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Lebanon Is Pivotal For Syria’s Jihadists

Ali Hashem writes that Lebanon has been home to various jihadist groups since the 1990s, but that it wasn’t until the Sept. 11 attacks that the connection with al-Qaeda became clear.
A gunman stands near a picture of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near the port city of Sidon in south Lebanon March 12, 2013. Ten people were wounded and one killed during clashes between the Fatah movement and radical Islamists that started on Monday.  REUTERS/Ali Hashisho (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3EW3X

Beirut's bloody Valentine's Day back in 2005, the day former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed, saw the first appearance of "Al-Nusra," a group that then claimed the responsibility for the Sunni leader's assassination. A young jihadist called Ahmad Abu Adas appeared in a videotape that was aired exclusively on the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera news network saying he belonged to the group that killed Saudi Arabia's strongman in Lebanon. The claim wasn’t taken seriously and pro-Hariri supporters and politicians accused the Syrian regime of fabricating the group to distract attention.

A group made up of 13 jihadists was arrested in Beirut, and its members confessed to playing a role in the assassination; later on, members of the group discarded their testimonies, saying they were coerced.

Lebanon isn't a country famous for its jihadists, but that doesn't mean there are none. Five years before Hariri's death [Dec. 31, 1999], weeklong clashes between Lebanese security forces and a group of jihadists led by al-Qae da veteran Bassam Kanj in Donieh, northern Lebanon, saw the beginning of the story. The importance of Kanj is that he was at that time one of few Lebanese jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and a key figure in linking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda cells in Lebanon.

Kanj, aka Abu Aisha, who knew both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed in the clashes while his men were arrested and imprisoned for years. Some of them were released while others are still at Roumieh prison near Beirut in the notorious Bloc B, known for being the Islamists' building.

Between 2000 and 2011, several groups emerged in Lebanon under different names. Some were silent and were only exposed when arrested, such as the Kamaldine group led by Egyptian jihadist Ayman Kamaldine, who attempted to smuggle arms from Lebanon to Jordan. Kamaldine confessed that he and his group were linked to al-Qaeda, and that they were using Lebanon as a ground of "nusra" [support].

It was not until Sept. 11, 2001, that people started talking seriously about the Lebanese connection to al-Qaeda. The name of Ziad Jarrah, one of the 19 men who took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, emerged and people started asking seriously then whether al-Qaeda was present in Lebanon.

In Beirut, I met Abu Baraa, a code name used by our source who was once an inmate of Roumieh prison's Islamist building. He fought with Kanj in Dounieh, but now he's doing nothing but "preaching Islam." He saw several of his "brothers," the word used by Islamists when mentioning comrades, working from the prison without any interference from Lebanese security forces. "We had phones, and I have recently learned that prisoners have Internet access now; they used to communicate with the outside world and give orders." According to Abu Baraa, Lebanese jihadists should be grateful to the Palestinians for where they are now. Palestinian jihadists, along with a few Lebanese, had the chance "to go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, etc. … and come back more experienced, with a larger network, capable of tougher tactics, and they also helped in providing hideouts for the brothers whenever they needed it."

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are a busy hub for jihadists. Ain al-Hilweh camp in Sidon, southern Lebanon, is home to several groups — Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Osbat al-Ansar, Jund al-Sham and others are active groups which are now exporting experts to Syria.

In May 2007, Palestinian jihadist group Fatah al-Islam fought a deadly war with the Lebanese army at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The group had several Lebanese fighters within it. The battles continued for around 3 months — the camp was fully destroyed, many of Fatah al-Islam's fighters were killed or arrested, and some fighters escaped and found themselves save havens in Palestinian refugee camps, mainly in Ain al-Hilweh.

According to Abu Baraa, "After Nahr al-Bared's battle, there was a need to find an umbrella for the mujahedeen. Lebanon wasn’t a land of jihad, but still there were some targets to be hit, the UNIFIL [UN Interim Force In Lebanon] for example."

The UN's interim force in Lebanon saw its troops expanding to 15,000 after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Spanish, French, Italian and other EU nations' troops were sent to southern Lebanon to help keep the peace on the borders. They succeeded relatively speaking, but failed in keeping themselves at peace. Since 2007, UN forces have suffered from at least six attacks that claimed the lives of several soldiers. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an unknown group that was later identified as al-Qaeda's branch in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for most of the attacks.

The Syrian revolution was a turning point in the status of jihadist groups in Lebanon. The groups themselves gained more ground, given the sectarian strife and the feeling of oppression within Sunni grassroots. "Many motivated Sunni Lebanese young men decided to adopt the jihadist doctrine to seek revenge in Syria," Abu Baraa, whose brother is fighting in Syria, said. He added "Syria is a magnet; people are getting killed by this merciless regime, along with its agents in Lebanon, Hezballat." "Hezballat" is the name Sunni jihadists give to Hezbollah. "Allat" is the name of a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess who was worshipped by the enemies of Islam.

Murad Batal, a London-based expert on jihadists groups, told Al-Monitor that "Jihadists in Lebanon coordinate with jihadists in Syria, including Al-Nusra. He added, "Lebanon, like Jordan and Iraq, is pivotal for Syria’s jihadists in terms of logistics and jihadists."

Someone who decided to go to Syria was Khaled Mahmoud, aka Abu Suleiman. He fought with Bassam Kanj in Dounieh, and was affiliated with Fatah al-Islam after being released from prison.

Khaled is from Wadi Khaled, an area on the border with Syria. When he was arrested more than a decade ago in Dounieh, he told a Lebanese judge that he joined the group because he believed "Lebanon should be an Islamic state ruled by the teachings of the Quran and the sunna, headed by an emir and a Shura Council, and Christians in this state should be dealt with as people of the Book." Khaled was arrested once again in 2008 after the Nahr al-Bared clashes between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. He was released in 2011.

According to security sources, Khaled is fighting alongside the Al-Nusra front in Syria and leading a group of Lebanese and Palestinian fighters he handpicked before going to Syria.

"Those men will continue to fight in Syria until there is a clear order that Lebanon is a land of jihad," said Abu Baraa, when I asked him about the future of the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters who went to Syria. He added, "This day will have to come sooner or later, I don’t want war, but sometimes you have to do what you don’t like." He subsequently ended with a verse from the Quran: "Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing, and it is good for you, and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows while you know not."

Will Lebanon be a jihad front any time soon? Once again, I asked Murad Batal, who was a bit doubtful due to the diversity of the Lebanese society and said, "The longer the Syrian crisis lasts, the more tensions will increase, radicalizing youth in the Sunni community." He added, "Their role as new jihadists linked to Syria will increase inside Lebanon."

Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist who is serving as Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent. Until March 2012, Ali was Al Jazeera's war correspondent, and prior to Al Jazeera he was a senior journalist at the BBC. Ali wrote for several Arab newspapers, including the Lebanese daily As Safir, Egyptian dailies Al-Masry Al-Youm and Aldostor, the Jordanian daily Alghad and also contributed to The Guardian.

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