WASHINGTON – A ruthless al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militant group is settling into Lebanon and is building a stronghold there so that it can launch attacks into Israel and parts of Europe, regional sources are warning.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which had its roots with al-Qaida, has moved into Lebanon to take advantage of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian differences. It is establishing itself in urban areas, including the country’s capital, Beirut, sources confirm.
ISIL’s actions come in response to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s support of fighters on behalf of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which also is receiving direct military assistance from Iran.
The jihadist fighters are Sunni while Hezbollah, al-Assad and Iran are Shia. Al-Assad is Alawite, an offshoot of Shite Islam.
Al-Assad is fighting in a civil war which has been ongoing for three years against a Syrian opposition comprised mainly of al-Qaida and various affiliated Islamist groups.
Analysts see the Syrian civil war as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is the leader of Sunni Islam, and Iran.
While ISIL has begun to spread not only across Syria and into Lebanon, it is launching attacks into the western Sunni Anbar province of Iraq.
Ironically, ISIL is not on the best of terms with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has refused to listen to al-Zawahiri who has disavowed the group and one of its affiliates.
The reason for this is that al-Baghdadi refuses to follow al-Zawahiri’s orders, is making his own claims on power and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of other Islamist militant groups.
In fact, ISIL has been attacking other Islamist groups which resent ISIL’s harsh rule through a strict form of Shariah law.
Nevertheless, identification of ISIS’ spread into Lebanon was made known in a five-minute recording by Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari, who has sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
In the recording, which was in Arabic, al-Ansari called on all Sunnis in Lebanon to abandon the Lebanese “crusader” army, given that it has the backing of Hezbollah.
“We pledge allegiance to the prince of the believers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…and we ask him to guide us past the obstacles, and make us your spearhead in crushing your enemy, and not a single man among us will hold back in helping you,” al-Ansari said.
In his recording, al-Ansari said that by taking root in Lebanon, ISIL would use it as a gateway to strike Israel.
Not only would he back al-Baghdadi, al-Ansari said that “we will be their gate to Lebanon and the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” referring to Israel.
Saudi Arabia is known to be providing financial and logistical backing of various Islamist militant groups fighting in Syria, including Sunni militants in the North Caucasus, such as Chechnya, who are fighting against the Russian security services.
There has emerged an unwritten alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia due to their common opposition toward Iran. Until recently, there never has been an al-Qaida attack inside Israel, a development which analysts say shows Saudi control over Sunni Islamist militants.
While Israel in late January claimed to have foiled an al-Qaida plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, the target wasn’t against any Israeli sites.
ISIL’s announcement of targeting Israel could portend a further break from al-Qaida central and any understanding al-Zawahiri may have with the Saudis not to launch attacks either in the Saudi kingdom or in Israel.
ISIL in early January took credit for the deadly car bombing in Beirut in the Dahiyeh area, known to be a stronghold of Hezbollah.
In a statement at the time, ISIL said that it had penetrated the “security system of the Party of Satan (Hezbollah)…and crush its strongholds…in a first small payment from the heavy account that is awaiting those wicked criminals.”
The most recent blast in January killed four people and wounded 77 others, since it was detonated while moving in a residential area.
ISIL has had to rely to moving car suicide bombings since Hezbollah has tightened security significantly in Dahiyeh as a result of previous bombings by al-Nusra, which works with ISIL.
Hezbollah has chained off parking in front of stores which are interspersed in residential areas. At nights, the streets are deserted out of fear for more bombings. During the day, residents find it almost impossible to park and do shopping, creating additional tension on businesses and the economy in the area.
ISIL has made it known that all areas where Hezbollah operates will be “legitimate targets” and has instructed Sunnis to stay out of those areas. Al-Nusra has made similar statements of targeting in the area.