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Analysis: Is Al-Qaeda Operating In Lebanon?

Just days after Italian intelligence services informed the Lebanese police that they possessed information about an imminent car-bomb attack on the Italian Embassy located in the center of Beirut, Lebanese Interior Minister Elias Murr announced on 22 September the arrests of 10 members of a suspected Al-Qaeda network in Lebanon.

By 23 September, the number of arrested suspects had risen to 20, according to Beirut's "The Daily Star."

The operation against the group -- which the interior minister said was composed of Lebanese "in addition to some Palestinians that included a woman" -- constituted the first arrests of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in Lebanon, and resulted from cooperation between Italian and Syrian security services.

Also among those detained was the group's alleged leader in Lebanon, Ismail Muhammad Al-Khateeb.

Murr has said investigations have revealed that the network had developed plans to attack Lebanese government buildings and police stations. "They were also planning to assassinate officials working in Western embassies," dpa quoted him as saying.

Murr went on to say that "Lebanon has never seen such a well-organized and dangerous network," adding that the network's role had been to "enroll fundamentalists to carry out attacks against the coalition forces in Iraq." He named Italy, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Sudan as countries to which the group had connections, and security sources reportedly said some of the group's members were based in Germany.

A week after being arrested in the predominantly Sunni Muslim area of Bekaa valley, Al-Khateeb was rushed from prison to a hospital complaining of chest pains, and Lebanese officials announced shortly afterward that he had died of a heart attack, the BBC reported on 28 September. With Al-Khateeb gone, the investigation into the alleged terrorist network lost a major potential source of information.

While none of those arrested was reported to have any ties with the Hizballah organization in Lebanon, the possibility of a connection between such organizations and Al-Qaeda has long been considered.

Hizballah, a large political movement that is closely identified with Iranian hard-liners and has 12 representatives in Lebanon's parliament, has been involved in fighting during the Lebanese civil war and in terrorist attacks against Israel. Its Shi'ite fundamentalist stance and pro-Iranian role in regional politics have led some to suspect that it might have contacts with Al-Qaeda, while other observers have discounted such a possibility on the basis that Hizballah would not support Al-Qaeda's strong Wahhabi philosophy.
Some in the Lebanese press have speculated that the arrest of the "Al-Qaeda" cell could have been a Syrian-staged event meant to pacify the United States.

American charges of Al-Qaeda-Hizballah cooperation go back to 1998, after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. In its indictment against Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden regarding those attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service report on Foreign Terrorist Organizations from February 2004, the U.S. government stated that "Al-Qaeda also forged alliances with...Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States."

The resurfacing in a 2004 Congressional report of testimony made in May 1996 that Iran was providing "up to $100 million a year" to Hizballah, taken in combination with U.S. accusations that Iran has sheltered Al-Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion, has further raised eyebrows regarding possible Al-Qaeda-Hizballah links via Iran.

In early February 2002, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, on a visit to the United States with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was reported by CNN as saying that Al-Qaeda members fleeing recently invaded Afghanistan were seeking haven in Lebanon. This charge was promptly rejected by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizballah leader.

On 30 June 2002, "The Washington Post" reported that Al-Qaeda and Hizballah had joined forces in Lebanon to train terrorists. In this report, the paper claimed that U.S. officials believe that after Al-Qaeda was driven from Afghanistan, bin Laden told his members to ally themselves with sympathetic Islamic groups. An unidentified senior administration official told the newspaper that there is "no doubt at all" that Hizballah and Al-Qaeda have communicated on logistical matters.

This report was denied by the press spokesman of Hizballah, Sheikh Hassan Izzeddine, who was quoted by China's "People's Daily" on 1 July 2002 as saying that "there is no cooperation between Hizballah and Al-Qaeda in any form, neither on a logistical level nor in field training."

Prior to the arrests in Lebanon, "The Daily Star" published an analytical piece on 20 August titled "Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda: Friends or Foes?" The author, Haytham Mouzahem, a Lebanese analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East and Islamic affairs, concluded his article by stating that Al-Qaeda and Hizballah are "foes rather than friends" due to "very different political priorities, strategies, and agendas."

The presence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon would have profound regional implications, and could lead to a destabilization of Lebanon. It could also possibly provide Syria with an excuse not to remove its forces that have been in Lebanon since 1976 -- troops it has recently agreed to reposition from their posts southeast of Beirut toward the Syrian border.

That repositioning was seen as a response by the Syrian government to increased pressure by the United States and the United Nations to remove its forces from Lebanon. The United States has also asked that Syria stop supporting Islamic militant groups in Lebanon and to prevent foreign fighters from entering Iraq via Syria.

In the wake of the troop redeployment and the recent arrests, some in the Lebanese press have speculated that the arrest of the "Al-Qaeda" cell could have been a Syrian-staged event meant to pacify the United States, while at the same time showing the Lebanese that they could become the target of terrorist attacks if Syria were to lessen its influence in Lebanon.

Whether or not such theories pan out, it is clear that as more information emerges about the accuracy of allegations being made about the identity and role of the alleged Al-Qaeda cell in Lebanon, Western intelligence organizations will surely be watching very carefully. For if Al-Qaeda has, in fact, established an organizational structure in Lebanon -- with or without the help of Hizballah, it would have both a strong regional as well as an international impact on the war on terrorism.

For the latest news on the U.S.-led War on Terror, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The War on Terror".