By Rannie Amiri
"I hope there won't be a confrontation with Hezbollah, but I do see one coming." - Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, Salafi leader and imam of As-Salam mosque in Tripoli, Lebanon.
While much of Lebanon’s recent attention was focused on fighting in the north between Tripoli’s Sunni Muslims backing Rafiq Hariri’s Future Movement and Alawites allied with Hezbollah, a potentially larger conflict looms in the south.
Ain al-Hilwah, located on the eastern outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, is home to anywhere between 45,000-70,000 Palestinian refugees. The uncertainty in population is reflective of it being the largest and most autonomous of all the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Ain al-Hilwa is also completely off-limits to the country’s armed forces. Security is therefore solely the responsibility of the factions located within it. As one might expect, the political schisms found in the Palestinian territories are likewise mirrored in the camp.
Al-Qaeda Plant Their Flag
It was the pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat, that broke the news of its latest arrivals:
"Al-Qaeda representatives are in Lebanon at present and they are trying to establish contact with [certain] groups based in Ain al-Hilwah."
According to the Jordanian security official quoted in the story, Saudi, Yemeni, Jordanian and European nationals departing Iraq have infiltrated Ain al-Hilwah—no doubt under cover of its internal disputes—in order to enlist disgruntled Palestinian factions to their cause. Local militant groups already present there and considered sympathetic to al-Qaeda include Jund al-Sham, the Ansar League, and Fatah al-Islam (the latter responsible for the three-month long battle with the Lebanese Army over a year ago in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp outside Tripoli).
Have we already started to see al-Qaeda’s influence on them?
On Sept. 15, fighting erupted in the camp between Fatah and Jund al-Sham, killing three. On Sept. 23, a bomb exploded outside Al-Nour mosque housing an office belonging to the Islamic Movement Alliance, an Islamist group allied with Fatah.
More ominous was the Sept. 26 car bombing in Damascus (a rarity in Syria, known for its tight internal security). With 17 killed and dozens injured, no group has claimed responsibility at the time of this writing. However, the location of the blast was a telltale sign of the perpetrators’ identity: at the junction of a road between the airport and the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, an important pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims the world over, but most frequently of those from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
Indeed, the hallmark of al-Qaeda is sowing sectarian strife. And there is no better recruitment ground than the teeming Palestinian refugee camps, especially Ain al-Hilwah. It is completely isolated from the rest of the country and its disenfranchised, disaffected Sunni Muslim inhabitants make them an ideal constituency.
Hezbollah though, is keenly aware of these circumstances and overtures and has proactively attempted to counter them. As so well reported by Dr. Franklin Lamb, they have done this through humanitarian outreach, by providing municipal assistance in the form of sewer and water projects, and successfully lobbying the government to issue Palestinians temporary identification cards, all not insignificant measures.
Rallying the Troops
It was al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a videotaped message released in early September, who lambasted Hezbollah for allowing “thousands of crusaders”—otherwise known as United Nations peacekeepers—into the south after the July 2006 war with Israel. He additionally assailed nearly all Shia political and religious figures in the region.
As Sheikh Omar Bakri, another prominent Salafi leader in Lebanon, readily admitted, “Condemning Hezbollah and Iran brings Lebanese supporters closer to Al Qaeda's agenda.”
Quite remarkably, a “memorandum of understanding” was signed in August between Hezbollah and the Salafi Belief and Justice Movement. For this to occur between two groups at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum was stunning (Salafis consider Shia Muslims as heretics at best and non-Muslims at worst). Because of the outrage and intense pressure levied against it by other Salafi movements however, the agreement was frozen only a few days later.
A Combustible Potpourri
In southern Lebanon, a veritable “witches brew” exists. In this relatively small area, one finds Hezbollah, UNIFIL troops, the Lebanese Army, the Palestinian factions of Ain al-Hilwah including Fatah, Hamas and militant Lebanese Salafist groups; and now, formal al-Qaeda representation. Not to be forgotten of course, are the Israelis across the border.
Although al-Qaeda and their allies are far from posing a direct military threat to Hezbollah, this was never going to be their modus operandi anyway. Rather, they will attempt to achieve their objectives by creating conditions giving pretext to the Israelis to strike Lebanon, launching attacks on UNIFIL forces, assassinating high-profile figures in the country so as to foment political instability, and orchestrating suicide/car bombings as we just witnessed in Damascus.
In the saga known as the "Battle of the Camps", Chapter 1 was titled Nahr al-Bared. Chapter 2 may very well be Ain al-Hilwah. It is a tale Hezbollah hopes will soon finish, but one whose ending, I fear, has yet to be written.
-Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
“Lebanon Warily Watches Its Salafis.” The Christian Science Monitor. 24 September 2008.