weapon is education. The Sunnis cannot keep on holding pens in front of rifles."

The Future Movement's Saad Hariri suffered a major blow to his prestige at the hands of Hezbollah. But it is unlikely anyone will supplant him as the political leader of Lebanon's Sunnis. "No-one else has the amount of international support he has," said Mr Akkawi.

The Future Movement has no military strategy for dealing with Hezbollah and has exerted pressure on armed Sunni groups to exercise restraint. But, Mr Akkawi says, the Future Movement has "no power over extremist suicide bombings".

Security incidents have occurred on an almost daily basis in the past month. An audio tape released on Monday purported to be from the leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Fatah Islam, which killed over 100 Lebanese soldiers at Nahr al Bared refugee camp last year.

It suggested that "the car bombs of Iraq and brigades of martyrdom-seekers" would be the next stage of the conflict. "Me, personally I'm ready to become a suicide bomber," says the Bab-al-Tabbaneh fighter.

"I am training my boy to fight Hezbollah," he says, showing us a picture of a child holding a rocket- propelled grenade.

It is not clear who was behind the recent attempted suicide bombing mission from Ein el Helweh refugee camp. But the more militant sections of the Sunni population see such actions as a boost for their cause.

In the main mosque in Tripoli last Friday, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi told worshippers to "take advantage" of the "rage" they were feeling, ending his sermon on an ominous note: "What happened at Ein el Helweh is just the beginning."

Formidable fighting force with power and prestige

HEZBOLLAH, the Party of God, is a Shia group which has a formidable military wing – supplied by Iran. It first emerged in Lebanon in the early 1980s and became the leading radical Islamic movement in the region, with the goal of driving Israeli troops from the country.

In May 2000, its prestige received a huge boost when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon. In 2006, they returned, provoked by Hezbollah's cross-border attacks, but if the month-long conflict was an effort to break Hezbollah's military power it failed. Last month, in a show of force, Hezbollah took temporary control of Sunni-majority West Beirut.

Sunnis in Lebanon have resented Hezbollah's power for a long time. Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, also sees Hezbollah as the enemy, despite the fact that they share an anti-Israel, anti-US agenda.

This is partly because extreme Sunnis see the Shia as infidels and partly because Hezbollah control Lebanon's Southern border with Israel, which al-Qaeda thinks should be open for jihad.

The past few years have seen an increase in extremist Sunni groups, some of whose members have fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, using Lebanon's refugee camps as a base. Both foreign and local Sunni extremists, it is thought, are seeking to exploit the current anger and fear amongst Lebanon's Sunnis to strengthen their positions.

No official census has been taken of Lebanon's estimated four million people since 1932, reflecting political sensitivity over religious balance. It is thought that Muslims account for about 60 per cent of the population.

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