The debate triggered by the [statements] of Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn on the [alleged] infiltration of Al-Qaeda members into Lebanon has opened the door to discussion of a subject which has not been raised on the Lebanese political scene, nor in the media, for over three years.
Once Ghosn made his statement, the March 14 coalition quickly launched a crushing personal attack on him. [They also] attacked his allies, and the government, through him - eclipsing his claims. The reaction of Ghosn’s allies [in the March 8 coalition] in his defense came late. According to [March 8] MP Suleiman Franjieh, [Ghosn] “said what he said to shift responsibility away from himself.”
As a result, the [discussion] fell into the trap of sectarian bickering. Some claimed that the incumbent minister’s statements were clearly aimed at the Sunni community because they targeted “an area dear to Lebanon” (the Bekaa village of Arsal). None of the two sides thought to conclude their political rhetoric by saying that “there is no Al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” rather than “there is Al-Qaeda in Lebanon”.
Delegations from the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb [Phalangist] Party raced against those from the Future Movement and the Muslim Scholars toward the “city of steadfastness” [Arsal] to salute its heroes. [Meanwhile], some who stayed out of the political bickering asked: Is there really an Al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon?
Responses from several sources have converged on one clear fact: Al-Qaeda exists in most countries of the world. But the nature of its presence varies from one country to another, depending on what strategy the organization decides to adopt, and whether this strategy is kept secret, or made public. In principle, it is fair to say that Al-Qaeda does not have a public presence in Lebanon, since it has never issued a statement or message through any of its websites claiming responsibility for an attack carried out with its borders. Yet, the existence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon has been the subject of continual debates. The “golden era” of the presence of Al-Qaeda - or some of its branches [in Lebanon] - was between 2004 and 2007, according to the [Lebanese] security services.
Those who became affiliated with Al-Qaeda at that time did so to engage in “jihad against the Americans in Iraq.” It is no secret that certain security authorities used to turn a blind eye to some groups heading to Iraq to carry out this task. When Al-Qaeda changed its objectives in Iraq, and after a sectarian element was introduced to the [Iraqi] conflict, the [Lebanese] state’s view of these groups changed. As a result, [the Lebanese government] restricted the movement [of these groups] and closed the “gates of Jihad” in their face. However, some assert that a few Al-Qaeda elements willingly decided to stay in Lebanon, refusing to engage in sectarian conflict in Iraq. This was especially so since they had already established ties with Hezbollah on the grounds of a “common antipathy towards the Israelis and Americans.”
A well-informed religious source also confirms that this ideological dispute had taken place at the highest levels of Al-Qaeda’s [ranks]. While Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi [the slain commander of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] urged Al-Qaeda’s leadership in a 2003 letter to “awaken the Sunnis in Iraq by making them feel that they are under threat,” Ayman al-Zawahiri [Al-Qaeda’s current leader] replied, “we cannot become anti-Shiite, and it is inadmissible to kill people in the streets.”
As for Osama bin Laden, he never mentioned Hezbollah except for when he criticized the latter’s acceptance of UN Resolution 1701 [which ended the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel].
Since 2008, the influence of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates - most prominently Fatah al-Islam - has faded. This, however, does not mean that its influence no longer resonates among the vast majority of Salafists in Lebanon - several Salafist figures did not hesitate to hold prayers to mourn Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, [potential recruits] still face many restrictions in joining Al-Qaeda. It is not enough to adopt its ideology to become a member. Al-Qaeda previously rejected membership to a Saudi national living in the Nahr al-Bared camp, [A Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon], despite his having presented “credentials” to the organization.
The source asserts that the inclusion of Arsal in talk about Al-Qaeda was a big mistake, as it has turned the city’s residents into potential suspects. He notes that if the minister of defense had only stated that one or two [Al-Qaeda] elements [might be present in] the city, his statements would not have been blown out of proportion. The source likened [Ghosn’s statements] to previous claims he made about the departure of Abd-al-Rahman Awad [commander of the militant Sunni group Fatah al-Islam] from the Ain al-Helwe camp [A Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon]. [These previous claims] suggested that the camp was harboring him. However, it later turned out that the camp’s residents had always rejected Awad’s presence among them, forcing him to remain in continuous hiding.
Some affirm that the main problem and “misunderstanding” regarding [Defense Minister Ghosn’s claims that Al-Qaeda elements had infiltrated Lebanon through] Arsal was due to a lack of cooperation between the [military and security] services. [Critics] say that the issue could have been resolved if it had been handled with a little wisdom. A security source stated that the defense ministers’ statements were based on a serious incident in which a Syrian Al-Qaeda member attempted to enter Arsal to assemble [explosive] materials. [According to the security source], an undercover army contingent tried to arrest him, but some of the city’s residents rushed to his rescue because they did not believe those trying to arrest him were army [personnel]. [The security source] added that, as a result, the [Syrian Al-Qaeda member] was able to escape and return to Syria.
These incidents once again raise the following question: Is there an Al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon? The religious source says that Al-Qaeda has no organizational arm in Lebanon because Lebanon is simply not on its “agenda.” However, he notes that this does not rule out the possibility that certain individuals are present in Lebanon who follow Al-Qaeda’s ideology or that of one of its branches outside Lebanon - namely in Syria and Iraq. The organization is said to have a significant presence in both countries.
The “unique Lebanese [social] structure” has served as a blessing in this case, as it has diverted Al-Qaeda’s attention away from the country. The religious reference says that due to the complex and multi-faceted makeup of Lebanon it is difficult to impose an Islamic model upon it, although some may still attempt to do so.