Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the leader of the Syrian Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-backed rebel faction, will appear in his first-ever interview on December 19. As interesting as that may be, it isn’t the only major development that concerns the Nusra Front right now.
In a press statement issued yesterday, the U.S. State Department declared that it had sanctioned Osama Amin al-Shihabi as a “specially designated global terrorist.” The statement went on to explain that Shihabi has recently been appointed head of the Nusra Front’s Palestinian wing in Lebanon.
This is an important piece of news. Shihabi is a well-established actor on the Levantine jihadi scene, though he is better known under his nom de guerre, Abul-Zahra al-Zubeidi. He has been affiliated with Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian-Lebanese-Syrian jihadi group created in 2006, and is often—erroneously, it would seem—described as its leader.
Fatah al-Islam has a checkered history. Parts of its early cadre broke off from a Damascus-backed Palestinian group, Fatah al-Intifada. Its first leader, Shaker al-Absi, was accused by many Lebanese enemies of Syrian President Bashar al–Assad’s government of being connected to Syrian intelligence. The early activities of Fatah al-Islam, especially its disastrously failed uprising in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May 2007, helped destabilize Lebanon at a critical juncture in ways that served Syria’s designs for the country.
But Fatah al-Islam later turned on Syria with a vengeance and launched a bomb attack on Assad’s intelligence apparatus in September 2008. Later that year, Absi was killed or captured by Syrian forces in southern Damascus. He was succeeded by the Palestinian Abd al-Rahman Awad (alias Abu Mohamed), who was killed in an ambush by Lebanese military intelligence forces in Chtaura in August 2010.
At that point, speculation emerged that Shihabi had been appointed the group’s new leader. But from his hideout in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, he denied this, even claiming that he was not a member of the group.
When the Syrian crisis erupted, Fatah al-Islam was quick to get involved in the battle against Assad, suffering a string of high-level casualties in 2012. Shihabi continued to be portrayed as the head of Fatah al-Islam by Lebanese media, but in September 2012 the group announced that its leader had been Abdelaziz al-Kourakli (alias Abu Hussam al-Shami) but that he had been killed in southern Syria.
Shihabi, meanwhile, became an early supporter of the Nusra Front in Syria. The al-Qaeda-aligned group declared its existence in January 2012, and only a few months later Shihabi was exhorting Syrian Islamists and international jihadis of all stripes to join it.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon
The designation of Shihabi as leader of a wing of the Nusra Front in Lebanon is bad news for Syria’s smallest neighbor. The group has of course had a presence in Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee camps there since it was created, and there have long been rumors about Nusra Front activity intended to destabilize Lebanon and strike at pro-Syrian and Shia targets. For example, a couple of months ago, Lebanese media reported that the group was bringing car bombs into the country.
But recently, it seems that the Nusra Front is stepping up its activity in Lebanon. Days ago, a Lebanese soldier was killed in Sidon in southern Lebanon, near the Ain al-Hilweh camp. On December 17, a video was released purporting to show a rocket attack against Hezbollah in Hermel in northeastern Lebanon. The attack was claimed by “the Nusra Front in Lebanon” in collaboration with the Marwan Hadid Brigades, a minor jihadi group. (It’s not yet clear to me whether this attack was authentically linked to the Nusra Front.)
The public emergence of a cross-border Syrian-Lebanese al-Qaeda group would be a dangerous development in an environment where Sunni jihadi attacks in Lebanon are already multiplying (an example is the recent strike on the Iranian embassy in Beirut, tentatively claimed by the similarly al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Battalions), while Hezbollah’s Shia fighters are drawn ever deeper into Syria’s civil war on the opposite side.
Lebanon is already suffering what Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh calls a “shadow war” of tit-for-tat sectarian and political violence, fueled by a deadlocked political process. The emergence of a local wing of the Nusra Front can only compound Lebanon’s problems at this time, considering the obvious interest that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have in trying to pull Lebanon over the brink to sectarian Sunni-Shia warfare.