War-ravaged Lebanon a haven for terror groups

LEBANON has just begun to emerge from 15 years of civil war and 22 years of Israeli occupation. But it has £15 billion in government debt, and 25,000 Syrian troops on its soil, along with 350,000 Palestinians.

The Lebanese government has little control of wide swathes of the country, including parts of the Bekaa Valley, Beirut’s southern suburbs, Palestinian refugee camps and the southern border areas.

Israel ended its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon on 24 May, 2000. Claims that the country would fall into infighting and anarchy have fallen flat. But the lack of central authority, and the easy access to arms, have to helped make Lebanon a base for terrorist groups.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was founded in 1967 as part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Ahmed Jibril’s smaller PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC) split away a year later, saying it wanted to focus more on an armed struggle.

From the the first, the PFLP-GC has been violently opposed to the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat. It rejected any peace deal with Israel, including the historic Oslo peace accords, and Ahmed Jibril said recently that the deal to end the siege of Bethelehem’s Nativity Church had shown Mr Arafat to be a pawn of the Jewish state.

In its most famous attack, a PFLP-GC guerrilla landed a hang-glider near a military outpost in northern Israel in November 1987 and killed six soldiers with hand grenades and a machine gun. The group, said to have several hundred fighters, also planned raids on Israel with a hot air balloon.

Last year, Mr Jibril claimed his group was the organiser of a weapons shipment seized by the Israelis en route for the Palestinian territories. But it has stayed largely on the sidelines since the latest intifada began in 2000. Ahmed Jibril’s name came up in the Lockerbie trial when the defence claimed that the PFLP-GC, not the two Libyans in the dock, had masterminded the bombing. Jihad Jibril was its commander of military operations in Lebanon, and a member of the leadership committee. He had taken military courses in Libya. Married with two sons, he was also studying at a Beirut university.

This March, the Lebanon-based Asbat al-Ansar was added to the US state department’s list of terrorist organisations - which prohibits any US citizens from doing business with them, and bars them from obtaining US visas.

Asbat al-Ansar is described as a Sunni Muslim terrorist organisation, based in Palestinian refugee camps. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network is said to have supplied money and training. The group has been singled out for its actions inside Lebanon, including the bombing of a customs building and the killing of four judges at a courthouse in 1999.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, although their terror operations are mostly based in the West Bank and Gaza, have offices in Lebanon.

The main Islamic militant group confronting Israel from Lebanon, however, is the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, or Party of God.

Last month, Lebanese Hezbollah groups fired at Israeli posts on an almost daily basis in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area, fuelling fears that the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would spread to Israel’s northern border.

In November, the United States included Hezbollah on its terrorist list for the first time, and Iran’s backing for the group lead partly to President George Bush naming the country in his ‘axis of evil’ speech.

If the US considers Hezbollah a terrorist group, the same is not true in the Arab world or the Palestinian territories.

Formed 20 years ago, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah is credited with driving the Israeli army from the country.

The US blames Hezbollah leaders for the truck bombings of the US embassy and marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. However, Hezbollah has not attacked US targets in Lebanon since 1991, and insists that Israel is its sole target.

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