BEIRUT—Hezbollah's recent moves to settle by force Lebanon's 18-month-old political crisis might have done more than just subvert the American-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. It also seems to have made Lebanon the next "can't miss" destination for Sunni Muslim radicals seeking a violent summer.
Hezbollah and its mostly Shiite allies faced little resistance earlier this month as they moved to capture and neutralize offices and media outlets supporting the mostly Sunni "Future Movement" in west Beirut. It was a violent step in the progressive deterioration of civil society that began after Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination.
But their efforts to preserve Hezbollahs military autonomy from Lebanon's pro-western government—as well as to push for what they consider a more fair allocation of political power—might have backfired because the move has been widely seen by the Arab world's Sunni majority as tantamount to a coup by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Lebanon's sectarian strife is starting to resemble Iraq's religious conflicts in the eyes of Sunni proponents of Salafist Islam, a conservative ideology espoused by al Qaeda that considers Shiites to be part of a heretical cult. Lebanon offers a budding jihadist almost everything: sectarian tensions, a weak central government and security services, and what many al Qaeda followers would consider the best neighborhood imaginable, right on Israel's northern border.
And while Lebanon's Sunnis tend to be fairly moderate outside of a few communities of radicals in the north and east, the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom live in a series of heavily armed and poorly policed camps, have shown significant support for al Qaeda thinkers, most notably Abu Musab Zarqawi, the slain leader of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, who drew followers from Lebanese refugee camps.
Lebanese security officials have long been warning that militants trained and radicalized in Iraq pose a serious threat, a warning proved true last summer when the Lebanese Army battled Fatah al-Islam—an assortment of militants led by Iraq veterans—in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp for over three months.
By this week, websites and chat rooms serving virtual al Qaeda buzzed with information on the Lebanon situation, and, according to Jihadica.com, which tracks such sites, postings detailing how to operate in Lebanon were up in hours. One such post referred to Abu Bakr Naji's work "The Management of Savagery," a tome that postulates that aspiring militants should seek out religiously tense places with a security vacuum. There was also ample chatter about the need to fight off Iran and the Shiite influence, leaving Lebanese officials concerned that Sunni governments in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, might turn a blind eye to militants headed to Lebanon in an effort to see Hezbollah and Iran's control of the country usurped.
Hezbollah, for its part, is nervously watching. The group has long prohibited Sunni militants from operating in south Lebanon or from conducting operations against Israel from Lebanon, in no small part to keep them from establishing a foothold from which to later attack Lebanon's Shiite community. Even as they celebrated their victory against poorly trained and equipped Sunnis in Beirut, Hezbollah fighters were on the lookout for better-motivated and experienced fighters headed for what many are calling Lebanon's new civil war.
"We are worried about this and watching very closely," a Hezbollah ground commander said this week. "We know they will be coming here now."
Hezbollah, according to the commander, has plans in place for such attacks, including a security plan to close off Shiite neighborhoods from the rest of the city. It also has a formidable intelligence service already tasked with watching for Iraq veterans trying to illegally enter from Syria.
But while such groups have received little support from Lebanon's Sunnis in the past, their humiliating defeat last week by Hezbollah and the tensions that led to the clashes already had Beirut's urbane and unarmed Sunni population looking to religious conservatives and rougher men from outlying regions like Tripoli, Akkar, and the Bekaa Valley, which all have significant militant communities.
"We know that the Future Movement has been working with some groups and that new groups have been forming in Tripoli," one top security official not cleared to speak to the media said early this year. "These groups have similar ideas to al Qaeda and can offer weapons and training to the Sunnis here. We are also seeing support from some Saudi princes concerned about Iran's influence."
Are they sending jihadist fighters? "We're not sure yet, but these are the same people who have sent them in the past," he said. "I'm not sure the country could take this new threat. It's already so weak."
The nearly perfect conditions for an al Qaeda-like outbreak of violence in Lebanon have not been missed by the group's senior leadership. On April 22, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested the Middle East's most liberal and diverse nation could play an important role in the ongoing conflict with the West. "Lebanon is a Muslim frontline fort," he said. "It will have a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews.
"I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach Palestine and to banish the invading Crusader forces which are claimed to be peacekeeping forces in Lebanon," he said, in reference to the United Nations peacekeepers on Lebanon's southern border with Israel.