The Lebanese state continues to confront the consequences of Sunni attempts to counter Hizbullah by way of radical Islamists, writes Raed Rafei
The uncovering of a "terrorist cell" accused of two deadly attacks against the Lebanese army was met with relief in Lebanon but brought to the forefront the ongoing confrontation between extreme Islamist groups and the country's legitimate security forces.
Detained members of the cell were apparently linked to Fatah Al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity. They had planned their attacks to avenge their lost battle against the army last year in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared, the official said.
Although the arrests restored some confidence in the capacity of authorities to take control of the country's security, some observers fear that uprooting these fundamentalist groups would not be an easy task.
"What we are witnessing is just the tip of an iceberg," said Ahmed Moussali, professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut. "These extremist groups might not be organised nor answer to one centre, but they could be nonetheless deadly because every one of them has its own plans and acts on its behalf," Moussali added.
Late September, a bomb targeting a military bus killed four soldiers and three civilians near the port city of Tripoli. The attack came after a similar bombing in downtown Tripoli that killed 14 people, including nine soldiers and a child.
"We have uncovered some elements, but this does not eliminate the threats," Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told reporters following a security meeting Monday. "The security apparatuses will remain highly alert to prevent these threats from materialising."
On Sunday evening, the Lebanese army broke the news that the presumed perpetrators of the deadly attacks against the army were arrested earlier that day. A military statement said that the army confiscated "an explosive belt" from the group and added that "other terrorist attacks" were being planned.
A leading member of the group, identified as Abdel-Ghani Jawhar, was being tracked down, the statement added.
The army did not disclose the nature of the cell nor its motives to preserve the secrecy of ongoing investigations.
"These groups are against everybody and everything," Moussali said. "Their agenda is ultimately to install a utopian Islamic system, but now they are at a stage of deconstruction."
Moussali added that the primary target of the extremist groups might currently be the army and the security forces because of what happened in Nahr Al-Bared, but that these groups look at "Lebanese society as a whole as their enemy".
Earlier this year, Fatah Al-Islam vowed to launch attacks against the army to avenge the killing of its members. The threats were made in an alleged audio recording of the group's leader, Shaker Al-Abssi, who is believed to be still on the run.
The fighting in Nahr Al-Bared between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam lasted for more than three months in the summer of 2007 and claimed the lives of about 400 people, including 168 soldiers, mostly coming from the poor areas of Northern Lebanon.
Some observers believe that groups like Fatah Al-Islam cannot find a strong foothold in the north of Lebanon and that their outreach remains limited.
"Extremists are not covered, neither by the people of Tripoli nor even by the mainstream Salafist groups," said Fawaz Sankari, chief editor of Tripoli's Attamadon newspaper.
"It's difficult to imagine that extremists would be able to form a real base in Tripoli," Sankari said, arguing that the soldiers who are killed in the attacks perpetrated by these groups are mostly from the north of the country.
Mainstream Islamist movements in Tripoli denied Monday that they endorsed terrorism. They said in a statement that they rejected "the use of weapons and violence for political aims".
Moussali argues that it was the growing Salafist influence in the north that created a fertile ground for more radical groups to grow. At the height of the Sunni-Shia divide, the Sunni leadership resorted to Salafist factions in the north, mobilising them against Hizbullah, he said.
"Radical groups infiltrated the Salafists. While ideologically close to regular Salafists, these groups have a different agenda. They are unpredictable forces," Moussali said. He added that a decision supported by the United States was made to annihilate radical groups. However, the cost of a full-fledged confrontation with these groups would alienate the Sunni community in the north.
"It is not enough to go after one, two or even more terrorist cells. The whole environment where these cells are growing has to be changed," Moussali said.
But according to Sankari, the focus of the security forces should be more directed towards the Ain Al-Helweh Refugee Camp, near the Southern city of Sidon, which has been in the past years a safe haven for extreme Islamist organisations.
"The authority figures for extremist groups could be found in Ain Al-Helweh and not in Tripoli," Sankari said.
Leading members of Fatah Al-Islam, notably Al-Abssi, were able to escape towards the end of the fighting although the camp where the fighters were holed up was tightly encircled by Lebanese troops.
Concerns have recently surfaced that members of Fatah Al-Islam might be regrouping in Palestinian refugee camps, which remain outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese security forces.
In the past days, Palestinian officials at the northern camp of Baddawi took security measures to prevent the infiltration of the camp by extremist groups.
Recently, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, reportedly said that there would not be another Nahr Al-Bared conflict in Lebanon, implying that a full-fledged military operation against Islamists in Lebanon's refugee camps would not take place.
"The way to counter radicals in Ain Al-Helweh is to let internal Palestinian forces deal with them," said Sankari.