The defeat of al Qaeda by Sunni tribesmen in Iraq’s Anbar Province and of an al Qaeda-backed militia called Fatah al-Islam in North Lebanon‘s Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp represents two of the most serious blows to the Islamist movement since the declaration of war on terrorism.
As in Iraq where the Sunnis proved al Qaeda’s vulnerability, so too has the Lebanese army shown that domestic resolve can defeat attempts by the Islamists to graft themselves onto other cultures, regardless of their similarities in religion, language or nationality.
What brought about the rejection of the Islamists in Iraq and in Lebanon was their attempted meddling in domestic affairs. In both cases the Islamists miscalculated domestic reaction suffered the consequences of their actions.
In Anbar Province, formerly a bastion of Saddam Hussein’s rule and until recently considered the most dangerous place in Iraq for U.S. forces, it was not the surge of some additional 30,000 U.S. fighting troops which brought about the demise of al Qaeda. Rather it was the intervention of Sunni tribesmen.
The Sunni revolt against their one-time allies in the fight against the U.S. occupation of Iraq came about purely as a result of al Qaeda’s interference in tribal affairs when the Islamists tried to force marriages between their fighters and women of the province.
The Sunni leaders of Anbar realized the Islamists represented another form of foreign occupation. Tribal leaders were wise enough to see that this new form of interference in their domestic affairs was an even greater danger to their sovereignty than the U.S. occupation. Eventually, the U.S. is bound to leave Iraq, but the foreign Islamists had shown their intention to remain and through marriage to integrate into Iraqi society.
Adopting age-old traditions that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned to the United States for assistance. Washington was only too happy to oblige. What emerged in Anbar between the Sunnis and the American forces was a marriage of convenience rather than one of love.
Similarly, in Lebanon it was an incident involving the killing of several Lebanese army soldiers by Fatah al-Islam which brought about the resolve of the country’s military to take on the Islamist. During three months of severe clashes, at times involving tanks, mortars and artillery duels, and during which the Lebanese army suffered close to 200 casualties — a particularly high toll given the size of the Lebanese armed forces — the Islamists were eventually routed. They suffered even heavier casualties than the Lebanese army, and their leader, a former political prisoner in Syria, was reportedly killed (though later DNA tests failed to confirm this).
The humiliating defeat suffered by al Qaeda in Anbar Province and that of their proxies in North Lebanon marks important benchmarks in the fight against Islamist terrorist. This is al Qaeda’s the third major setback in the Arab world.
The determination of the Lebanese army, just like that of the Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, showed that the answer to the infiltration of al Qaeda in Arab countries is to engage local forces in the battle, rather than foreign troops.
Those events in North Lebanon and in Anbar represent major benchmarks in the ongoing war against terrorism, although this is not the first time al Qaeda is defeated in the Arab world.
North Lebanon and Anbar Province mark the second and third major setbacks suffered by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist outfit in the Arab world. Their first defeat — and a major one at that — came about when Saudi forces, despite an initial setback, were able to retake the upper hand, defeating, capturing or killing a number of terrorist cells operating in the desert kingdom. The second and third defeats came back-to-back with the victory of the Lebanese army over Fatah al-Islam and the routing of the Islamists from Anbar Province.
So, is one to read in this the beginning of the end of al Qaeda in the Arab world? Unfortunately not. The terrorist organization will fight back, as it already demonstrated with the assassination of Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who allied himself to the U.S. military effort in Iraq. Abu Risha had met with President Bush during the president’s brief visit to Anbar on Labor Day.
If the group is losing ground in the Levant, on the other hand it seems to be making headway in North Africa, particularly in Morocco and Algeria. Yet what we have seen with the opposition to al Qaeda’s interference in domestic affairs by the Iraqis and the Lebanese is highly significant and are clear indications of the terrorists’ vulnerability once they alienate the local population.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.