What Ayman al-Zawahri’s Words Really Mean for Lebanon and the ‘War on Terror’

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

May 5, 2008

Recently, Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri released yet another long message urging Muslims worldwide to join insurgencies, mainly in Iraq, where he claimed the “jihad” against the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition forces was bearing fruit. Zawahri also turned his anger on Hamas for its reported willingness to accept a peace deal with Israel. Reserving a few words for Lebanon which he called a “Muslim front-line fort,, he said that that country will play a “pivotal role in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews.”

While Zawahri was mistaken to suggest that Lebanon is a “Muslim front-line fort,” he was correct in his assessment that the country may play an important role in Al-Qaeda’s global Islamic insurgency.

There are two reasons why Lebanon is and will most probably never be a “Muslim front-line fort”:

One, Lebanon’s multi-confessional and segmented societal structure plays against any major attempts by Al-Qaeda to establish a solid presence. Al-Qaeda has tried to boost its presence in Lebanon over the past decade but has largely failed due to the considerable challenges it has faced with regard to recruitment. In Lebanon, the crushing majority of Sunni Muslims are totally opposed to Al-Qaeda.

Two, even Al-Qaeda’s few but dangerous sympathizers in Lebanon are not too keen on waging an offensive jihad against the “infidels,” be it the “apostate” Lebanese government or the multinational force. Although groups like Osbat al-Ansar and others may see Zawahri as a heroic figure symbolic of their collective struggle, they do not necessarily feel compelled to subordinate themselves to him or any other Al-Qaeda leader.

This does not suggest that Al-Qaeda is not a serious threat to Lebanon; it is. Lebanon is in Al-Qaeda’s sights. The events of Nahr al-Bared last summer were indicative of the relative ease with which Al-Qaeda in Iraq was (and still is) able to transfer fighters – via Syrian territories and with Syrian acquiescence – to Lebanon and cause terror and havoc. Meanwhile, Lebanon has had its own terrorism problem with the presence of groups such as Osbat al-Ansar and others who share Al-Qaeda’s worldview.

So what did Zawahri mean when he said Lebanon has a “pivotal” role in the global jihad? What role does Lebanon play in Al-Qaeda’s calculations?The reality is that Lebanon has turned into a place where jihadist travelers can quietly meet, train, and plan operations against Israel and the West. And this happens mostly in the troublesome Palestinian camp of Ein al-Hilweh in Sidon. There are increasing signs that radicalized European nationals are learning their trade in that camp to be re-inserted back into Europe

Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders recognize the big challenges their organization would face in waging jihad on Lebanese soil. This is why they may have settled for using Lebanon as a staging ground to the Palestinian and European theaters and not so much as a jihadist battlefield. Still, terrorist operations against the international force in the South will be praised and welcomed, as Zawahri has repeatedly reminded his followers. Given how Al-Qaeda views Lebanon, the country might be spared the fate of Iraq. However, the West and the international community still need to work closely with the Lebanese government to prevent Al-Qaeda from setting up shop.