Lurking in Lebanon
We know where al Qaeda is.
By Jonathan Schanzer - National Reviw Online - June 4, 2003

Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon announced on
Sunday that Lebanese authorities will not enter a
Palestinian refugee camp where al Qaeda operatives
are known to be, even at the height of the war on terror. Asbat al-Ansar (League of Partisans) was tied to a foiled assassination plot against the U.S. ambassador to
Lebanon in January and successful attacks against U.S. business interests. More recently, the group was at the
center of a bloody battle inside the Ein al-Hilweh refugee
camp. Eight people were killed and 25 others wounded.
But, as one Lebanese journalist notes, officials in Beirut are "acting as if the issue is of no concern to them."

Asbat al-Ansar also appears to have fallen off the
radar screen of the U.S. government, even though it
was among the first eleven international terror groups
listed in President Bush's executive order of September
23, 2001.

Asbat al-Ansar is a Sunni Muslim group that "receives
money through international Sunni extremist networks
and Bin Laden's al Qaeda network," according to the
State Department. Its cadres, numbering several
hundred, trained in al Qaeda camps or are battle-tested
from their service in the Afghan war. In 1999, the group
was behind an explosion at the Lebanese Customs Department, as well as an attack on a courthouse that
killed four judges. In 2000, Asbat attacked the Russian embassy in Beirut with rocket-propelled grenades. In
2001, Jordanian and Lebanese forces foiled an Asbat
attack on the Jordanian, U.S., andBritish embassies in

Despite these high-profile attacks, Asbat al-Ansar is
seen in Lebanon as only a local problem. The group is
based almost entirely out of Ein al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp that is utterly lawless. It is lawless
because the Lebanese government sees refugee camps
as outside of its authority and refuses to govern them.
Indeed, the Lebanese fear the camps because it was the Palestinians that prompted Lebanon's civil war in the
1970s. It is also believed that the integration of the
mostly Sunni Palestinian refugees into the general
population would upset the delicate balance between Lebanon's Christian, Maronite, Shia, and Sunni sects.
Thus, not wanting to rock the boat, Lebanon has
instead chosen to allow an al Qaeda affiliate to
proliferate unchecked.

The most recent spate of violence prompted by Asbat
al-Ansar has now lasted for nearly a year. Tensions
stem from the fact that Asbat al-Ansar seeks to wrest
control of Ein al-Hilweh from Fatah, the traditional ruling
faction of the camp, led by Yasser Arafat's lieutenants.
"We . . . will turn Ein al-Hilweh and the rest of Lebanon
into a pool of blood to wash away your treason and
corruption and send you to hell," read a recent Asbat communiqu* to its Fatah foes. For months, Fatah
loyalists in the camp have been the targets of
shootings, grenade attacks and car bombs.

But Fatah is not the only target. Attacks are also aimed
at other secular factions in Ein al-Hilweh, such as the
Syrian As-Saiqa and the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Civilian targets similarly
find themselves in Asbat's crosshairs, such as UNWRA
|(the U.N. entity that provides aid to the camp), and the
camp's open vegetable market. Indeed, any entity that
is not Islamist in nature is a potential target.

Recently, Asbat al-Ansar operatives were believed to
be behind higher-profile attacks outside the camp.
Lebanese authorities arrested 22 suspected Asbat
members for an April bombing of a McDonald's restaurant
in a Beirut suburb. Some of the wanted men escaped, however, and now enjoy refuge in Ein al-Hilweh, knowing
that the authorities will not enter.

The Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar reported that Asbat
also attempted to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, while he was visiting Tripoli in January. The militants reportedly tried to fire an armor-
piercing missile at the ambassador's car.

In one of the camp's wildest stories, it appeared that
North Korea was also attempting to benefit from the lawlessness of Ein al-Hilweh. In February, the
Lebanon Daily Star reported that a North Korean agent
named Jim Su Kim was arrested and held by the
Lebanese army for questioning. Was Kim trying to work
with al Qaeda's Lebanese operatives?There was no
follow-up in the Lebanese press, and no official
statement from Beirut.

In recent weeks, however, the focus has shifted back
to the camp. Two weeks ago, Abdullah Shreidi, the leader
of an Asbat cell, was ambushed by Fatah gunmen as he
drove home from a funeral. Shreidi was taken to a hospital
and was stabilized. But Shreidi's compatriots feared
another Fatah attack. In an unbelievable account,
An-Nahar reports that the militants

. . . managed to switch electric power off in the
camp at nightfall Sunday, and punched a big hole in the hospital's rear wall that allowed twelve of them to sneak
into the operating theater. They held doctors and nurses
at gunpoint in the corridor while others lifted their leader
onto a stretcher and smuggled him out from the intensive
care unit. . . Appeals for O-positive urgent blood
donations rang out from neighboring mosque minarets
to help Shreidi."

The Lebanese government remained on the sidelines
while tensions mounted. Soon, fresh battles erupted.
Five hours of clashes on May 19 resulted in eight deaths
and 25 wounded. During the fighting, machine guns,
mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, and even
armor-piercing missiles were used. Finally, a cease-fire
allowed for both sides to bury their dead. An uneasy
calm remains today.

As analysis emerged from Lebanon, some groups cited
a "lack of official determination in the country to disarm Palestinians" — a direct incrimination of Lebanon's lack
of involvement in the camps. Even Lebanon's
parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, stated that Lebanon "cannot remain idle."

But Lebanon continues to remain idle, burying its head
further in the desert sand. While chaos continues inside
Ein al-Hilweh, Lebanese troops linger on the camp's
perimeter in what can only be seen as a ceremonial
presence. More must be done.

For its part, the U.S. government can push Lebanon for
more action. Until now, Washington's focus has been on
the Iranian-funded Hezbollah, even though Asbat al-Ansar
is Lebanon's arm of al Qaeda — the primary target in the
U.S. campaign to stamp out global terror.

In the end, Asbat al-Ansar may be one of the few
instances of "low-hanging fruit" in the war on terror.
Unlike other al Qaeda operatives, who hide in the
shadows, we know who these people are and where they
live. Asbat al-Ansar is, therefore, easier to destroy.

Lebanon, however, allows this group to grow by ignoring
it. If this continues, Asbat al-Ansar may come to pose a
greater threat. Indeed, it could become a launch pad for
other al Qaeda attacks in the future.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is working on
a study entitled "Al Qaeda's Affiliates: Exploiting Weak
Central Authority in the Arab World."

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