BEIRUT: The recent warning by the Abdallah Azzam Brigades against Shiites in Lebanon amounts to a serious threat of violence that could spark off a resurgence of sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
The statement, which appeared as an audio message on a jihadist website on Aug. 17 and was recently picked up by the media, warned Shiites in Lebanon that “the positions of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement vis-à-vis the Syrian revolution do not serve the sect’s best interest ... If you maintain your arrogant attitude, you will be punished, and you will pay. You only have yourselves to blame.”
The message said Shiites in Lebanon would bear the consequences if they insist on linking themselves to the Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“If you stay with him, you shall go with him,” it said.
The statement was attributed to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an alleged Al-Qaeda branch that is active in Lebanon and Syria. It has claimed rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israel in the past.
Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the statement by the group was not at all surprising.
“The Abdallah Azzam Brigades is certainly not ideologically opposed to targeting Shiites, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see that type of behavior escalate in line with sectarian violence in Syria,” he said.
“It’s unclear whether that will mean going after Hezbollah and Amal specifically. This wouldn’t be the first time a group of jihadists threatened actions they weren’t able to back up, or bit off more than they could chew,” he added.
Tankel, a terrorism expert, said the Abdallah Azzam Brigades “has likely got some connectivity with militants based in North Lebanon and possibly a small foothold for itself as well.”
The Al-Qaeda threat is genuine and serious, according to Ahmad Moussalli, political science professor at the American University of Beirut and an expert on political Islam. “The Abdallah Azzam Brigades are active in the North [of Lebanon], and they have been moving freely between Lebanon and Syria as a result of the Syrian crisis,” Moussalli said.
“They consider this to be a golden opportunity to strike against targets that were far from their reach in the past ... Looking at the border situation now, they can transfer militants from Syria to Lebanon in order to carry out attacks against Hezbollah and Amal Movement,” he added.
Sheikh Shadi Jebara, a Tripoli-based Salafist leader, denied any presence of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades in northern Lebanon.
“I can assure you, and I know what I am talking about, that Abdallah Azzam Brigades are not present in the north,” he said.
“I was accused in the past of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and I happen to know most of the Salafists and Salafist jihadists in Lebanon, and I know as a matter of fact that we do not have Al-Qaeda people among us,” he added.
Salafism is a form of Islam that advocates a return to the roots of the religion by following the lifestyle of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions. It is a nonviolent movement in its origin, however, a new form of Salafism – often referred to as Jihadist Salfism – emerged with the birth of Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s.
Salafist jihadists believe that the use of violence is legitimate to achieve social and political goals and have previously threatened and carried out attacks on Shiites in various countries.
Jebara condemned the Al-Qaeda statement and said it does not serve the interests of Salafists in Lebanon. “Salafists have a clear agenda. We want to topple the Syrian regime and we are not interested in stirring violence in Lebanon, especially when it comes to targeting an entire sect,” he said.
“Yes, we fought against pro-Syrian regime militants in Jabal Mohsen because we came under attack ... The problems with Jabal Mohsen are not new, but this has nothing to do with the Alawites. We are not targeting Alawites,” he added.
Clashes between anti-Assad Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh and pro-Assad Alawites of Jabal Mohsen rocked the northern city of Tripoli earlier this month, leaving at least 16 people killed and more than 120 wounded, before a cease-fire was agreed.
Jebara, who took part in the Tripoli clashes, said he believed Al-Qaeda was not interested in taking its fight from Syria to Lebanon.
“Al-Qaeda’s strategy is to focus on Syria and unify its efforts to target the Syrian regime. I do not think they are interested in opening a new front here in Lebanon,” he explained.
Tankel, however, said it remains unclear whether “it makes sense for the Sunni jihadist movement to shift the focus from Syria at this stage.”
“Depending on the degree that Al-Qaeda and associated movements benefit from instability, they may see helping to spread that instability throughout the region as a net plus for them. That said, there are arguably wiser ways of doing so than taking on Hezbollah,” he added.
Meanwhile, Qassem Qassir, an expert on Islamist movements, said Lebanese security forces had received information in the past two months about possible terrorist operations that target Lebanese religious and political figures.
“We all heard about the threats against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, so in that context I would not be surprised if Al-Qaeda tries to launch attacks in Lebanon,” he said.
Berri, the head of the Shiite Amal Movement, was allegedly on a hit-list and was warned by security forces about possible attempts against his life.
“I think Hezbollah is aware of such threats and is taking pre-emptive measures,” Qassir said.