Thursday, 31 May 2012

Al-Qaeda in Lebanon: Murmurs of Assassinations

Security surveillance of al-Qaeda operatives over the past few weeks indicates that the goal of targeting Berri was being given high priority as part of these activities. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)
Published Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lebanese security agencies have strong evidence that al-Qaeda has been planning to target high level political and religious figures – including the speaker of parliament – with the aim of provoking sectarian strife.

In recent weeks, Lebanese security agencies have obtained intelligence about activities of al-Qaeda networks in Lebanon which they are taking extremely seriously. It includes information about the planning of attacks and assassinations against specific targets by known al-Qaeda operatives who recently arrived in the country.

Some of this intelligence was gleaned directly by monitoring telephone conversations related to the suspects’ arrival and subsequent contacts with locally-based leaders. It was partially corroborated by information supplied separately by foreign intelligence services.

According to security officials, this combination of evidence led to the “highly credible conclusion” that al-Qaeda has sent people to Lebanon to carry out terrorist actions aimed at provoking large-scale sectarian strife in the country. Specifically, it indicates that plans were being made to assassinate Parliament Speaker and Amal movement leader Nabih Berri.

Multiple Targets

Security agencies learned that between May 1 and 3, al-Qaeda's head of external relations, Ahmad Jamil, arrived in Lebanon accompanied by one of his top aides, Abdallah al-Hattar (described as tall and pale-skinned, carrying a forged ID in the name of Ahmad Hussein Aqel).

The purpose of their visit was to plan a series of operations. Implementing a decision to assassinate Berri was top of the list. They also sought to examine the possibility of mounting an attempt on Pope Benedict XVI’s life during his planned visit in September. Their tasks included surveillance of Christian religious sites in Mount Lebanon and the North, and preparing for the assassination of Shia and Christian political and religious figures.

Some days later, it was learned that Majed al-Majed, Jamil’s Lebanon-based Saudi aide – informed two Palestinian militants, Abdel-Majid Azzam and Tawfiq Taha, of the arrival in Lebanon via Turkey of another leading al-Qaeda figure, plus four companions. This was Sheikh Saleh al-Awfi who was known to be close to Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s former leader in Iraq. Azzam and Taha were told that his mission was to find and secure a safe haven for other al-Qaeda operatives who would be dispatched to the country.

Shortly afterwards, further intelligence was received about Jamil’s activities after his arrival. The first thing he did was convene a meeting with Majed, Azzam, Taha and four others (Usama al-Sihabi, Ziad Abul-Naaj, Muhammad Haithat al-Shaabi, and Muhammad al-Arefi), to convey a verbal message to them from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The gist of this message was that al-Qaeda had decided to step up its activities in the Levant and turn the region into one its main bases, and thus needed to establish control over appropriate enclaves in Lebanon. Zawahiri added that he would soon name an amir (commander) for al-Qaeda in the Levant, but in the meantime that position would be held by Majed, and other local leaders should pledge allegiance to him. He would make Lebanon al-Qaeda’s main base for supporting “the mujahideen” in Syria.

Zawahiri also said in his message that he would dispatch senior al-Qaeda figures to take charge of the group’s funding and arming in Lebanon, as well as specialists in forging documents, training fighters, and preparing explosives. He went on to give directions about how the group’s followers should be organized in cells, with an amir heading each group, and speak of similar details.

Security surveillance of al-Qaeda operatives over the past few weeks indicates that the goal of targeting Berri was being given high priority as part of these activities.

European Message

This is not the first time that information of this nature reaches Lebanon. Previously – the last occasion being about one year ago – its importance has been played down, as intelligence assessments have deemed its sources to be of questionable credibility.

This time, however, the intelligence is based on surveillance conducted over the course of several weeks following monitoring of telephone conversations between suspects, as well as secret information provided from within the organization in Lebanon.

It was also apparently corroborated by the intelligence service of a European country which has troops in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This service sent an urgent message to Beirut via the UNIFIL command around two weeks ago, alerting it to information that al-Qaeda had sent groups of people to Lebanon with the aim of assassinating Berri. The speaker was informed of this message.
Meanwhile, details coming in about the movements of al-Qaeda figures indicated that they were indeed making logistical preparations for an attempt on the speaker’s life.

During the first week of May, at a meeting between Majed, Hattar and Azzam in Ain el-Helweh refugee camp, it was agreed that Majed would spread the word, falsely, that the Abdallah al-Azzam Brigades – the name given to the local al-Qaeda chapter – had vacated the camp. Members were ordered to lay low and avoid any risk of being seen in public.

The aim of that was to turn the camp into a safer haven by turning prying eyes away. Rumors soon began circulating that the al-Qaeda cell had evacuated Ain el-Helweh and relocated to Syria. In reality, while a handful of al-Qaeda members indeed left the camp, surveillance confirmed that a number of the more important figures who were said to have departed remain there.

It was clear that this was an attempt to lull the Lebanese security forces off their guard, so as to facilitate the movement of the al-Qaeda cells tasked with assassinating Berri and staking out other targets.

In the second half of May, there appears to have been a further influx of al-Qaeda envoys to Lebanon. Among the recent arrivals are thought to be the Saudi explosives expert Ashraf al-Ghamedi and the Moroccan communications specialist Muhammad Dawbak, who are believed to have been sent to supervise training in their respective fields. Intelligence indicates that they were directed by Hattar to base themselves in Tripoli.

Information about these cells’ movements has now been cut off, after weeks of intensive activity in Lebanon, which is what prompted European intelligence agencies to warn Lebanon that al-Qaeda is poised to strike.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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