Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why al-Qaeda does not threaten Lebanon, yet

[Originally posted at NOW]

The alleged detection by U.S. intelligence agencies of what some officials say are the most serious al-Qaeda attack plots since September 11, 2001, has led to the closure until August 10th of nineteen American embassies across the Middle East.

The measure was described by the State Department as one taken “out of an abundance of caution.” Yet, despite a precedent for attacks on the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, as well as reports that the CIA warned Lebanese officials just last month of plans for impending attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups in the country, the U.S. facility in Awkar, northeast of Beirut, was one of very few in the region to remain open this week.

In a statement sent to NOW via email, the U.S. embassy said it “does not discuss the specifics of our security operations. The Embassy has not changed its operating hours as a result of the travel advisory.” It declined to confirm whether reports that a team of senior U.S. specialists would travel to Lebanon to bolster embassy security were true.

According to analysts, one possible reason the embassy has stayed open is that it is already deemed sufficiently secure.

“Some of the U.S. facilities are more secure than others,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, author of Bin Laden’s Legacy and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It could be that some posts are more vulnerable to specific methods of attack. For example, if the method of attack is believed to be, say, a car bomb, then certain facilities are better insulated against car bombs.”

Others argue the primary reason is that there simply isn’t a significant threat from al-Qaeda in Lebanon, despite brief episodes of al-Qaeda-linked violence such as the 2007 war between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Bared.

“All that we hear about al-Qaeda [in Lebanon] is a bunch of nonsense,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). “In Lebanon there was never, ever a record of al-Qaeda successfully establishing itself. We have a record of al-Qaeda attempting, sending teasers, to see whether they can have a base here, but they never did. So Lebanon is not regarded as a country where al-Qaeda has strong capabilities,” he told NOW.

This, Kahwaji believes, is for two key reasons.

“First, Lebanon has a lot of intelligence activities; a lot of foreign [intelligence] services are established. Second, the Sunni community doesn’t really share the ideologies of al-Qaeda. They know from the Fatah al-Islam experience [about] the links [they] have with Syrian intelligence. [Al-Qaeda] was never accepted as one of their own.”

Gartenstein-Ross concurs that the nature of the Sunni community in Lebanon has been resistant to al-Qaeda infiltration.

“Given Lebanon’s own awful experience with civil war, part of it could be that the Sunnis just aren’t too eager to let al-Qaeda in. They’ve seen what al-Qaeda’s done in other countries; they have terrible experiences of what could happen to their country, so perhaps given that history, al-Qaeda’s narrative just isn’t that appealing.”

Even so, in light of the war raging in neighboring Syria – in which al-Qaeda subsidiaries such as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are heavily involved – certain analysts fear al-Qaeda’s influence is on the rise in Lebanon. Such fears are compounded by the participation of an estimated few hundred Lebanese Sunnis in the war – including jihadists, as seen most recently in the suicide bombings in Homs province Friday carried out by two brothers from Tripoli – and the porousness of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

“I fully agree […] that right now given what’s going on in Syria I have concerns that you may at some point see a greater al-Qaeda presence within Lebanon,” Gartenstein-Ross told NOW.

“But they have a strong incentive not to carry out an attack [in Lebanon] in that if they do, the porousness of the border is going to decline, which makes Lebanon a less appealing place for them to utilize.”

Kahwaji, by contrast, feels the prospects for an increased al-Qaeda foothold in the country are highly limited.

“It’s not easy. Lebanon is a small country, it’s not Iraq with its vast geography, or Libya, or Yemen, where you can go and disappear in the remote desert […] The intelligence for the Lebanese army, for Lebanese security [authorities], for the other agencies, are all over the place and therefore [militants] get picked up easily, so it’s not a safe ground for them.”

“Also they need to find communities that will share their thoughts and agree to give them safe haven. You can find a village or two that could have this sentiment, but that’s it.”

“It’s not safe and it never will be safe for al-Qaeda to operate in Lebanon.”

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