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Terror Alert: Let us protect UNIFIL, and fast.

Byline: Bilal Y. Saab

Summary: The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is at serious risk of another terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda and it needs immediate protection.AaThis time, the potential harm that Al-Qaeda in Lebanon could inflict on the multinational peacekeeping force could be significant as the terrorist organization has recently been able to adjust, reorganize, and plan for a deadly operation

Perspective By Bilal Y. Saab and Magnus Ranstorp


The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is at serious risk of another terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda and it needs immediate protection.AaThis time, the potential harm that Al-Qaeda in Lebanon could inflict on the multinational peacekeeping force could be significant as the terrorist organization has recently been able to adjust, reorganize, and plan for a deadly operation. If Al-Qaeda succeeds in bleeding UNIFIL, this will undoubtedly push some of its member states to withdraw their troops, which by default would undermine the mission of the Force altogether and ultimately cause its dissolution.Aa

While the global counter-terrorism community seems understandably focused on the terror problems in Yemen and Somalia, it cannot afford to brush aside Al-Qaeda's reach in another strategically vital part of the world: Israel-Lebanon. Make no mistake about it, if UNIFIL suffers another terrorist hit and starts crumbling as a result, the task of averting another devastating war between Israel and Hizbullah (which this time could be much more destructive and could involve other foreign powers) becomes nearly impossible. Middle East stability, not just calm on the Israeli-Lebanese borders, is at stake here.Aa

The terrorist threat to UNIFIL (and Lebanon) has drastically changed since the events of Nahr al-Bared in 2007, and here is why we believe it has become much more dangerous and imminent. Since its deployment in southern Lebanon following the 34-day war between Israel and Hizbullah in summer 2006, the expanded multinational force (now has 12,133 uniformed personnel) has had to deal with an emerging threat posed by Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's second in command Ayman al-Zawahri has had his eyes on the multinational troops the day they set foot in the southern part of the country. His three messages (so far) have been clear, and his directions even clearer: wage armed jihad against the "crusader" troops in the South and force them to withdraw from "Muslim lands."Aa

Zawahri's calls did not fall on deaf ears. One June 24, 2007, three Spanish and three Columbian UN soldiers were killed when a bomb destroyed their armored troop carrier. A month later, another bomb exploded near a UNIFIL position, luckily causing no casualties. Then on January 8, 2008, two members of the Irish contingent were wounded when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Rmaileh village, 35 kilometers south of Beirut. In addition to these direct hits (and many others that were not reported), Al-Qaeda's fighters have regularly launched rockets from southern Lebanon into northern Israel (so far on seven separate occasions, the most recent of which attempt to ignite another war between Hezbollah and Israel with UNIFIL in between, killing in what Al-Qaeda's calculations would be three birds with one stone: "the infidel Shiite party," the "Zionist entity," and the "crusader army." Fortunately, Hizbullah and Israel did not fall into Al-Qaeda's trap, exercising wise judgment and restraint at every incident.Aa

However, with rumors of renewed conflict widely circulating in the media these days, cooler heads may no longer prevail next time another mysterious rocket lands in a northern Israeli town.Aa

The numbers of foiled Al-Qaeda plots against UNIFIL and arrests of terrorist cells by the Lebanese military intelligence services have also been staggering. Ever since the Lebanese Army crushed Fatah al-Islam (the Al-Qaeda-inspired group) in summer 2007 and the Lebanese military intelligence services have been working day and night on combating the terror threat. Having conducted extensive field research on the subject of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon over the past six years, we found no evidence that Al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan-Afghanistan has a franchise in the country like in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and other places around the world. Also, we found no sizable support for the terrorist group's militant agenda among the Sunni Islamist community (including the doctrinally rigid but nonviolent salafis). Al-Qaeda's extremist ideology is also shunned by the majority of Lebanese Sunni Muslims. All these factors and others explain why Al-Qaeda's attempts to create an overt insurgent group in the country on New Year's Eve in 1999-2000 and in summer 2007 failed miserably. Realizing that Lebanon is not a fertile ground for establishing a solid insurgent base, Al-Qaeda adjusted and opted to go underground. Instead of helping form insurgent groups, Al-Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan is now working, with the help of its franchises in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, on creating sleeper cells in Lebanon that would be in charge of recruiting, training, and planning operations against Western and Israeli targets, in addition to attacking UNIFIL. These terrorist cells, some of which are remnants of Fatah al-Islam while others continue to arrive from several regional battlefronts, are scattered across the country but with heavy concentration in its northern region, specifically in places like Tripoli, Akkar, Qaroun, Majdar Anjar, and al Koura (there are also some pockets in the Bekaa Valley and around the Palestinian camps in the southern suburbs of Beirut). Today, there exists a dangerous terrorist axis that links, by land and sea, these northern areas to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon, where arguably most major terrorist planning and coordination takes place.Aa

Under-funded, poorly equipped, and largely inexperienced in the counter-terrorism business, the Lebanese military intelligence services have surprisingly done a superb job in making life difficult for Al-Qaeda in the country. However, despite their commendable effort, the threat is now too big for a tiny country like Lebanon to handle on its own. The Lebanese government has a legal responsibility to protect UNIFIL but it cannot do this crucial job alone. What is needed is a concerted effort by nations that are contributing troops to UNIFIL and by those countries that have a vested interest in preserving the fragile calm along the Lebanese-Israeli borders to provide immediate technical and financial assistance to the Lebanese security and counter-terrorism apparatus, specifically to the military intelligence services.Aa

Washington has a strong interest in leading this effort for three important reasons: one, uphold Lebanese stability and help the country in its campaign against salafi jihadism; two, safeguard UNIFIL so that it can do its critical job of keeping the Israeli-Lebanese peace, and three, protect its close ally Israel from further attacks by Al-Qaeda elements in southern Lebanon.Aa

There is no question that Al-Qaeda in Lebanon is a real danger to the country in general and to UNIFIL in particular. The safety of the Force is of utmost importance to the security of Lebanon and the entire region. While Israeli and Hizbullah officials often complain about UNIFIL, in private, they do appreciate its important deterrent role.Aa

Indeed, the truth of the matter is that UNIFIL is the only thing standing in the way of another large-scale military conflict in the Middle East. Let us help Lebanon better protect it from Al-Qaeda before it is too late.Aa

Bilal Y. Saab is a PhD student and Teaching Assistant at the University of Maryland, College Park and Magnus Ranstorp is Research Director at the Swedish National Defence College.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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