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Lebanon a launch pad for al-Qa\'ida’s new phase

AS the encircled Islamists in north Lebanon heralded their last stand this weekend, regional governments were coming to terms with a much broader battle - al-Qa'ida's opening salvos in the western Middle East.

From the Horn of Africa to the eastern shores of the Atlantic, from Afghanistan to Lebanon, and as far away as Spain, the rise of Salafi Islamic Jihadism has taken on a dangerous new impetus that is likely to reshape the global war on terror.

Throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, fully fledged Salafi jihadi insurgencies are being fought in Iraq, Somalia, Algeria and Lebanon. Uprisings are stirring in Gaza, Tunisia, Morocco and the Egyptian Sinai.

All have the potential to drag the West into a conflict it increasingly seems unlikely to avoid.

Salafis are anti-Western and idealise an uncorrupted, pure Islamic religious community.

Of all the flashpoints, Lebanon seemed among the least likely to erupt into a standoff between the global jihadis and the rest of the world. The traumatised nation had been wrestling with sectarian conflict for the past seven months, indeed for much of its past 60 years. But the internecine battles had been fought largely for control of the levers of domestic power.

Lebanon has always been an arena for proxy battles instigated by its neighbours. And a key driver of the current standoff is believed to be no different. Western intelligence officers say the fledgling Fatah al-Islam group now surrounded in the Nahr al-Barad Palestinian refugee camp is directed by Syrian military intelligence chiefs who are determined to reassert their influence in the country they were forced to leave two years ago.

But the same Beirut-based Western spies say Lebanon is now being viewed on a bigger stage. Jihadis, they say, are seen as a potential Islamic emirate - a valuable part of a regional mosaic that draws its strength from the fearsome Iraqi insurgency and the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war it has spawned.

Were an insurgency to take hold in Lebanon, it would bring the spread of global jihad to the doorstep of northern Europe and give Israel much more to worry about than the Shia militants of Hezbollah.

"The game plan here appears to be to import elements of the Iraqi insurgency and kick it off here between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites," said one well-placed security officer. "Fatah al-Islam are an advance guard."

Only Syria stands between Lebanon and Iraq and, according to the US military, Damascus is already a key facilitator of the insurgency in Iraq. An Iraqi intelligence chief claimed on Saturday that the Syrian border area of al-Qaim is the key clearing house for Iraqi insurgents, 70per cent of whom come from the Gulf states, which are largely considered moderate and US-friendly.

"They, according to their own confessions, gather in mosques in the said (Gulf) states to travel to Syria using their passports, taking with them phone numbers of individuals waiting for them there," Brigadier General Rashid Fleih, the assistant undersecretary for intelligence of Iraq's Interior Ministry, was quoted as saying in Kuwait's Al-Qabas newspaper.

He said that, once in Syria, theinsurgents were given new passports.

Fatah al-Islam's leader, Shaker al-Absi, is believed to be linked to Syrian regime figures. He was released from a Syrian prison after serving a quarter of a 12-year sentence on terrorism charges and soon popped up in two Palestinian refugee camps, from where he launched Fatah al-Islam in the image of al-Qa'ida.

Absi is believed to have been seriously wounded in a hand and shoulder during last week's battles with the Lebanese Army. Through a spokesman, he reiterated yesterday that he would not be captured.

He claimed that three giant US military aircraft carrying supplies for the Lebanese army, which arrived in Beirut on Saturday, contained cluster bombs and other unconventional weapons to be used in a final assault against them.

The payload arrived less than a week after Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had asked for $US280million ($342million) in aid from his key backer. The threat posed by Lebanon's surprise insurgency was not lost on the White House, which cannot bear Salafi Islamist strongholds mushrooming in the region.

But Fatah al-Islam may also prove to be a harbinger of hope in Lebanon.

If the Lebanese army prevails over the 250 or so militants, it and the Siniora Government will emerge emboldened - even among some supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition. Mr Siniora can then boast one strong, functional and important arm of the state, reshaped to take on the jihadis, which could finally start to consolidate his ailing Government's position.

Such a result could place the army on an equal footing with Hezbollah, which its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, repeatedly casts as the only capable nationalistic force in Lebanon.

Nasrallah, who in the Salafi jihadis' eyes is as much of an infidel as other Shias, Christians, Jews and even moderate Muslims, was struggling over the weekend to position himself and Hezbollah in the face of al-Qa'ida's emergence.

He condemned the arrival of US military hardware and urged the army not to enter Nahr al-Barad. But from his nationalistic platform, he could do little else but back the army.

The next week in Nahr al-Barad will prove a critical test for Lebanon and the region's will to face up to an imported and intensified foe that is making good al-Qa'ida's promise to spread its influence. The Jihadi revolution appears to have moved to a second phase, consolidating on the gains of the past five years and preparing to take the fight well beyond its heartland.

"We always expected this would happen," said the Western security official. "But Lebanon was not seen as the starting point. In hindsight, with its sectarian mix and history of being hostage to others, it was a perfect fit."

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Disturbing indeed!

Posted on 2007-05-28 00:47:25 GMT