Jihad's Incubators

April 13, 2007 Topic: Terrorism Region: LevantMiddle East Tags: Islam

Jihad's Incubators

Bernard Rougier documents the disturbing rise of militant jihad among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

To illustrate the ideological shift underway among the Palestinians in Lebanon, Bernard Rougier tells a story of two Palestinian brothers. The nationalist elder brother and his much younger Islamist sibling bitterly disagreed about the plight of the Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya. The younger one worried about his embattled co-religionists, but his blasé brother-who had actually visited those areas-questioned his sibling's unflinching support of those Westernized, alcohol-drinking groups. The older brother later learned that his younger sibling had died in a suicide attack on the Russian Embassy-to protest the Russian incursion into Chechnya. The elder sibling later told this story to Rougier, a Sciences-Po researcher conducting a study of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. (The results of the scholar's work will be published as Everyday Jihad by Harvard University Press in May 2007.) At The Nixon Center yesterday, the scholar spoke about the rejection of secular nationalism and the increasing prominence of militant jihad within the camps, especially Ein al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon.

With approximately 40,000 residents, Ein al-Hilwe, the largest camp in Lebanon, seems like a small town, Rougier said. It operates largely without the interference of the Lebanese authorities; the Lebanese soldiers-equipped with Vietnam War-era weapons-who guard the camp's entrances would undoubtedly be ill-prepared to quell any disturbances there.

Palestinian jihadists have stepped into the vacuum created by the lack of state authority, controlling most of the camp's territory and five of its seven mosques. The militants compete with the PLO, who they deem to be the "enemy within", for influence in the camp. In the PLO-dominated areas of the camp, torn posters of the deceased PLO chairman Yasir Arafat attest to the shifting invisible boundaries within the camp.

While the PLO and the Sunni militants are the two principal groups within Ein al-Hilweh and other camps, they are by no means the only ones. Rougier recalled sitting in the Palestinian Cultural Center with Palestinian Communists, who were smoking and drinking in secret during the holy month of Ramadan. Hizballah has tried to put down roots in the camps, but has so far failed miserably to attract followers among the camps' Sunni inhabitants. Al-Qaeda maintains a palpable, but low-profile, presence in the camps as well. The militants Rogier interviewed rarely mentioned Al-Qaeda by name, but the scholar noted the presence of Al-Qaeda personnel in Ein al-Hilweh. (One fairly high-level Al-Qaeda member sold shwarma during his stay in the camp.) The Islamist militant networks in the camps sprung up without Al-Qaeda's guidance, but they now receive funding from that organization. In a slickly produced Al-Qaeda promotional video, a 9/11 hijacker praises an Ein al-Hilweh agitator, confirming Rougier's suspicions about the global terrorist organization's links to the camp.

Although Al-Qaeda provides some money to the Palestinian jihadi networks in exchange for dramatic acts of terrorism, these groups also obtain financial resources under false pretences. Militant refugees seek out local charities and oblivious, wealthy foreigners and expatriates, claiming that they need funds to support social services in the camps.

While the financial support for these Palestinian terrorist networks in the camps comes from a variety of sources, the philosophical underpinning for the militants' actions comes largely from the teachings of one man, the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam. The radical Azzam, who taught at various universities in the Middle East, was shocked by Egypt's 1978 peace deal with Israel. In Azzam's view, the signing of the Camp David Accords indicated that Arab governments could no longer be trusted to defend the umma, the global community of Muslim faithful. Hence, believers themselves must be individually responsible for protecting the wider Muslim world from oppression. (Azzam soon put his beliefs into practice, as he became involved in the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.) In this way, Azzam created "both a democratization and a privatization of jihad."

Furthermore, Azzam rejected national borders as Western constructs, and abhorred both Arab nationalism and international politics. Azzam's denunciation of the nation-state system appeals, for obvious reasons, to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In fact, the Islamists' conflict with the PLO stems in part from Yasir Arafat's willingness to enter into politics and to negotiate with the Israelis.

The Palestinian militants in the Lebanese camps despise not only the PLO (and Fatah, its political arm) and the Israelis, but also the United Nations, the West and the Shi‘a, Lebanon's largest confessional group. Seeing themselves as "the guardians of Sunni identity in Lebanon", the Palestinian militants in the refugee camps believe that violence can be carried against their enemies "without consequences", according to Rougier. Nonetheless, the actions of these terrorist networks are circumscribed by the make-up of Lebanese society: As the Shi‘a outnumber the Sunni in Lebanon, the Palestinian militants avoid targeting Lebanese Shi‘a. The militants feel no such restraints in Iraq, where the killing of Shi‘a will not invite Lebanese reprisals.

Those who aspire to commit violence usually derive inspiration from the sermons of radical clerics in the camps' mosques. The clerics condone violence and espouse a universal vision of Islam while creating a "frame of injustice, explaining why refugees are still refugees", Rougier said. The young inhabitants of the camps-who have few prospects for integration into Lebanese society-are extremely susceptible to the clerics' messages.

As long as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process stays at a standstill, militant jihad will continue to gain traction in the Palestinian camps, Rougier explained. If Palestinian refugees can be convinced that peace negotiations can produce tangible results, the siren call of jihad will lose much of its seductive appeal.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.