Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Is Nahr al-Bared just a small taste of even worse to come?

Is Nahr al-Bared just a small taste of even worse to come?
By Agence France Presse (AFP)

BEIRUT: Foreign Islamic extremists appear to have heeded a call made by Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri for fighters to flood Lebanon, analysts monitoring jihadist groups in the country sayd. The Egyptian Zawahri had exhorted Muslims during last summer's war with Israel to "transfer the jihad to the borders of Palestine with the aid of God." Since 2003, insurgents have been coming and going between Lebanon and Iraq, using Lebanon as a base for rest and recuperation and to train, the Lebanese and foreign analysts said. Additionally, a previously unknown organization calling itself Fatah al-Islam espousing views similar to those of Al-Qaeda announced its presence in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon following last summer's war. Grouping radical Lebanese Sunnis, veterans of the Iraq insurgency and foreign extremists, Fatah al-Islam has engaged in heavy fighting with the Lebanese Army at Nahr al-Bared in a continuing standoff that so far has killed at least 150 people, including at least 80 soldiers and more than 55 militants.

But the Lebanese authorities and foreign analysts based in Beirut say the Nahr al-Bared siege could represent just the tip of the iceberg regarding the presence of Al-Qaeda and similar groups in Lebanon. Overnight on Saturday, Lebanese security forces raided the apartment of an Islamist in the Northern port city of Tripoli, sparking a firefight with Fatah al-Islam that resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including six Islamists. "Al-Qaeda is present in Lebanon," said Defense Minister Elias Murr. "There are terrorist cells ready to strike," he warned, "and there are threats of new attacks." "Nahr al-Bared could make things worse," added one Western diplomat in Beirut who spoke to Agence France Presse on condition of anonymity. "Ninety percent of Lebanese support their army, but an active minority will be susceptible to radical propaganda. "On the Internet, they call the Christian head of state the 'crusader general,' and the impact of pictures of US planes with cargoes of weapons at Beirut's airport has been devastating," the diplomat said.

Washington has supplied military equipment to the Lebanese Army in an effort to assist in the continuing battle against Fatah al-Islam. Additionally, rumors are circulating throughout jihadist Internet forums that ships from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon patrolling the coast after last summer's war have fired on Islamist positions in Nahr al-Bared. "It's false, of course," said the diplomat. "But if enough people believe it, that doesn't matter - the effect is the same." In Tripoli, a man close to local Sunni radicals who asked not to be identified told AFP that some of the militants who fought against the Lebanese Army in Dinniyeh in December 1999 are also fighting in Nahr al-Bared. The Dinniyeh battle killed 30 people, among them 11 soldiers and 15 Sunni militants. "I know that Fatah al-Islam has cells in Tripoli," the man added. "They are keeping a low profile, so they are not discovered. They are being monitored, but they are still at liberty. What are they planning exactly?"

Retired Lebanese Army General Wehbe Qatisha described the current situation in Lebanon as troubling. "From now on the military will try to prevent the militants from basing themselves inside secure areas such as some Palestinian refugee camps," he added. "Drain the water to expose the fish. There may be isolated cells inside [the camps]." By longstanding convention, the Lebanese Army cannot enter the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in the country, leaving security in the camps to Palestinian factions. Retired General Elias Hanna told AFP that the army "gave a deterrent example in Nahr al-Bared for other groups." "It was a good base, close to the Syrian border, easy to manipulate for Damascus," Hanna added. "It's not going to be so easy in other camps, where Palestine Liberation Organization influence is stronger." "Lebanon is no longer a base in the rear," the Western diplomat added. "It is the front line. The seed has been planted. Nahr al-Bared will radicalize some groups and enable their plans to take root." The diplomat also said that "if the Fatah al-Islam leaders never come out, they will become legends, new Zarqawis," referring to the former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by a US air strike last year. - AFP

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