The recent assertion by the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, that the militant group has now formally established a presence in Lebanon appears to have confirmed fears – already fuelled by over a dozen deadly attacks and explosions, including suicide bombings – that the violent extremism engulfing Syria poses a growing danger to its small western neighbor.
Just days before Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani made his claim during his first-ever interview, videos circulated online showing a group calling itself “Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon” firing Grad rockets at the northeastern Beqaa town of Hermel, resulting in three injuries. And on Monday, unconfirmed reports emerged of Hezbollah ambushing and killing dozens of Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen in a border region east of Baalbek.
Despite these incidents, however, security analysts told NOW Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Lebanon likely took the form of only a few, geographically scattered individuals, rather than a physical base or a unified battalion.
“I doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra, or any terrorist organization, really has an official representation in Lebanon,” said Nizar Abd al-Qader, a former Lebanese army general. “Though I feel that in some places there are probably some individuals who sympathize with it or have been fighting along with them in certain battles, either in Iraq or Syria.”
“This needs to be verified. Jawlani’s statement is not enough,” concurred Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), who nevertheless added that it would be unsurprising if it turned out to be true.
“Lebanon to start with is a country with a very weak central government. It also borders Syria, and we have today over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. So I would not be surprised if a few of them were with Jabhat al-Nusra or sympathized with them.”
One likely source of Jabhat al-Nusra support is the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon, according to Abd al-Qader. Sidon was the scene of deadly twin attacks on army checkpoints earlier this month by Lebanese and Palestinian militants. It also saw a two-day-long gun and rocket battle in June between the army and partisans of the Islamist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who is himself now rumored to be in Ain al-Hilweh. The camp has been known in the past to host fugitive militants from a variety of Islamist factions, including al-Qaeda affiliates.
Indeed, one prominent Islamist in the camp confirmed to NOW that there exist supporters not just of Jabhat al-Nusra, but of Syrian opposition groups of all stripes, though he too stressed that these were individuals rather than organizations.
“I am certain that we don’t have an official presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the camp,” said Sheikh Jamal Khattab, leader of the Islamic Mujahid Movement. “No group has pledged allegiance (bay’aa) to Jabhat al-Nusra. But yes, people are sympathetic to them because of their achievements against the regime in Syria. There are even non-Islamists in the camp who support them for this reason.”
Another key reason for this comparative popularity, and the resultant decision by Jabhat al-Nusra to move into Lebanon, is Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, analysts and Khattab agreed.
“Hezbollah decided to intervene and be a major player in Syria, and therefore Jabhat al-Nusra has expanded and is now spreading into Lebanon. It’s natural to find combatants from Syria getting involved in the Lebanese scene as well. You can’t expect to go to a troubled place and not bring the trouble back home with you,” said Kahwaji.
And perhaps the great concern, said analysts and Khattab, was that this “trouble” would not be easily contained or banished.
“The Tripoli and Dahiyeh and Iranian embassy bombings prove that the battle already started in Lebanon,” said Khattab.
“It is extremely difficult to deal with individuals acting like guided smart missiles. Suicide attackers are elusive, they live among the people, and when their sympathizers are growing, they become even harder to combat or preempt,” said Kahwaji.
“This is what we have right now. This is one of the major negative consequences of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.”
Luna Safwan contributed reporting.