In this exclusive two-part series, Al-Akhbar meets with Al-Qaeda groupings in Lebanon and explores their latest ideological arguments and evolving mission .
Part (I): Lebanon as Land of Active Rather than Passive Jihad
The morning fog has not yet lifted and the clouds above herald another storm as our car swerves through the villages of the northern Bekaa. The speed suggests our driver knows the road by heart.
There is nothing in his appearance, nor that of our other companions, to indicate that they are Salafis. There are no bushy beards, cropped moustaches, Afghan clothing, nor any of the other stereotypical Salafi trademarks.
The vehicle reaches an Internal Security Forces checkpoint. The driver nods to a soldier who emerges from the guardroom and nods back. Without him asking, the driver replies: “We’re on a tourist excursion.” Everyone laughs, including the soldier.
We drive on as the road gets rougher. Four-wheel drive is essential for this journey. After several kilometers over a mountain track, we pass a man accompanied by a dog, apparently a shepherd. As he turns, the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder can be seen, but he only shouts a greeting and moves on. He’s a “scout,” one of the passengers informs us. He points out an isolated house in the distance.
We arrive and go inside. Six wounded men are lying on the floor, some of them groaning in pain. “The brothers are from the Free Syrian Army,” the driver says. “They were wounded last night.”
There are also armed men in the house, fully bearded. The driver hands one of them a package, and turns to leave. What about “the sheikh,” we ask him? “You will meet him soon,” he replies.
We realize that this is not our destination. We get back into the car, this time with the driver alone, and continue the journey. A river flows across our route, but the driver fords right through it without hesitation. A tire gets stuck on a submerged rock, but he confidently negotiates his way out and carries on. Ten minutes later we arrive at a small house.
It is here that we have our first face-to-face encounter with Sheikh A. A., after months of contact by telephone. His light-hearted speech over the phone makes his appearance slightly surprising: the large beard gives him an aura of gravitas, despite the constant smile.
This is not the sheikh’s permanent base. He is constantly on the move between Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. He lived in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh near Sidon for nearly a year, studying the Quran, before moving to the Bekaa. According to other sources, he has homes in Lebanon and Syria, and uses about ten other houses in the Bekaa and northern Lebanon to receive arriving “guests.” These are where they are provided with forged identity documents to help them move about more easily within Lebanon.
The sheikh gets up to greet us, orders tea, and all present retake their seats on the floor. The cushioned seating area occupies most of a large room with a rug and oil-fired heater in the middle. Eight Kalashnikovs lean against one wall.
He introduces four of the “brothers” present: three Syrians and an Algerian, all clean-shaven, who arrived from Syria the previous day. The others there keep their face-masks on throughout the encounter.
One of them, who leaves after finishing his tea, is identified as Abu-Muhammad. He is in charge of transporting weapons and people between Lebanon and Syria, and also finds safe houses in Beirut and Tripoli.
The sheikh begins the interview by asking us questions. “You journalists are best informed about what is going on.” We discuss developments in the region, and the men present seem convinced that the Arab revolutions are turning out “to our advantage.” It is hard to tell from their accents whether they are Syrian or Lebanese from border villages – whose dialect is very similar.
As the conversation turns to the situation in Syria, the sheikh makes no secret that his group “support the Syrian revolution by providing whatever arms we can to the mujahideen.” But he maintains that there has been a big decrease in weapons-smuggling from Lebanon to Syria of late, as the FSA has “taken control of arms depots inside Syria.”
The sheikh explains that the “jihadi Islamists” are separate from the FSA, although they work closely together and share common objectives. “There is also the religious connection, in that both belong to the Sunni Muslim sect,” he says, adding, “and they cooperate against a common enemy, the Syrian regime.”
He points out that the jihadi Salafis’ control of illicit border crossings between Syria and both Lebanon and Iraq makes it easier for the FSA to employ local smugglers to transport weapons and fighters into the country.
The conversation turns to al-Qaeda’s activities inside Lebanon. One of those present says that the leadership of al-Qaeda dispatched a large number of its operatives to Lebanon recently to assess the situation in the country and the prospects for launching jihad there. They totalled around 50 people, who arrived from Libya (including three al-Qaeda figures recently freed from jail) , Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
The sheikh speaks of a group that went to Ain al-Hilweh, consisting of three Saudis, three Iraqis, two Syrians and a Tunisian, and of reconnaissance missions being carried out between Beirut and Tripoli.
“Al-Qaeda’s envoys,” according to our interlocutors, were impressed. After completing their mission to Lebanon, they reached a “positive” conclusion: that “the ground is fertile for jihadi action.” The envoys apparently resolved that the time was ripe for al-Qaeda to launch a new undertaking in Bilad ash-Sham (Greater Syria).
Meanwhile, we ask if our hosts can shed light on the alleged al-Qaeda leader whose attempted arrest was announced by Lebanese security forces in Arsal in the western Bekaa on 22 November 2011, and who was referred to by the initials M. Sh. They burst out laughing.
The sheikh says the name is incorrect. The man concerned is Hamza al-Qurqouz, a Syrian in his mid 20s, and a leading al-Qaeda figure who liaises between the mujahideen in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. He was at this very house just the previous day.
Two of the masked men say they were in Arsal at the time. They clearly enjoy relating how they overpowered and disarmed the men from Lebanese intelligence who raided the premises, apparently unaware they would be outnumbered. Qarqouz formally introduced himself to the agents, then left by the back door.
Lebanese security sources latter admitted the blunder to Al-Akhbar, but gave a somewhat different account on behalf of military intelligence. They said intelligence and surveillance indicated that a leading al-Qaeda figure was present at a house in Arsal. Security forces arrived at the site in four vehicles, raided it, and arrested the suspect.
Things only went wrong when the officer in charge decided to quickly question the detainee on the spot in the hope of making further arrests, the sources explained.
He led them to another house, and unwittingly into a trap. When the agents went in, they were overpowered by gunmen, who made off with Qarqouz. That was when he mockingly introduced himself to the intelligence officers, who were disarmed and allowed to leave.
The name of another important al-Qaeda figure arises in the conversation with the sheikh and his followers. This person is wanted for involvement in terrorist attacks in both Syria and Lebanon, including the September 2008 Bahsas bombing in Tripoli in which four soldiers and two civilians were killed.
According to information gleaned from a variety of sources, this “brother” had been operating out of the al-Zeib district of Ain al-Hilweh. About three months ago, he left for about a week, and after returning paid a sum of money to a local leader of the mainstream Palestinian Fateh movement in exchange for the provision of weapons to members of the Jund ash-Sham and Fath al-Islam groups. Accommodation was also secured in the camp for arriving Arab volunteers.
The “brother” concerned then apparently left Ain al-Hilweh for a village in the northern Bekaa. After staying nearby for three days, he crossed into Syria, and then to the Khaldieh district of Homs, from where al-Qaeda members in Syria assisted him in reaching Iraq. He resurfaced in Ain al-Hilweh some time later, accompanied by two al-Qaeda envoys. They are said to have been charged with bringing together the remnants of Fateh al-Islam with other jihadis who broke away from groups such as Jund ash-Sham, the Mujahid Islamic Group, and Usbat al-Ansar.
The sources also speak of reports than an eleven-strong jihadi Salafi groups recently arrived in Lebanon – consisting of six Saudis, three Palestinian and two Syrians – via Beirut airport and overland from Syria . They were sent to various refugee camps, and their arrival coincided with the return to Lebanon from Iraq of some Palestinian jihadis.
There has also been a marked increase in Salafi religious proselytizing in Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. A recent profusion of “unfamiliar faces” has been reported in an outlying part of the camp, where a basement is also said to be used for weapons training.
In Lebanon, the discussion is whether al-Qaeda seeks to use the country as a “corridor” or a “base.” While the fighters around the sheikh seem unconcerned with the distinction, there is growing evidence from various sources – and various parts of the country – that al-Qaeda is forging ahead either way.
The time to awaken the “sleeper-cells” may be close.
The Border’s New Guards
Gunmen control most of the illegal border crossings between Syria and Lebanon. At first you assume they’re smugglers, but you soon learn otherwise. “These are the brother mujahideen,” says your guide.
About 150 of them are said to be deployed in the rugged terrain separating the two countries. They include about 50 Lebanese jihadists, and most of the remainder are Syrians, but there are nationals of several other countries too.
It is unclear what their relationship is with the smugglers who have long operated here. One of the “brothers” says that the mujahideen use the smugglers, who help them move weapons, food and injured people to and from villages in the northern Bekaa.
The fighters also take money or payment in kind – diesel fuel or food – from the smugglers in return for letting them through.
Do they tax them?
“Not taxes,” he laughs, “donations!”
When asked what happens if people won’t pay, he answers that they always do, willingly.
Another remarks that while smugglers used to have to pay “bribes” to Syrian border patrols, now they contribute to “supporting the Sunni faithful in their revolution against the tyrant.”
Mujahideen from Morocco and Algeria
Security investigations into the battles at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007 confirmed that most of the Fateh al-Islam fighters entered the country via illegal border crossing in the north and northern Bekaa – particularly the Wadi Khaled district.
A local smuggler told Al-Akhbar how he ended up spending years in jail for unwittingly bringing al-Qaeda operatives into the country.
He was on a routine foray across the border to bring back a consignment of diesel fuel, when a Syrian smuggler asked if he could take three Moroccan passengers with him in his vehicle. They offered to pay US$30 each, which the smuggler said was too little, but they insisted that was all the money they had. As he was crossing back anyway, he decided to take them along.
Once in Wadi Khaled, the Moroccans told the smuggler that the person who was meant to meet them had not shown up. He put them up in his own home, hosting them for three days, and they then departed. He never heard from them again.
Over a year later, he was arrested and jailed on charges of harboring terrorists.
Another smuggler’s story was told to Al-Akhbar by a jihadi Salafi. This man allegedly brought in a couple of mujahideen from Algeria, but held them captive and demanded a ransom for their release. But the “brothers” quickly got the measure of things, and sent a party to “free the young men and teach the smuggler a lesson.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.