6 October 2004, Volume
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.
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.
Among those detained was the group's alleged leader in Lebanon, Ismail Muhammad al-Khatib, who died within a week of his arrest. A military prosecutor has charged a further 26 people in connection with the case, AP reported, citing judicial officials. Those suspects, including Lebanese, Saudis, Palestinians, and Syrians, according to the officials, remain at large.
Interior Minister Murr has said investigations 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-Khatib 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-Khatib 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.
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."
It is notable that following the death of the 31-year-old al-Khatib, riots broke out in his hometown of Majdal Anjar located in the Bekaa Valley on Lebanon's border with Syria. AFP reported on 28 September that protesters, "many carrying sticks and knives" shouted slogans "against the United States and its allies in Lebanon who arrested Khatib." The website Middle East online noted that "several hundred marched on a Lebanese border checkpoint, hurling stones and bottles."
The town of Majdal Anjar, with 20,000 residents, was described by the "Daily Star" on 29 September as one that supplied many volunteers to fight coalition forces in Iraq. Al-Khatib's cousin told the newspaper that Lebanese and Syrian officials knew about the volunteers and in many cases "facilitated their initiatives."
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. (Roman Kupchinsky)
HOW DO ARABS VIEW THE VIOLENCE IN IRAQ?
Chilling scenes of indiscriminate car bombings, beheadings, and mortar attacks, showing dozens of dead Iraqi civilians, have become a regular feature on Arabic TV news stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah, alongside footage of civilians killed during coalition bombing raids and firefights with insurgents. Viewed by large audiences in the Middle East, television coverage of the war has generated predictable condemnation of the United States' role in Iraq. At the same time, these reports have also created the image of Sunni insurgents who claim to be battling coalition forces but are often seen killing Shi'ite Muslims.
The recent upsurge in violence has led more Arab scholars, commentators, and politicians to publicly condemn terrorism aimed at Iraqi civilians as counterproductive. Terrorism against civilians is not only incapable of forcing coalition troops out of the country, these critics claim, it could drag the entire Middle East into a sectarian civil war.
The Iraqi insurgents are "willing to kill 90 Iraqi civilians in order to kill one U.S. soldier," Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in June, Beirut's "The Daily Star" reported on 20 August. "Saddam's Ba'athists and even Wahhabis are willing to negotiate with the Americans, all in order to prevent a rise in Shi'ite power," the newspaper quoted the leader of the Lebanese Shi'ite group as saying. This network "will strike at Shi'ite targets in the Arab world, outside Iraq, very soon," he added.
In March 2003, Nasrallah condemned these killings and "warned Al-Qaeda's fighters...that such behavior would damage the Palestinian cause because it would lead to Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian strife, an apparent goal of [Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-]Zarqawi," "The Daily Star" reported.
That the invasion of Iraq has damaged the image of the United States among Muslims has been widely reported. In such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, the ratings of the United States are at their lowest ever. The findings of a June 2004 Zogby International poll "Impressions of America -- How Arabs View America" concluded that "attitudes toward U.S. policy in Iraq and Palestine are extremely low, in the single-digit range."
However, few polls have been taken to gauge the impact that terrorist acts against Iraqi civilians have had upon the same audience. In lieu of hard polling data, one possibility is to turn to recent commentaries in the Arab press for an insight into how some influential Muslims view these events. A sampling of commentary in the Arab press after the hostage tragedy at a school in Beslan in Russia's North Ossetia compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute (http://www.memri.org) provides some examples.
Writing in the 4 September issue of the London daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, a former editor, commented: "Obviously not all Muslims are terrorists but, regrettably, the majority of the terrorists in the world are Muslims. The kidnappers of the students in [North] Ossetia are Muslims. The kidnappers and killers of the Nepalese workers and cooks are also Muslims. Those who rape and murder in Darfur are Muslims, and their victims are Muslims as well.... What a terrible record. Does this not say something about us, about our society and our culture?"
Iraqi columnist Aziz al-Hajj wrote on elaph.com on 4 September: "The Arabs and Muslims today contribute nothing to civilization and progress except for blood, severed heads, scorched bodies, and the abduction and murder of children. The jihad for religion and Arab chivalry have turned into the art of exploding, booby trapping, and spilling blood...."
Bater Wardam, a columnist for the Jordanian daily "Al-Dustur" wrote on 5 September: "It is always easy to flee to illusions and to place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists, and on American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case and that those who murder innocent civilians in Iraq after having kidnapped them...came from our midst.... Even worse, we are employing the same moral double standard regarding people's lives that the West uses."
The conflict in Iraq has been central in molding public opinion in the Arab world and many in the Middle East were suspected of accepting the claims of terrorist leaders such as al-Zarqawi about the Iraqi population and its "resolve and steely determination" in opposing the occupation armies. However, the real views held by Iraqis were unknown to their neighbors until a poll was conducted in the country in August 2003 by Zogby International.
Commenting on this poll, Abd al-Moneim Said, the director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, wrote in the Egyptian weekly "Al-Ahram" of 30 October-5 November 2003: "When the first public opinion poll was carried out in Egypt by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in 1998, some national newspapers denounced such research as a form of treason, the assumption being that foreign intelligence services must never know what is on our people's mind. We need to keep public opinion secret to confound the enemy, even if we ourselves remain confused.
"Many Arabs would be surprised to know that Iraqis do not believe that the current occupation necessarily bodes ill for the country.... In all, the poll shows that Iraqis are relatively more united than commonly thought. They believe that what happened to Iraq is not all bad, that the country has a definite chance of improvement, and that the occupation has to end soon, preferably within a year."
The failure of a jihad that is killing more Muslims then avowed enemies was the subject of an article by David Ignatius in "The Daily Star" on 29 September. Citing a new book by French Arabist Gilles Kepel, "The War for Muslim Minds," Ignatius writes: "Rather than waging a successful jihad against the West, the followers of Osama bin Laden have created chaos and destruction within the house of Islam. This internal crisis is known in Arabic as 'fitna': 'It has an opposite and negative connotation from jihad,' explains Kepel. 'It signifies sedition, war in the heart of Islam, a centrifugal force that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin.'
"'The principle goal of terrorism -- to seize power in Muslim countries through mobilization of populations galvanized by jihad's sheer audacity -- has not been realized,' writes Kepel. In fact, bin Laden's followers are losing ground: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. Not what you would call a successful jihad," Ignatius concludes. (Roman Kupchinsky)