Searching for Al-Qaeda in Lebanon (II): An Emir for Greater Syria

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A member from a Militant Islamic group stands with a missile-launcher in an undisclosed location in Ain el-Helweh refugee camp, south Lebanon. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Monday, March 5, 2012

In the second part of this exclusive series, Al-Akhbar talks to members of al-Qaeda’s emerging Lebanese branch, Ziad al-Jarrah Battalions, about their take on the “Shia threat”, fighting Israel, organizing their ranks in Greater Syria and tackling the Syrian crisis, as well as reported plans to rename al-Qaeda as the Abdullah Azzam brigades.

Seeking out members of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in the Ain el-Helweh refugee camp near Sidon in southern Lebanon is tricky business.

They prefer to remain in the shadows. They operate quietly and go out publicly only on carefully chosen occasions. Although several members of the brigades are well-known to the camp’s inhabitants, neither they nor officials of the various Palestinian factions in the camp care to identify them.

Lebanese security sources say the brigades, the de facto Lebanese branch of al-Qaeda, has been highly active in Ain el-Helweh of late, transferring personnel in an out of the camp and purchasing weapons. A large number of outsiders recently moved into the camp, supervised by a Saudi national called Majed al-Majed.

Another visitor who paid a recent visit to the camp is Abd al-Majid Azzam, grandson of Azzam al-Azzam, the group’s namesake and onetime mentor of al-Qaeda’s founders. He carried a forged ID card, in the name of one Saleh Mousa Shabayteh and stayed at the home of Abd al-Ghani Jawhar, also known as Abu-Bakr. Jawhar, a Lebanese national, is suspected of involvement in three bomb attacks in northern Lebanon against two buses and a military position, as well as a bombing in Damascus in the autumn of 2008.

During his stay in Ain el-Helweh, Azzam attended a meeting at which he relayed a message from the al-Qaeda leadership to a former leader of Fatah al-Islam. It requested two things. First, the message requested protection for Jawhar against possible assassination attempts. The message also requested information about the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL), the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, and its patterns of deployment.

According to the same sources, three figures known in Islamist circles to be connected to al-Qaeda were present at the meeting: Naim Abbas (Abu-Ismail) and Ziad Abul-Naaj – both Palestinians – and the Lebanese Tawfiq Taha (Abu-Muhammad).

Abbas, 41, is thought to be a key activist in both al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam. He is one of the suspects wanted for the assassination in 2007 of former Lebanese army operations chief General Francois al-Hajj. Abbas was arrested in the 1990s in connection with attempts to fire missiles into occupied Palestine. Among those detained with him was Saleh Qibawi (Abu Jaafar al-Maqdisi), who was later killed in Iraq.

Taha is considered by Lebanese security to be al-Qaeda’s top representative in Ain el-Helweh. A total of 25 warrants have been issued for his arrest by Lebanese judicial, police, and security authorities. He is thought to have updated his modus operandi of late, organizing followers within the camp into separate cells and using more secure methods (Internet-based rather than cellphones) to communicate with those outside.

Despite rumors that Taha has left Ain el-Helweh, leaders of Palestinian factions in the camp say he is still seen there regularly, moving about without any apparent security precautions.

Hezbollah as enemy

At an undisclosed location in Ain el-Helweh, Al-Akhbar met with one of the brigades’ leaders, who formerly belonged to Usbat al-Ansar. He said the group’s members consisted of people who had broken away from various Palestinian factions, mainly Usbat al-Ansar, but others too. Some had been volunteers in Iraq, or had joined individually – “because they share the same attitude to the Lebanese political situation, and the same belief in the jihadi objective of establishing the State of Islam.”

The brigades view Usbat al-Ansar and other groups such as the Islamic Mujahed Movement as “lapsed Muslims” and demand that they “sever their relations with the Shia and with Lebanese state intelligence agencies.”

Our conversation turned to the situation in the region, including the situation in Syria.

This prompted our interlocutor to say that he had information that Lebanese military intelligence was planning to target his group “under pressure from Hezbollah.” If that were to happen, he warned, “we will strike deep inside the Dahiyeh” – the southern suburbs of Beirut. He also said that “twenty martyrdom-seekers are awaiting the signal to proceed.”

He also spoke of the brigades’ plans to take up the struggle against the Israeli enemy. He denounced Hezbollah for “preventing Sunni Muslims from fighting against Israel” and thereby “protecting the borders” on its behalf. “We will fight both enemies: Israel, and the Shia Hezbollah which protects its borders,” he declared.

We asked for a meeting with Tawfiq Taha, and were promised that the request would be passed on. A few days later, our interlocutor called to say that this would not be possible for the time being, for security reasons – given the sensitivity of conditions in the region.

We had a second meeting with the same brigades leader later on, in the same place but with others also present. He reproached us for Al-Akhbar’s coverage of missile launches against Israel in late November last year. When we pointed out that a statement in the name of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades had claimed responsibility, he said it had been a fabrication.

“Any Muslim would take pride in targeting Israel. If we had done so, we would have declared it,” he said. He noted that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has only ever issued six public statements. These included their August 2009 declaration attacking UNIFIL, Lebanese military intelligence, and Hezbollah.

He was convinced he said that the missiles were fired by allies of the Syrian regime in order to create confusion, and to signal to Israel that its own security was dependent on Syria’s.

New strategy

On a third visit to Ain el-Helweh, Al-Akhbar was able to interview a more senior leader of the Abdallah Azzan Brigades. A contact based in the Bekaa who is well-connected to “mujahideen brothers” in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq arranged the meeting. It was all done over the Internet, which is considered a safe means of communication these days. The security forces recently managed to penetrate the group’s communications network, thereby reaching some of the mujahideen’s second-ranking leaders. They nearly got to the top tier. Since then, the use of cellphones and landlines has been kept to a minimum.

This leader said the brigades were in the process of reorganizing in order to join the “global jihadi enterprise,” which he stressed was not confined to any specific region.

“Our most important objective is to support the Sunni community, which is being oppressed by the Shia onslaught,” he said. He maintained that there was a principle in Islamic jurisprudence which holds that “fighting the nearby apostate takes priority over fighting the distant heretic.”

He disavowed links to any Arab state, remarking “that any connection to any state amounts to be political collaboration.”

He said Lebanese security agencies recently arrested four associates who came to Ain el-Helweh from Jordan, as well as a Palestinian referred to as Bilal who used to liaise between different groups.

AL-Qaeda’s Lebanese branch is thought to have been established in 2004. Its analysts and security personnel says its members include Palestinians and Saudis as well as Lebanese, and that it appears to have been expanding of late.

This appears to be linked to a new strategy that the central al-Qaeda leadership is in the process of developing.

According to Salafi sources, al-Qaeda has been undergoing a rethink since the assassination of Osama bin-Laden by US forces in Pakistan last May. Among other things, some donors from the Gulf ceased providing al-Qaeda with funds after bin-Laden’s death.

Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also believed a change of strategy was needed because al-Qaeda’s name had been “tarnished” by association with bloody killings and indiscriminate bombings, undermining its ability to attract supporters.

According to these sources, Bin-Laden himself had considered changing al-Qaeda’s name, having become convinced that it was a liability and widely reviled. Zawahiri put the suggestion to al-Qaeda’s Majlis al-Shoura, an advisory council, and it was agreed that the new name Adallah Azzam Brigades would be adopted. Azzam was a leading figure of the Arab mujahideen who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet Union, and was both Bin-Laden and Zawahiri’s intellectual mentor. He was killed in Pakistan in 1989.

It was also agreed that the country or regional branches of the organization would be designated as “batallions,” each named after a prominent local mujahed. Thus the Jordanian branch would become the Abu-Misab al-Zarqawi Battalions, the Egyptian one would be called the Yousef al-Ayeyri Battalions, and Syria would have the Abu-Hassan al-Mihdar Battalions. The Lebanese branch would be named after Ziad al-Jarrah, the Lebanese 9/11 hijacker.

Although statements by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have been published on al-Qaeda’s al-Fajr webste, many jihadis confirm that it has not yet been officially inaugurated.

Insiders say it is expected to but has yet to designate an “emir” or commander for the Greater Syria region from either the Lebanese or Syrian branches, most likely the head of the latter, who is known as Abu-Anas al-Homsi.

One feature of al-Qaeda’s new strategy for gaining support and credibility is to begin mounting operations against Israel, according to jihadi sources. This is seen as key to attracting a bigger following, given the strength of public support for the Palestinian cause in the Muslim world. This means that the Lebanese and Syrian branches take on added importance – and that the mujahideen may soon turn their attention to the south Lebanon and Golan Heights fronts.

Fatah al-Islam attempted to develop a Greater Syrian al-Qaeda, but its leaders were all killed before they could win the endorsement of the parent organization. The endeavor continues, and the objective remains, especially after the outbreak of the revolt in Syria. The mujaihdeen are making preparations, though the name has changed.

There is a difference in priorities between the two groups, concurred a former fighter who took part in the battles with the Lebanese army at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2008. Fatah al-Islam sees it main enemies as America and Israel, said – adding that it was planning to mount a “quality operation” against Israel, either from within Israel or from Lebanon, which would not consist of “merely firing missiles.” The Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ priorities, on the other hand, include fighting Hezbollah as well as Israel.

But insiders affirm that the difference will be overcome once the al-Qaeda leadership has its final say, and its emir in Greater Syria surfaces.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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