Al-Qa`ida’s Presence and Influence in Lebanon

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

November 20, 2008


There is no official consensus in Lebanon on whether al-Qa`ida has a presence in the country. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, all politics in Lebanon has been polarized. It is on the threat of terrorism where the gap is arguably most pronounced. On the one hand, the anti-Syrian political coalition, led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament majority leader Saad Hariri, believes that al-Qa`ida does not have an indigenous presence in Lebanon. What the country faces instead is a fabricated threat by Damascus and its intelligence services that is intended to destabilize Lebanon and restore Syrian hegemony. On the other hand, the pro-Syrian alliance, spearheaded by Hizb Allah (also spelled Hezbollah) and the Free Patriotic Party of Michel Aoun, judges that al-Qa`ida exists in Lebanon and poses a real threat to national security. For them, the rise of al-Qa`ida in the country is largely attributed to a devilish pact between Lebanese Sunni politicians and extremist Islamic factions in the north, the purpose of which is to counter-balance the perceived ascending power of Shi`a Hizb Allah. The Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), an institution that is perceived to be fairly loyal to Siniora—in addition to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential regional patrons of the anti-Syrian coalition—are also accused by the pro-Syrian alliance of having a hand in financing and arming these terrorist groups.

It is critical for Lebanese from all sides of the political spectrum to come to a clear understanding of the nature of the terrorism threat. While terrorism may not be an existential threat to Lebanon, it has hit hard in various regions and in multiple directions. The past three years alone have registered more than 18 terrorist attacks that have taken the lives of innocent civilians, high-profile officials and politicians, prominent journalists and commentators, military personnel, and international peacekeepers. Furthermore, the two theories about al-Qa`ida in Lebanon as proposed by the anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian coalitions are not mutually exclusive. Their common denominator is the Lebanonization process of the Salafi-jihadi movement in the country. Five years after the start of the war in Iraq, Islamic radicalization is still on the rise in the Middle East. The spillover effects of the war in Iraq, the resurfacing of political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon following the May 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops, the 2006 war between Israel and Hizb Allah, and the Sunni perception of ascending Shi`a and Iranian power in the region gave new life and meaning to the Salafi-jihadi movement in Lebanon.

During the course of a six year period starting in 2002, the author conducted both practical and theoretical research on the subject of Salafi-jihadism in Lebanon. The findings, updated by current events, support the following conclusions, each of which will be examined in detail:

  • Al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, based in the tribal areas of Pakistan-Afghanistan, has no franchise or coordinated group in Lebanon.
  • The Salafi-jihadi movement has neither a local insurgent presence in Lebanon nor a unifying leader of the stature of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the presumed leader of al-Qa`ida in Iraq.
  • The Salafi-jihadi movement in Lebanon is neither fictional nor a mechanical creation of the Syrian intelligence services. It also has an important Lebanese constituency and is not exclusively Palestinian.
  • The current Salafi-jihadi threat is caused by a network of capable terrorist cells scattered across the country, mostly in northern Lebanon. The most dangerous terrorist axis is the one that links, by land and sea, regions in the north—such as Tripoli, al-Koura and Akkar—to the Palestinian refugee camp of `Ayn al-Hilwa in Sidon. Pockets in the Bekaa Valley are also increasingly witnessing Salafi-jihadi activity.
  • Al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership values the target of the international peacekeeping force in the south6 and has a profound interest in attacking Israel, but it also understands the limitations and difficulties of waging jihad on Lebanese soil.