16 - 22 October 2008
Issue No. 918

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Terror uprooted

The Lebanese state continues to confront the consequences of Sunni attempts to 
counter Hizbullah by way of radical Islamists, writes Raed Rafei 


The uncovering of a "terrorist cell" accused of two deadly attacks against the 
Lebanese army was met with relief in Lebanon but brought to the forefront the 
ongoing confrontation between extreme Islamist groups and the country's 
legitimate security forces. 

Detained members of the cell were apparently linked to Fatah Al-Islam, an 
Al-Qaeda-inspired group, according to a security official who spoke on 
condition of anonymity. They had planned their attacks to avenge their lost 
battle against the army last year in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr 
Al-Bared, the official said. 

Although the arrests restored some confidence in the capacity of authorities to 
take control of the country's security, some observers fear that uprooting 
these fundamentalist groups would not be an easy task. 

"What we are witnessing is just the tip of an iceberg," said Ahmed Moussali, 
professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University 
of Beirut. "These extremist groups might not be organised nor answer to one 
centre, but they could be nonetheless deadly because every one of them has its 
own plans and acts on its behalf," Moussali added. 

Late September, a bomb targeting a military bus killed four soldiers and three 
civilians near the port city of Tripoli. The attack came after a similar 
bombing in downtown Tripoli that killed 14 people, including nine soldiers and 
a child. 

"We have uncovered some elements, but this does not eliminate the threats," 
Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told reporters following a security meeting 
Monday. "The security apparatuses will remain highly alert to prevent these 
threats from materialising." 

On Sunday evening, the Lebanese army broke the news that the presumed 
perpetrators of the deadly attacks against the army were arrested earlier that 
day. A military statement said that the army confiscated "an explosive belt" 
from the group and added that "other terrorist attacks" were being planned. 

A leading member of the group, identified as Abdel-Ghani Jawhar, was being 
tracked down, the statement added. 

The army did not disclose the nature of the cell nor its motives to preserve 
the secrecy of ongoing investigations. 

"These groups are against everybody and everything," Moussali said. "Their 
agenda is ultimately to install a utopian Islamic system, but now they are at a 
stage of deconstruction." 

Moussali added that the primary target of the extremist groups might currently 
be the army and the security forces because of what happened in Nahr Al-Bared, 
but that these groups look at "Lebanese society as a whole as their enemy". 

Earlier this year, Fatah Al-Islam vowed to launch attacks against the army to 
avenge the killing of its members. The threats were made in an alleged audio 
recording of the group's leader, Shaker Al-Abssi, who is believed to be still 
on the run. 

The fighting in Nahr Al-Bared between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam 
lasted for more than three months in the summer of 2007 and claimed the lives 
of about 400 people, including 168 soldiers, mostly coming from the poor areas 
of Northern Lebanon. 

Some observers believe that groups like Fatah Al-Islam cannot find a strong 
foothold in the north of Lebanon and that their outreach remains limited. 

"Extremists are not covered, neither by the people of Tripoli nor even by the 
mainstream Salafist groups," said Fawaz Sankari, chief editor of Tripoli's 
Attamadon newspaper. 

"It's difficult to imagine that extremists would be able to form a real base in 
Tripoli," Sankari said, arguing that the soldiers who are killed in the attacks 
perpetrated by these groups are mostly from the north of the country.

Mainstream Islamist movements in Tripoli denied Monday that they endorsed 
terrorism. They said in a statement that they rejected "the use of weapons and 
violence for political aims".

Moussali argues that it was the growing Salafist influence in the north that 
created a fertile ground for more radical groups to grow. At the height of the 
Sunni-Shia divide, the Sunni leadership resorted to Salafist factions in the 
north, mobilising them against Hizbullah, he said. 

"Radical groups infiltrated the Salafists. While ideologically close to regular 
Salafists, these groups have a different agenda. They are unpredictable 
forces," Moussali said. He added that a decision supported by the United States 
was made to annihilate radical groups. However, the cost of a full-fledged 
confrontation with these groups would alienate the Sunni community in the 

"It is not enough to go after one, two or even more terrorist cells. The whole 
environment where these cells are growing has to be changed," Moussali said. 

But according to Sankari, the focus of the security forces should be more 
directed towards the Ain Al-Helweh Refugee Camp, near the Southern city of 
Sidon, which has been in the past years a safe haven for extreme Islamist 

"The authority figures for extremist groups could be found in Ain Al-Helweh and 
not in Tripoli," Sankari said. 

Leading members of Fatah Al-Islam, notably Al-Abssi, were able to escape 
towards the end of the fighting although the camp where the fighters were holed 
up was tightly encircled by Lebanese troops. 

Concerns have recently surfaced that members of Fatah Al-Islam might be 
regrouping in Palestinian refugee camps, which remain outside the jurisdiction 
of the Lebanese security forces. 

In the past days, Palestinian officials at the northern camp of Baddawi took 
security measures to prevent the infiltration of the camp by extremist groups. 

Recently, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, 
reportedly said that there would not be another Nahr Al-Bared conflict in 
Lebanon, implying that a full-fledged military operation against Islamists in 
Lebanon's refugee camps would not take place. 

"The way to counter radicals in Ain Al-Helweh is to let internal Palestinian 
forces deal with them," said Sankari.

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