Securing Lebanon from the Threat of Salafist Jihadism

Bilal Y. Saab and
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
Magnus Ranstorp
Magnus Ranstorp Research Director, The Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College

October 1, 2007

This article is intended to provide an independent and in depth assessment of the threat of Al Qaeda–inspired salafist jihadism to the present and future security of Lebanon. A calm and eye-opening discussion on the subject of Al Qaeda in Lebanon is necessary and long overdue. Such a discussion has unfortunately been elusive if not purposively avoided in the Lebanese public domain due in part to the domestic ruling elites’ tendency to indifferently treat and often play down, for various political reasons, the threat of Sunni religious extremism in their country.

By attempting to delve into its history, characteristics, and causes, the authors wish to break new ground and make the case that salafist jihadism in Lebanon is not exclusively a Palestinian phenomenon and that its universe is not limited to the Palestinian refugee camps. Furthermore, the article argues that the salafist jihadist movement is neither fictional nor a mechanical creation of Syria. As such, the authors put forward enough empirical data to demonstrate that the salafist jihadist movement has indeed been able to attract, for the past 5 years or so, a large number of Lebanese followers. In other words, the article attempts to prove that Al Qaeda in Lebanon has an indigenous constituency. Such “Lebanonization” of the salafist jihadist movement has actually accelerated and taken a more serious turn in the aftermath of the war in Iraq in 2003.

To cut through some of the semantic and value-generated fog that currently surrounds the concept of Islamic terrorism, the article begins by providing clear working definitions of salafism and salafist jihadism, two very dissimilar terms that have often been erroneously confused and used interchangeably in the public discourse and terrorism literature. It then explains the causes of Al Qaeda–associated salafist jihadism in Lebanon, describes its dynamics, unpacks the polymorphous entities that are and could be associated with it across the multiplicity of factions in Lebanon’s various regions, and assesses the threat it poses to Lebanon. Next, it carefully analyzes the role Syria could be playing in curbing the spread of Al Qaeda in Lebanon, clarifying the prospects and limitations of such role. Finally, it puts forward a range of policy prescriptions that are intended to help the Lebanese state reduce and ultimately eliminate the threat of local salafist jihadism.

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