By this observer’s count there are no fewer than eight, and perhaps half again that number, of al-Qaeda inspired, Salafist orientated groups now organizing and operating in Lebanon. Most are represented in one form or another in Ein el Helwe, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian Refugee Camps. Teenagers appear to be among their most ardent supporters.
These Islamist groups organize and operate in this and other camps, for the same reason Bill Clinton messed with Ms. Monica Lewinsky: “Because I could” as Bill finally owned up, when his denials fueled comedy on late night TV.
So it is with Al Qaeda in Lebanon. The Palestinian leadership strongly opposes Islamist groups, but, like Lebanon’s ‘government’ it is powerless to prevent them from inhabiting their relatively safe havens.
Over the past few days these groups have become activated by the deployment of the guided missile destroyer USS Cole, which reportedly left Malta on February 26 en route to a position over the horizon from Beirut. Its imminent arrival is seen in Lebanon as a warning to Syria, Iran and the Lebanese Resistance, led by Hezbollah. Its meaning is that while the Bush administration has arguably ‘lost’ Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps soon Pakistan and parts of the Gulf, that it is ready to join the fight with Israel in order not to’ lose’ Lebanon.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington just yesterday that the deployment should not be viewed as threatening or in response to events in any single country in the volatile region.
“This is an area that is important to us, the eastern Med,” he said when asked about news reports of the ship movements. “It’s a group of ships that will operate in the vicinity there for a while”, adding that “it isn’t meant to send any stronger signals than that. But it does signal that we’re engaged, we’re going to be in the vicinity, and that’s a very, very important part of the world.”
Mullen was asked whether the deployment of the ships was linked to the timing of the Lebanese election.
“To say it’s absolutely directly tied would be incorrect, but we are certainly aware that elections out there are both important, and they are due at some point in time,” he replied.
And when asked whether Syria is the reason for the deployment, he said, “It’s not specifically sent to any one country, as much as it is to the region itself.”
The US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe added that the deployment of the Cole was because President George Bush is concerned about the situation in Lebanon.
“Bush may have to destroy Lebanon in order to save Lebanon like he did with Iraq”, a teenager grinned as he offered yet more sweet tea as we moved from meeting to meeting around Ein el-Helwe on a project related to educational needs of Palestinian students.
Lebanon has not been responsive to the Bush Administration. It has had to endure serial failures during a three-year run of failed projects in Lebanon.
Among these were the 2006 July War, the tempting ‘forward reaching’ NATO airbase at Kleiat, importing Salafists to fight Hezbollah, trying to organize a Northern Sunni army around Tripoli and Akkar to fight the Shia in the South, offering to fund a third Shia political party to confront Hezbollah and Amal, working to ignite a civil war, and recently, unproven allegations of a ‘green light’ for political assassinations in an attempt to finger and isolate Syria. The Club is nearly at its wits end and is becoming aggressive, according to one Staff Member at the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
The irony of sending the USS Cole, as “a show of support for regional stability” which was the identical mission it was on when it was attacked in the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 (by water-borne Al-Qaeda suicide bombers killing seventeen US sailors and wounding more than 50, while badly damaging the craft) is not lost on Al Qaeda inspired militants from the blueline in the South to Ain el Helwe and up North to Tripoli and Hermel.
According to ‘Ahmad’, a boyish faced middle-aged veteran fighter who arrived from Iraq some months ago, and who would fit the caricature of ‘an Al Qaeda inspired salafist mujahedeen’ if ever the reader would bump into one, “The US Warships will not leave Lebanon’s water until they are attacked and destroyed. They are coming to wage war against Lebanon on behalf of the Zionists”, he explained.
A stunning blonde woman, ‘Rena’ who seemed more European than Arab and appeared to be some sort of military expert explained as though she was a Pentagon spokesperson:
“The US Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group based in Naples, Italy arrived in the 6th Fleet’s operational area three days ago. They may join the Cole and we are expecting eventually six ships. The Cole was re-commissioned in April 2002 and had its first post-attack deployment in November 2003.”
As this observer’s eyes widened, Rena continued:
“We are watching their movements carefully. Besides the Nassau, the group includes a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers and two additional amphibious ships. The amphibious ships can carry thousands of Marines and can land on Lebanon’s shores at almost any point along 120 kilometers.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” this observer blathered.
Her associate patiently explained, while serving yet more sweet tea:
“Our mujahedeen have learned much since we attacked the Cole in Aden in October of 2000. The Bush administration has learned nothing from history. Does Bush read? Does he know what happened when the US sent the marines and USS New Jersey in 1983? Does he think Lebanon forgets that it turned South Beirut and Mount Lebanon into rubble with 2,700 pound shells? We are waiting for these sardine cans packed with crusaders to be incinerated like the Merkavas in the July War. Let them come — they will leave — just like when Reagan sent them last time!”
In 1983, at the height of U.S. intervention in Lebanon, about 17 ships – two aircraft carrier battle groups and two mammoth battleships – patrolled the Lebanese coastline with a Marine contingent deployed at Beirut airport.
Ahmad’s friend added “Sooner or later the US Warship will bomb Lebanon. They are not coming to gaze at our scenery. When they do, the US Embassy will disappear within hours along with other identified targets. Probably they are coming in order to wage war against Syria and Iran as well as Lebanon. It will be a big war and it may start very soon.”
Ex-MP Nasser Qandil claimed on Friday that in sending its warships to Lebanon, the United States wanted to “tell us we’ve killed (Hezbollah’s) Imad Mughniyeh and we’ve made a come-back, Imad.”
Qandil also claimed that the head of Saudi Arabia’s national Security Council, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, wants Lebanon to become “a haven for Al-Qaeda replacing Iraq, which means that the arrival of American warships aims at inviting the Arab Jihadists from Iraq to ease the pressure imposed on the American Army.”
An unnamed senior US official (David Welch according to an informed source) told the Reuters news agency that the new mission was “a show of support for regional stability. We are very concerned about the situation in Lebanon. It has dragged on very long.”
Welch stressed that once in position, the ships would not be within visible range of Lebanon but “well over the horizon for now”. Ironically, however eager Al Qaeda affiliated groups are to confront the US vessels “head on” so to speak, it is Hezbollah that is likely to ‘cover the 6th Fleet back’ and provide protection, as they currently do with UNIFIL in the South.
The last thing Hezbollah wants is a civil war in Lebanon and that is the first thing Israel wants. Most Lebanese agree that Hezbollah is all about resistance to Israeli aggression and occupation and implementing UNSCR 1701 and Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms and the village of Ghajar. Its supporters claim Hezbollah will disarm when Israel ceases to be a threat to Lebanon.
Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah, quoted in Beirut’s As Safir stated that “the U.S. move “proves that the “real confrontation is with effective decision makers in Washington America’s show of strength is evidence of failure and indication that it had consumed all political pressure to impose the American tutelage.” Later in the day Fadlallah elaborated: “The American administration has used the policy of sending warships to support its allies in Lebanon before, and that experiment failed and backfired.
“We don’t succumb to threats and military intimidation practiced by the United States to implement its hegemony over Lebanon.”
The next moves will be determined by what the flotilla does when it arrives offshore here in Lebanon.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at email@example.com