If you think you understand Lebanese politics, it obviously has not been explained to you properly.
It started out simple enough. A group of men robbed a bank in the northern Lebanese town of Amyoun and then fled into the teeming Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli after being pursued by police. The Lebanese Army quickly became involved, and before you knew it, a raging battle with a Sunni militant group calling itself Fatah al-Islam within the camp ensued. A score of Lebanese soldiers were killed just as swiftly.
As with all things that transpire in Lebanon, the exact details remain murky. What it conflagrated into has not: the bloodiest days of fighting amongst Lebanese, Palestinians, et al since the days of the civil war.
The leader of Fatah al-Islam, a Salafi/jihadi outfit, is Shaker al-Absi, a colleague of the erstwhile Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Having served a number of years in a Syrian jail, he was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan in 2004 for the 2002 murder of US diplomat Laurence Foley. The agenda of his organization, apparently comprised of only a few hundred men with scant support from other resident Palestinian factions, is quite typical of al-Qaeda. Narrowly it is to establish Islamic law within the camp; more broadly to attack American interests in the region and expel all troops (specifically UNAFIL) from Lebanon. Not surprisingly, their membership includes many foreign fighters recently completing tours of duty in Iraq.
There are many interesting windows this story has opened.
One is how, almost reflexively, many Lebanese blamed Syria for the events in Tripoli. Nevermind that a secular Ba’athist regime like that in Syria loathes nothing more than Salafi radicals, whom they regard as a threat to their own existence first and foremost (witness the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 crackdown in the town Hama, killing10,000 25,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood). Indeed, Syria closed their border with Lebanon soon after fighting began in Tripoli.
The second is the absolute miserable conditions of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, completely isolated from the rest of the country, mired in abject poverty and whose neighborhood are run by one gang or other. Desperation is always fertile soil for groups like al-Qaeda to plant their roots.
The most disturbing aspect of the fighting in Tripoli though, has been lost–or deliberately obfuscated–by discussion of the above.
Namely, the absolute complicity of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and allies like Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority in Lebanon, in bringing groups like Fatah al-Islam to Lebanon, where they knowingly allowed them to operate, all in a greater bid to stem the ascendancy of Hezbollah.
Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda more broadly, after all, have a visceral hatred for Shi’a Muslims, whom they regard as infidels. Who better to bring into the country via the squalid Palestinian camps of Lebanon than them?
It was Seymour Hersh, in the March 2007 New Yorker who recognized a shift in the policy of the United States and their cronies (Siniora government, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) in patronizing radical Sunni organizations to act as a bulwark against perceived widening Iranian influence.
How foreboding was Hersh’s article?
Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, “The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.” Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests-presumably to take on Hezbollah,” Crooke said.
During an interview with Hasan Nasrallah, when Hersh posited if it was Israeli assassination he most feared, Nasrallah replied that it was other Arabs Jordanian intelligence, and Salafi/Wahabi jihadists–who were his greatest threats. Was it also Fatah al-Islam and affiliates’ ultimate mission, at the behest of the Siniora government, to assassinate Hasan Nasrallah?
It is a bit puzzling why the Lebanese Army is now waging a battle against Fatah al-Islam, something which even perplexed the intrepid veteran reporter of Lebanon, Robert Fisk. The workings of Lebanon politics can be quite mysterious and no doubt there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Regardless, Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri learned a hard lesson: hired guns often shoot the hand which pays them. As a consequence of their reckless venture, the innocent continue to pay with their lives.
In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,” he said.
Along with Fatah al-Islam, the Siniora government has the blood of dozens of Lebanese soldiers and Lebanese and Palestinian civilians on their hands.
And that is a fact which hits us straight between the eyes.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent observer and commentator on issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at email@example.com