For the 34 days of the Lebanon War, Hizballah outshone even al Qaeda as the brightest star on the Islamist firmament. Its “heroic battles against the fearsome might of Israel’s armed forces backed by America” from July 14 made of Hassan Nasrallah an iconic figure for Muslims across the Middle East.
Although he is less a favorite than he was in Tehran, he is a pop idol for Sunnis and Shiites alike, his turbaned image on posters, T-shirts, key-rings and recorded voice are still selling like hot cakes on corner stalls in Arab towns.
Rather than resenting Hizballah’s universal popularity, al Qaeda, which had past links with Hizballah’s master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, has cultivated an interest in closer operational ties with the new heroes, partly to redeem itself for the savage campaign Abu Musab al Zarqawi unleashed against Iraq’s Shiites.
Mughniyeh is said to have made Osama bin Laden’s acquaintance in 1993 in Sudan, after the al Qaeda chief relocated his headquarters to Khartoum. They next came into contact after Sept. 11, 2001, when Mughniyeh helped bin Laden’s close relatives and other al Qaeda leaders reach safe haven in Iran.
The paths of the Salafist fundamentalists and the radical Lebanese Shiite group cross again as they move on to their next objectives and common quarry: the United States and Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that al Qaeda may have developed as many as 13 terror cells in Lebanon, mostly in the northern city of Tripoli as well as in Beirut and other parts of the country.
As for Hizballah, its continued control of South Lebanon – even after the Lebanon war and the deployment of an expanded UNIFIL – affords al Qaeda direct access to the Israeli border.
Before the war, Hizballah jealously kept its control of the border region to itself, but since European troops have landed, Hizballah owns an interest in kindred forces acting in its stead to destabilize south Lebanon and the border region. Hizballah can then come forward as the only force capable of keeping the peace on the border.
European vessels exposed to same fate as USS Cole
Therefore, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts predict we shall soon be witness to al Qaeda attacks against Israel from Lebanon as well as harassment of international troops.
This may be nearer than estimated. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources have the name of the al Qaeda operative assigned with preparing the operation against the UNIFIL force.
He is an al Qaeda veteran, 56 year old Abu Rushd al-Miqati, who is described as a “Middle East terrorism expert” who spent years in the medressas of Pakistan.
It should also be noted that al Qaeda runs units experienced in assaulting seaborne targets by speedboats packed with explosives.
One such speedboat rammed the American destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000. Another crippled the French oil tanker Limburg two years later.
A group of these marine terror aces escaped from Yemen in 2003, some from jail, and ended up in the north Lebanese town of Tripoli.
Al Qaeda or even the Hizballah senior operations chief Imad Mughniyeh are perfectly capable of harnessing these men for attacks on the French, Italian, Greek and German naval vessels patrolling the waters opposite Lebanon on behalf of the UN force.
Hizballah and al Qaeda are veteran smugglers, often bumping into each other on the same routes through which they move black market arms, money and other goods.
Shiite Lebanon is a major crossroads for illegal arms smuggling from Iraqi Kurdistan to Afghanistan, and to Syria and onto Lebanon.
Al Qaeda’s financial conduits have been traced to South African diamond dealers, Shiites who hail from the South Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh and are Hizballah adherents.
Bin Laden himself has often called South Lebanon the arena of Israeli crimes backed by the United States. This week, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri, in two taped speeches, promised Israel would be punished for its war in Lebanon.