April 17, 2010
A communiqué from Salih bin Abdallah al-Qar’awi, a field commander in the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, was issued earlier this month. The commander discussed Lebanese issues in detail while promising further strikes on Israel (al-Fajr Media Center, April 4).
A native of Saudi Arabia, al-Qar’awi appears on the Kingdom’s list of the 85 most wanted terrorist suspects. In 2004, al-Qar’awi went to Iraq to join the mujahideen. After fighting in the battle for Fallujah, al-Qar’awi became very close to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who gave him various tasks in Syria and Lebanon. Eventually he was captured by members of the Nusayri sect in Syria and turned over to Saudi authorities who imprisoned him for eight months. Al-Qar’awi was released when authorities could not prove he had fought in Iraq.
Al-Qar’awi went on to form the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (named for the Palestinian jihad ideologue Abdullah Azzam – 1941-1989), which were divided into various units, including the Ziyad al-Jarrah squad (named for the Lebanese 9/11 hijacker) which “specializes” in attacks on Israel. This group’s first rocket attack on Israel took place a year and a half ago. Following Hezbollah’s denouncement of the group’s activities, al-Qar’awi has accused the Shi’a movement of cooperating with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to protect Israel from attack. The jihadi commander claims the aim of the Ziyad al-Jarrah formation is to expel the Jews from Palestine and unite the Muslims of the “ring states” (Syria, Jordan and Egypt) in this effort. The movement also opposes an American presence in the Middle East, which has led to “colonization and Westernization.”
Within Lebanon, al-Qar’awi denies having played any role in the wave of political assassinations afflicting that nation, for which he blames Hezbollah and Syria, with the support of Lebanon’s military. Al-Qar’awi insists the Lebanese Army has come under the influence of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements, leading to arbitrary measures against the Sunni community that include torture, detention and murder.
Al-Qar’awi acknowledges that his group’s largely ineffective rocket attacks often miss their targets and are sometimes detected and disabled. Nevertheless, such attacks serve the larger strategic objective of disrupting Israel’s efforts to establish security. “It is true that we did not hit vital targets, but the most important thing is to keep attacking them [Israel]. This undermines their security and economy. Moreover, the attacks affect their political plans, including the Judaization of Jerusalem and the psychological normalization with the Muslim peoples.” Though al-Qar’awi accuses Hezbollah of protecting Israel (despite Hezbollah’s strong resistance to Israeli forces in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon), his own group has made only a few attempts to fire rockets across the border.
In October 2009, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades tried to fire five Katyusha rockets at the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona. One rocket fired prematurely, which forced the team to abandon the mission and flee the area (Israeli fighter-jet response time to rocket launches along the Lebanese border is roughly ten minutes) (al-Fajr, October 29, 2009). Videos of Azzam Brigade launches against Israel have appeared on jihadi websites (al-Fajr, July 23, 2009).
There are many odd aspects to al-Qar’awi’s message that are inconsistent with al-Qaeda communiqués, for example the mention of Israel by name, the reference to Rafik Hariri as Lebanon’s Prime Minister (al-Qaeda does not recognize “apostate” regimes), the extensive discussion of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (which has never been an issue for al-Qaeda), etc. (al-Nahar, April 7). Syrian Salafist leader Shaykh Omar Bakri questioned the authenticity of the message, saying, “I doubt that Qar’awi is still alive; the wording used in this message was not the work of a Salafist jihadi but of someone who is familiar with the intelligence world and has a vested interest in Lebanese politics” (Now Lebanon, April 9). A Lebanese security source suggested the message was part of an attempt to foment conflict between Sunnis and Shi’a in Lebanon, possibly as a substitute for “Israeli aggression” or as preparation for it (As-Safir, April 8). It was noted elsewhere that the bulk of the message seemed to focus on an “enemy” other than Israel. “The hostility shown toward the government, the Lebanese Army, and the Shiite sect—with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement as representatives—clearly reveals the forces that will be identified as enemies and targeted” (al-Akhbar, April 6).
This article first appeared in the April 17, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor