BEIRUT, Lebanon — One Palestinian refugee camp here in northern Lebanon is today a smoldering, sniper-infested, booby-trapped battlefield where a few hundred al-Qaida inspired fighters have been making an Alamo-like last stand against the Lebanese army.
Another refugee camp in the south seems to be heading in the same direction, and there are more, many more, al-Qaida-inspired time bombs like these slowly ticking away in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.
The jihad-inspired militants fighting Lebanese troops today in what’s left of the shelled, scorched and bullet-strafed Nahr al-Barid camp are from a small cell called Fatah al-Islam, “Islamic victory,” but the name isn’t important. There are other groups here too, Jund al-Sham, “Soldiers of the Levant,” Esbat al-Ansar, “League of Partisans,” and Al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Sham, “al-Qaida in the Levant.”
While the names are unimportant (they change as the factions split off and meld into each other), don’t ignore the groups. It didn’t work for Lebanon, and won’t work for the rest of the Middle East and the United States.
Fatah al-Islam and the others are part of a new generation of al-Qaida. Like other reporters, I have struggled to find a good name for them. It feels like the start of something new. I had the same dilemma in Iraq four years ago when the car bombings started. We didn’t know what to call the militants there either, and eventually settled on the awkward and somewhat misleading terms “insurgent” to describe the Sunni fighters and “militias” for the Shiites.
For the fighters here, and spreading across the region, reporters have come up with the even clumsier “al-Qaida inspired groups.’ I prefer “al-Qaida franchises” because it implies the loose affiliation among the groups and the business of the modern jihad industry, with active media, finance and money laundering wings.
Like a franchise of McDonald’s, or my childhood favorite Carvel, these al-Qaida cells are locally owned and operated. They are fully responsible for picking targets, training, smuggling and all of the day-to-day business of jihad. The franchise home office, Carvel, McDonald’s, or in this case Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, only provides the overall flavor, guidance and a few secret ingredients.
The groups benefit from the al-Qaida brand and experience. Al-Qaida central benefits from the distribution. It’s win-win, but not for Lebanon, the people of the Middle East or the United States.
Camps culture of martyrdom
Lebanon ignored the militants in its camps until they literally bit the nation in the throat. For years, Lebanese have known that Palestinian camps like Nahr al-Barid and Ain al-Helwe — hopeless slums crowded with generations of disenfranchised Palestinian refugees who can’t go home because of Israel, and can’t work because of Lebanese laws — are awash with gunmen, criminals and, since the war in Iraq, al-Qaida inspired jihadists. Under a decades old agreement, Palestinian refugee camps are supposed to administer and police themselves. Lebanese troops are technically not allowed to enter them.
In the camps there has long been a culture of martyrdom. This week I spent several days in the Bedawi refugee camp near Nahr al-Barid, interviewing some of the 25,000 refugees who escaped the gun battles between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam.
I was struck by a mural spray painted on the wall of the Nazareth school. The painting was a series of quotes from the philosophers revered here: Imam Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ezzedin al-Qassam, the inspiration for Hamas’s military wing, and Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip.
Rantisi’s quote was my favorite: “I’d prefer by apache!”
Rantisi got his wish. In April 2004, an Israeli apache attack helicopter fired rockets at his car in Gaza City, killing him and two bodyguards.
“I’d prefer by apache!”
It sounded to me like a bumper sticker with a wishful slogan, “I’d rather be skiing!” or “I’d rather be rock-climbing!” Instead the message at Bedawi, on a school no less, was I’d rather be blown from the world by an apache’s wire guided hellfire missile, made in the U.S.A.
Al-Qaida thrives on the grievances in places like Bedawi, and there are many. Lebanon has long known it.
A problem that could no longer be ignored
I met with radical Lebanese al-Qaida inspired groups and did reports on them twice for NBC Nightly News in the last year, practically screaming on air that the camps were dangerous bastions of al-Qaida. We put the fighters on television. The militants openly told us about their dreams of carrying out suicide missions in Iraq and beyond.
It was no secret. The Lebanese government certainly knew about it, but couldn’t act. The Lebanese government is already in a political cold war with Hezbollah. It didn’t want to pick a fight with the al-Qaida franchises of wannabe martyrs. But this time, it had no choice.
The fighting in Nahr al-Barid began two weeks ago by accident. The Lebanese internal security forces chased a group of suspected bank robbers in Tripoli back to a safe house. But these were not simple criminals. The Lebanese forces ended up in raging fight with Fatah al-Islam.
But the Lebanese then made a fatal mistake. There was a complete intelligence and coordination breakdown. The security forces chasing the “bank robbers” never informed the army nearby that they had inadvertently stirred a nasty hornets’ nest. The soldiers on the edge of Nahr al-Barid therefore weren’t expecting an ambush. The soldiers were relaxing. Some were asleep when enraged Fatah al-Islam militants attacked their checkpoint on the outskirts of Nahr al-Barid and went on a murderous rampage.
Fatah al-Islam fighters firing rockets at the soldiers at close range, slit their throats, and gouged out the eyes of at least one of the soldiers. I watched a video of their bodies taken on a cell phone. It was nauseating. The army could no long ignore Fatah al-Islam and wanted revenge, but wasn’t ready.
Lebanon does not have a powerful army. During last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel, the army didn’t fight, and only deployed to the south after the war was over. This time the army asked for help, and the U.S. military was more than happy to deliver it.
U.S. steps in with supplies
The U.S. army already provides the Lebanese with much of its military supplies. Lebanese soldiers carry American M-16s. After the attack on the army’s checkpoint, the U.S. rushed planeloads of extra ammunition, flak jackets and night vision goggles to Lebanon. Lebanese military officials told us the weapons have been “helpful,” but wouldn’t elaborate.
President Bush is a strong supporter of the Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who is pro-Western and a believer in secular democracy. Siniora also opposes Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. In the Bush “us vs. them” approach to the Middle East, Siniora is certainly one of “us.” He may even be Bush’s favorite on the “us” team. Now Siniora wanted to fight al-Qaida in his own country and asked for American assistance? For the White House it was a no-brainer: send in the guns.
But now that Lebanon has inadvertently opened a box it would have preferred to leave shut, the Lebanese are realizing how deep al-Qaida franchises are entrenched here.
Investigations of 32 captured Fatah al-Islam fighters reportedly indicate ties to the militant leader of al-Qaida in Iraq: Abu Hamza al-Mujaher, the car bomb expert who replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The prominent daily Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reported that Fatah al-Islam was plotting a 9/11 style attack in Lebanon, attacking tunnels and hotels in Beirut.
Two respected Lebanese newspapers reported today that Lebanese security arrested three more jihadists in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley yesterday, seizing four suitcases of explosives, night vision goggles, guns and maps of Lebanon.
But here’s the rub. Fatah al-Islam is just the tip of the iceberg. The Nahr al-Barid camp is smaller than the equally radical camp of Ain al-Helwe near Sidon south of Beirut. There were gun battles in that camp last week. For a few hours, it looked look like a new front was breaking out. But the fighting mostly stopped. An unlikely ally in the war against al-Qaeda intervened: Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is a Shiite group and Lebanon’s most powerful and organized opposition group, with a heavily armed militia that rivals the Lebanese Army.
Al-Qaida’s members are Sunnis from an especially anti-Shiite strain of fundamentalism.
Al-Qaida in Iraq hates the Shiites even more that it detests American soldiers. Hezbollah also runs most of southern Lebanon like a “state within a state.”
Hezbollah simply didn’t want al-Qaida, or any of its offshoots, to stir troubles in its backyard.
But Hezbollah also has a political agenda. The group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has offered the Siniora government “a solution.” Nasrallah said the answer is to form a “national unity” government, which means giving Hezbollah a greater share of power.
Siniora now faces three choices: rely on the Americans to provide more guns and political support, enter a power-sharing deal with Hezbollah and try to unite the country, or attempt to balance relations with the United States and Hezbollah to fight a common enemy: al-Qaida.
Not just Lebanon’s problem
The Washington-based think tank, The SITE Institute, this week wrote in an analysis:
“Fatah al-Islam did not appear overnight and was the result of a concerted effort by jihadists responding, in part, to the war between Israel and Hizballah last summer, which deeply unnerved jihadists who fear Shi'a and Iranian hegemony in Lebanon.
“Lebanon, in particular, with a weak central government and containing several religious sects competing for power, is ripe for exploitation by the jihadists, as happened in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Any base or stronghold in Lebanon or Syria would provide the jihadists with an excellent staging ground for attacks against Israel and the surrounding Arab regimes.”
But the problem goes well beyond Lebanon. There are al-Qaida franchises in small failed pockets of frustration stretching from the slums of Casablanca in Morocco to Baghdad in Iraq.
Lebanon, always a trip wire in the region because of its precarious ethnic and sectarian balance, was just one of the first countries here to blow up. I expect there will be others.
Richard Engel is NBC News Middle East Bureau Chief and Beirut bureau chief. Some of the reporting for this story was done during his recent assignment in Tripoli, Lebanon.