Lebanon has become an integral part of the plans of al-Nusra Front. Al-Qaeda’s fastest-growing offshoot is seeking to merge Lebanon’s extreme Islamist factions into a united front.
In mid-February, at a location in the barren hills surrounding the Lebanese town of Ersal, H. A. Dergham posed for pictures with dozens of his armed followers. Under the banner of Syria’s al-Nusra Front and behind a table draped with the Syrian “revolutionary” flag, he brandished a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in one hand and made a victory sign with the other.
Dergham is a principal suspect in the February 2013 attack on an army patrol near Ersal in which a captain and lieutenant were killed and several soldiers injured. The assault followed the attempted arrest of Khaled Hamid, who was described as the top al-Nusra Front “facilitator” in Lebanon.
Dergham’s group also works closely with al-Nusra Front in Syria, and has been playing a leading role in plans to establish a “branch” of the organization in Lebanon.
Al-Nusra Front was formed in Syria in 2011. It rapidly grew into the most prominent of all the country’s armed opposition groups once it was joined by like-minded former members of the Lebanese-based groups Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam.
In March 2012, a group led by Majed Bin-Mohammed al-Majed, Saudi emir or “commander” of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, moved from the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon to Syria.
The rise of Islamist forces with an ideological affinity to al-Qaeda was aided by the declining influence of Fatah and the other Palestinian nationalist factions in Ain al-Hilweh.Their intended aim was to take over the leadership of al-Nusra Front, and replace its commander, known as Abu-Mohammed al-Joulani, with Majed. But once in Syria, many of his followers turned against him and sided with Joulani. He returned to Ain al-Hilweh.
Meanwhile, the ex-members of Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham got on with the task of training and organizing Joulani’s men. Within a few months they managed to improve al-Nusra Front’s performance and organization, turning it into the most formidable armed faction in Syria and an important front for al-Qaeda’s global jihad.
Al-Nusra Front’s Reach in Lebanon
Currently, about a year and half since its launch, the Front has a network of associated groups based in Lebanon. Its members come from a variety of different countries, which provide it with logistical, material, and combat support, especially in its battles in the vicinities of Homs and Damascus.
These Lebanese groups have plans to merge militarily and organizationally into a unified Lebanese chapter of al-Nusra Front. Dergham’s group is the most closely associated with the plan. Based around Ersal, it provides extensive logistical support to al-Nusra Front.
The rise of Islamist forces with an ideological affinity to al-Qaeda was aided by the declining influence of Fatah and the other Palestinian nationalist factions in Ain al-Hilweh. Their involvement in the Syrian jihad has bolstered support for their extremist views. This is at the expense of Hamas’ Usbat al-Ansar, to whom they previously used to defer in exchange for protection.
The other main component of the planned Lebanese al-Nusra Front is the so-called Tripoli bloc, consisting mainly of Hussam al-Sabbagh’s group of 300-400 fighters in the city. A number of smaller groups based in North Lebanon and the Bekaa are also expected to join the merged organization.
One proposal, espoused by Sabbagh, is to establish a single Islamic emirate spanning from North Lebanon to the Homs countryside. Another suggestion is to mount a series of surprise actions in different parts of Lebanon, with the aim of suddenly raising security tensions throughout the country, and announcing: We’re here, our time has come.
Reports indicate that the organizational steps needed to form the merged Lebanese al-Nusra Front are complete, but the Front is awaiting the right political circumstances for its launch.