Lebanon always has been a country whose people are more loyal to family, clan,
tribe and faith than to the concept of Lebanon as a united nation-state. Since
2003, this existing internal divisiveness has been sharpened by the United
States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and the US-led international effort
to drive Syria out of Lebanon.
The former opened a role for Lebanon as part of the path for would-be jihadis
traveling to fight in Iraq. The latter - together with
the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war - forced the precipitate decline of effective
governmental authority in Lebanon, allowing jihadis to use the country for
transit and basing. This made it a target for aggressive expansionist efforts
by Saudis and other Salafis and encouraged the rapid growth of internal
violence between political and religious factions.
Overall, the Iraq war and Syria's departure from Lebanon gave al-Qaeda and its
Islamist allies an unprecedented opportunity to infiltrate their influence and
manpower into Lebanon, as well as help strengthen the Sunni Salafist trend in
It is now old-hat to say that the US-led invasion of Iraq was a casus belli
for Sunni Muslims worldwide, and especially among the Salafists who are
prominent in al-Qaeda, other Islamist radical groups, and the Saudi regime, who
are now effectively expanding their power across the Arab and Muslim worlds. A
glance at the map showed jihad-bound Sunnis that Lebanon was a geographic key
to infiltrating Islamist fighters into Iraq. The war itself made many Sunni
Lebanese eager to assist that entry process, with some ready to go and fight
With Syria effectively in charge of Lebanon at the start of the Iraq war, it
appears that the transit of would-be mujahideen through Lebanon was kept moving
by Syrian authorities and did not initially result in the buildup of
non-Lebanese Sunni Islamists within the country.
The West's pyrrhic 2005 victory in forcing President Bashar al-Assad to
evacuate Syrian forces from the country, however, seems to have created a
situation which now finds growing numbers of non-Lebanese Salafi Islamists
present in Lebanon and a growing Salafist movement in the north - especially in
Tripoli, which is Lebanon's largest, most conservative Sunni city - as well as
in the city of Sidon and Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps.
In addition to the growth of Salifism and Islamist militancy engendered by the
passions aroused by the Iraq war, Saudi Arabia has been fishing in troubled
waters by encouraging the growth of each in northern Lebanon. Riyadh has paid
for the construction of new mosques in Tripoli and reportedly has assisted
militants residing in the northern territory abutting Syria.
According to the media, Lebanese and Syrian sources are reporting that Saudi
National Security Chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan is supervising the Saudis'
pro-Salafist agenda in Lebanon, a program which includes sponsoring Islamist
terrorist operations in Syria. Riyadh's activities in northern Lebanon hold the
promise of fulfilling two longstanding Saudi goals: (1) creating a viable,
well-armed, and militant Sunni Salafi movement in Lebanon as a military
counterweight to the Shi'ite Hezbollah, and (2) to enable Riyadh to cause
domestic instability for their Syrian enemy.
The turmoil of post-Syrian Lebanon also has been exploited by al-Qaeda forces
based in Iraq. Multiple media reports indicate that al-Qaeda fighters - mostly
Yemenis, Saudis and Jordanians who left Iraq to avoid the US "surge" and its
surrogate Sunni fighters - went to both Syria and Lebanon. They have
established themselves in Lebanon along the Syrian border, in the Lebanese city
of Tripoli and in the Ain al-Hawah Palestinian refugee camp; they also have
built working relationships with the Sunni militant groups Asbat al-Ansar and
Fatah-al-Islam. In 2007, the latter fought the Lebanese army for 15 weeks at
the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
In the face of growing Salafist and al-Qaeda influence, one Lebanese academic
claimed, "Security in Iraq is improving, but the militants are being driven
across the border. There are a large number of militants coming into Lebanon
and Syria, and our countries are paying the price for what is happening in
Iraq." The academic's words are an apt description of the westward-bound jihad
highway for Sunni mujahideen that the US and its allies have unwittingly built
As in Syria, the growing al-Qaeda and Saudi-backed Salifist movement in
Lebanon's north and its Palestinian refugee camps clearly is in part a product
of the militant bleed-through from Iraq. But, as in Syria, Salafism's Lebanese
growth is occurring in already fertile soil: Lebanon's Sunni north has been
slowly radicalizing for much of this decade - Tripoli's Sunni leaders long
viewed Hezbollah as the "resistance", but now regard it as the "party of evil"
- and the eviction of Syrian forces has substantially reduced Beirut's ability
to limit the growth of Salafism. Bin Laden's operatives and Saudi intelligence
will continue to push these trends, thereby once again demonstrating just how
closely aligned are the interests of al-Qaeda and Riyadh outside the Arabian
This said, al-Qaeda still has considerable work to do in Lebanon. While Ayman
al-Zawahiri said in April 2008 that Lebanon was now "a Muslim frontline fort",
Lebanese Salafists will for the foreseeable future be more concerned with
securing increased political power and communal autonomy in the country than in
flocking to support the worldwide Sunni jihad.
The possibility of the Shi'ite Hezbollah and its allies winning a majority in
the spring 2009 parliamentary elections, for example, could provide a
flashpoint for a confrontation between Hezbollah forces and the expanding
Salafist Sunni force in the north. For now, the Salafist leaders will continue
to work with Saad Hariri's "Future Movement". A group of Lebanese Salafists
recently told the media, "Hariri is our leader, we respect and support him."
Rather ominously, however, they added, "If [cooperation with Hariri] fails, we
have another option called bin Laden."
For its part, al-Qaeda will strengthen its presence in Tripoli and the north as
well as its ties to Lebanese Sunni militants and Palestinian refugees. It will
also continue to spread its influence across the country in a manner that will
place its operatives as close as possible to Israel's territory.
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004.
He served as the chief of the Bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center
from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris:
Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; his most recent book is Marching
Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a Senior Fellow with
The Jamestown Foundation.