Looking to the history of the Lebanese military establishment, there are many indicators that it is very difficult for Salafist forces to penetrate the structure of the Lebanese army and establish sleeper cells awaiting instructions. On the last day of the year 1960, the extent to which the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had penetrated the army was brought to light when that party attempted a military coup that failed a few hours after it was launched. In the early years of the civil war, which started in 1975, both leftist and rightist forces succeeded in penetrating the army through officers whose names would later become well known.
Between those two dates, Soviet intelligence agencies attempted to infiltrate the army through a Lebanese office, and steal a French-made Mirage jet to have it smuggled abroad for its technological secrets. This is all history. On the other hand, the recently discovered infiltration, confirmed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has many implications. This latest infiltration is especially important given its timing in relation to certain events and realities across the Arab world. To be specific: The Salafist/Takfirist movement’s desire to establish itself in the Arab sphere, which has become clear given that it has entered into competition and open conflict with older Islamist currents such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Previously, the Salafist/Takfirist movement had been considered a missionary movement opposed to violence.
It is no secret that the army has been confronting extremism, militancy and terrorism. This struggle escalated after army soldiers were murdered in 2007, giving rise to the events at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The Nahr al-Bared battle between the Lebanese military and Fatah al-Islam — a battle the army won after several months, and with great sacrifices — marked the point when the military leadership decided to combat terrorism and prevent its tentacles from spreading into Lebanon. In addition, it opted to stand by the side of the resistance (Hezbollah) against the Israeli enemy.
Therefore, after its baptism by fire, the army had found a new enemy: “extremism” in its overt and covert forms, including, of course, terrorism.
At the time, Washington considered the Lebanese army an ally against a common enemy, and it praised the role of the army at Nahr al-Bared.
After the Nahr al-Bared battle, many in Lebanon assumed that terrorism and extremism would not be able to take root in Lebanon because of two factors. First, the terrorists were dealt a strong blow by the defeat of Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, and in Tripoli before it. What’s more, it was neutralized by the subsequent large-scale arrests of active and dormant cells.
Second, Fatah al-Islam remained alone in the camp after the people had fled. The Sunni community, which was thought to be friendly to such groups, distanced itself from the organization, illustrating that the extremists have no roots in the area. The Sunni stance revealed the absence of a hospitable environment for such extremist groups and their radical beliefs.
However, the Arab Spring has turned this image upside down. The Arab Spring marked the official entry of political Islam, mostly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, onto the scene. The Arab Spring allowed Islamists to move closer to their historic dream by gaining power in three Arab states, in addition to moving into Syria, whose doors had until recently been shut to them.
At the same time, and in a way that has surprised most observers, the Salafist movements have emerged and are attempting to take their place in the ever-changing Arab political arenas. These Arab states want to shed their old clothes, but currently find themselves without a readily available substitute.
While the Muslim Brotherhood’s confidence and presence have given it the “legitimacy” required to fill the vacuum — it is the oldest, most organized and most popular group — the Salafist movements have found themselves in a race against time. They have worked quickly, and their public appearances come off as arbitrary. The Salafists have caused quite a stir, and consequently have come off as being a lot bigger than they actually are.
Then very quickly, and thanks to enormous financial resources, the Salafists undertook a move akin to a a sudden and rapid “invasion” in Libya, Egypt and finally Jordan, where there is intelligence pointing to the existence of a strategic reserve of more than 20,000 Salafist Libyans ready to move into the Arab Middle East through Syria. If they were to do so, they would clearly not overlook Lebanon, where the Salafist movement finally succeeded in penetrating rural areas before showing up in the middle of Beirut in a demonstration. The demonstration may have been small but it was politically significant — it claimed that it was the most forceful movement on the Sunni political and religious scene. That claim may not disquiet many in Lebanon, but it has a very high moral and media value throughout the shifting and uneasy Arab arena.
At any rate, the official revelation that a Salafist cell is present inside the Lebanese army, and the official declaration that the cell is extensive and intends to carry out sabotage operations, gives credibility to the warnings of many officials on the extent to which terrorists and extremists are using the Syrian events to infiltrate Lebanon. The Salafist movement is already fraught with contradictions. In Lebanon, the Salafists are awaiting the opportunity to grab hold of influence after having long limited themselves to non-provocative preaching and missionary activities. The Salafists in the North consider themselves to be the most deserving of the Salafist movement’s leadership, as they constitute the movement’s oldest branch in Lebanon. Therefore, it is not surprising that certain Salafist religious leaders in the North have distanced themselves from Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir’s movement, and refused to join it.
The recently discovered Salafist cell is not only dangerous because of its emergence at a moment of discord in the region and because it tried to penetrate the army. Its danger emanates from its identity as a Salafist-Jihadist-Takfirist movement. This estimation is based on three factors:
- According to preliminary investigations, the members of the cell were Takfirists, an ideology hostile to all other sects and denominations.
- The Takfirist ideology marries faith and weapons.
- Takfirists use the military establishment as a means through which to act.
These three considerations go far beyond the methods of well-known Salafist Abdel Ghani Jawhar, the “hero” who bombed army buses on the road entering Tripoli three years ago.
Some observers feel that the whole matter is not worth the wave of fear it has caused. They see it as a very limited infiltration of a relatively large military institution. These observers contend that the army’s intelligence forces succeeded in discovering the cell while it was still in its “cradle.” They see this as a transient event whose implications can be absorbed, and which will be forgotten in a short period of time.
This kind of logic would have made sense had the discovery of the Salafist cell occured at any time other than when Jihadist Salafism is “boiling” and trying to expand its influence in Syria through the Lebanese gate. In addition, the fact that the army was infiltrated at all has very dangerous implications in and of itself.
All of this requires that politicians do not gloss over this subject, or treat it in the same way that Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn spoke of Al-Qaeda’s existence in Lebanon, a speech that dismissed many suspicious events.