Palestinian Authority’s President Abu Mazen’s recent interview with the pan-Arabic daily Al Hayat is getting lots of attention. In fact, his recognition of Al Qaeda’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank coupled with his warning of the "destruction of the whole region" because of the terrorist entity, is only confirming what Israeli security services have been saying for months: Al Qaeda is fast expanding in the neighborhood.
Signs of Al Qaeda’s infiltration in the Palestinian territories have been increasing in the past few months. In fact, Ely Karmon, the noted Senior Research Scholar at The Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), confirmed that Al-Qaeda members who remained in the peninsula after the Sharm El Sheikh terror attacks of July 2005 started then to move towards Gaza and the West Bank. The timing is telling since it coincides with Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Also Hamas leader Mahmoud A-Zahar acknowledged Al Qaeda’s presence in a September 2005 interview to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
But an even more troublesome possible sign of Al Qaeda’s expansion in the Palestinian territories has been revealed by the UAE daily Al Ittihad. A thus-far unknown Palestinian group named "The Army of Jihad and fight against corruption" has been sending messages to foreign diplomatic representatives in Gaza demanding that all personnel leave within a month. The communiqués call for all non-Muslim foreigners to leave Gaza. It also denounces a Western-style democracy on Muslim land and affirms its determination to impose sharia law. Finally it mentions that a man such as Saladeen, Bin Laden or Zarqawi is "on its way to Palestine to fight the symbols of corruption and the supporters of the infidels’ democracy." These threats are not taken lightly because — for instance, in the past six weeks — Israel had warned France three times of kidnapping risks. Coincidence or not, according to the news Website Proche-Orient.info, France has very quietly asked that all its citizens leave Gaza and the West Bank (and apparently they have).
Last but not least, Al Qaeda’s number 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, video message offering its support to Hamas might indicate according to the London-based Palestinian daily Al Quds Al Arabi that "the Al Qaeda network is trying to build cells inside the Territories." This would explain Hamas officials’ statement regarding the tape: "Hamas believes that Islam is completely different to the ideology of Mr. Al-Zawahiri."
Al Qaeda is also turning its focus to Lebanon. In an explosive February 11 interview with the French daily Liberation, Ahmed Fatfat, the new incoming Lebanese Interior Minister, revealed details about Al Qaeda’s presence in his country. Fatfat noted: "For the past forty-five months, Al-Qaeda has been trying to settle in Lebanon. The organization infiltrates combatants and recruits on the ground. We recently dismantled two groups suspected of belonging to this network. One month ago, we stopped thirteen individuals, coming from various countries of the Middle East, who were preparing attacks inside the country. We also have just stopped five people implied in attacks against military positions."
Regarding the December rocket attacks against Israel from the south of the country that Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi claimed responsibility for, Fatfat confirmed it was indeed the work of Al Qaeda. He added that it was an attack carried out by the Palestinian terror group FPLP-GC of Ahmed Jibril based out of Damascus, but financed directly by Al Qaeda.
The Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah of February 9 seconded Fatfat’s assertions. Quoting an Iraqi source, the journalist stated that Al-Qaeda is leading a large infiltration operation inside Lebanon, where it already has sleeper cells.
"It seems that the Iraqi Al-Qaeda branch has been thinking for a long time to transform Lebanon into a strengthened base, and to make in particular the area of Tripoli (in the north of Lebanon) a new Afghanistan since several of its bases are in this city," specified the source. He added that the interrogations carried out by the Lebanese police force of 13 Al-Qaeda members brought precise details on the infiltration operation, carried out under the direct supervision of Zarqawi. "Some 700 experienced militants of the terrorist network would have left Iraq for Lebanon," adds this anonymous witness.
Lastly, when questioned by Al Hayat about Al Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah — leader of the Lebanese Shia terror group Hezbollah which has de facto control of the south of the country — did not deny the infiltration. He pointed to the possible implication in the December attack of elements in the Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian camp "who have pledged their loyalty to al-Zarqawi." He acknowledged that it was a "dangerous and unacceptable" situation but thought it was "unlikely" that Hezbollah would clash with Al Qaeda in the future. Nonetheless, Hezbollah must not be happy about Al Qaeda’s settling in Hezbollah land.
Finally, Jordan has also become one of Al Qaeda’s (and, in particular, of Jordanian Zarqawi’s) favorite targets. The triple suicide attack against Western hotels in Amman on November 9, 2005 killed 60 and injured more than 100. Also on March 1, Jordanian authorities revealed they had foiled a major Al Qaeda attack on a "vital civilian installation." In the past few weeks, Israel’s intelligence services have been on the lookout for of a potential attack by Jordan-based Al Qaeda cells.
The fact that Al Qaeda is infiltrating countries surrounding Israel is no coincidence. It is aimed at preparing different bases to attack the Jewish state. In fact, while Al Qaeda was really shunning the issue of the Palestinians until 2001, it has now become one of the central issues of the terror network. It is a clear tactical decision in order to gather support recently lost in the Muslim world. This fits totally in Al Qaeda’s master plan as exposed by Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein in his recent book "Al Zarqawi: Al Qaeda’s second Generation"(only available in Arabic). Thanks to his personal connection to Zarqawi — many years ago, they spent time together in prison — Hussein was able to interview him along with other major Al Qaeda leaders. Unsurprisingly, Hussein explains that Al Qaeda’s final goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in seven phases.
Interestingly, the third phase called "The Rising" advocates heavy attacks against Israel because it will then force the world to acknowledge al Qaeda as a major power, and negotiate with it. This phase should last three years and allow Al Qaeda to infiltrate Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. According to Zarqawi, the very likely collision between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue is going to help reach that goal because Iran is going to be less focused on exerting its control on Syria and Lebanon.
After September 11, we learned the hardest way that Al Qaeda needed to be taken seriously. That is why this "third phase" is not at all far-fetched in light of the recent infiltration in Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It could have major geopolitical implications with the destabilization of a whole region.
Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counter terrorism consultant in Washington DC.