In preparation for any hazardous security developments, Moscow has formulated a plan to evacuate its nationals from Lebanon, an informed Russian source told Al-Monitor. The evacuation would encompass 33,000 residents and would be carried out by Russian sea vessels, given that the humble capacity of Beirut International Airport would not allow for the evacuation of such a large number of people in a short time.
The Russian source revealed that similar plans to press ahead with evacuation were put on the agenda of other Western countries which, like Russia, would opt for naval evacuations for logistical reasons.
Moscow began studying modalities during the summer to ensure the safety of its citizens in Lebanon and Syria. The measures ranged between giving instructions through the Russian embassies in Beirut and Damascus, and setting emergency plans to be executed if need be. Many Russian citizens in Syria preferred heading back to their homeland. The sophisticated neighborhood of Tijara in Damascus — which had once housed many Russian families — stands witness to this fact, as it has become a ghost town in the two years since the breakout of conflict in Syria.
Meanwhile, Russian citizens in Lebanon did not follow the steps of their peers in Syria. Moscow believes that the stability of Lebanon is not at stake. However, it has voiced its concerns about radical Islamic groups targeting Russian interests in Lebanon, in a violent attempt to denounce Russia’s stance in regard to the crisis in Syria.
Last summer, in a meeting held at the office of the Lebanese Army Intelligence Department’s chief, Maj. Gen. Edmond Fadel, the military attaché of the Russian embassy in Beirut communicated to his French, American and Saudi counterparts the Russian “concern” about potential attacks by al-Qaeda cells in Lebanon. “In particular, we are worried about information indicating that some of these groups intend to target our embassy in Beirut,” he said.
The Saudi military attaché had reservations about the Russian statement, noting that it was essential to verify the information about the existence of al-Qaeda in Lebanon before voicing concerns.
This disparity points to a political, media conflict on the internal and regional level over the presence of al-Qaeda in Lebanon. More precisely, regional countries hold divergent opinions about the source of terrorism in Lebanon. Some, notably Saudi Arabia, see terrorism in Lebanon as a Syrian product, even if the perpetrators act under the auspices of al-Qaeda, since Syria and Iran have achieved breakthroughs into this organization. The opposite opinion warns that al-Qaeda is spreading in Lebanon, feeding on the rampant sectarian division and the weakness of the state in many regions, particularly the North governorate.
Berri: ‘Al-Qaeda plans to assassinate me’
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri supports the second view. Berri told Al-Monitor that a plan to assassinate him was formulated by a cell affiliated with al-Qaeda, he was informed by Italy. Information collected from various sources indicates that al-Qaeda has set an assassination list in Lebanon including, first and foremost, Berri and the chief of the Lebanese armed forces, Gen. Jean Kahwaji. The plan aimed to destabilize the country and ignite sectarian strife.
A few months earlier, the emir of one of the Gulf states passed information to Berri through a Lebanese official about serious intentions on the part of al-Qaeda to target the stability of Lebanon through various means. First, al-Qaeda planned to incite conflicts within Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which would in turn affect the overall Lebanese climate. In this regard, radical Islamic groups with ties to al-Qaeda — such as Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham — are taking refuge in the Ain al-Helweh camp. Second, the organization would assassinate prominent Lebanese figures in order to spread chaos and create internal divisions.
Lately, Russian diplomats in Beirut have raised the issue of al-Qaeda’s activity in Lebanon. It is thought to be having a negative influence on Russian national security, since Muslim students of Russian citizenship are arriving in Lebanon without the knowledge of the competent authorities in Moscow or the Russian embassy. The students are enrolled in Jinan University in Tripoli, which provides religious studies, while all fees are covered by radical Islamic groups.
The previous data is the subject of a thorough follow-up by Lebanese authorities. However, ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, precise answers have not been provided for the question: Does al-Qaeda have real plans for Lebanon?
Security authorities in Lebanon realize that al-Qaeda is present in all countries of the region, or even most countries of the world. The organization infiltrates through the pores of culture and arms. It is represented either by a dogmatic, cultural environment, military cells or networks that are linked to the international command of al-Qaeda. Yet, from the organization’s point of view, there are some characteristics that render Lebanon unfit to be an arena for Jihad. According to the jihadist jurisprudence — which guides the “legitimate” activities of al-Qaeda — there are two arenas: one for jihad (meaning struggle) and the second for nusra (meaning support). The second arena is used to collect members and infiltrate countries that are considered part of the “arena for Jihad.” It is important to note that jihadist jurisprudence comprises Quranic verses collected by radical Islamic scholars and used as a reference to justify holy warfare against non-believers.
Lebanese security authorities believe that al-Qaeda has classified Lebanon — until now — as part of its arena for nusra. The reason behind this categorization is that the organization has more heated arenas — such as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and currently Syria — to rely on in its international battle. In every country, al-Qaeda searches for two main conditions to establish a military fortress: welcoming religious environments that correspond with its views and vast spaces that provide a fertile ground for hiding tactics. Lebanon has neither. It is small in size, and is characterized by religious diversity.
Thus, al-Qaeda considers Lebanon a supporting ground in the international conflict. Since the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, Lebanon has witnessed developments in terms of al-Qaeda’s activities. The organization is using Lebanon as a support arena for infiltration — particularly into Syria, the Jihad arena. It has also used this country in the past as a portal to Yemen, Iraq, Gulf countries and Europe. In the light of these facts, the increase in the number of cells during the last two years, especially in the North governorate beside the Lebanese-Syrian border and in the Ain al-Helweh camp in the South, is understandable.
According to information, the more that the importance of Lebanon as an arena for nusra deepens, the more that al-Qaeda will be able to spread and to consolidate the structure and logistical conduits between Homs and Tripoli. These channels are likened to those that al-Qaeda had during the American invasion of Iraq between the Anbar region and the Syrian town of Abu Kamal. Yet, the cells are no longer curtailed and hidden. Recently, al-Qaeda appointed an “emir” in Lebanon, Hussam al-Sabbagh, and increased the number of its members in Ain al-Helweh from 20 to 100, led by infamous al-Qaeda activists such as Toufic Tah.
Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.