For starters, there is much indication that the US has shown itself willing to fund and support radical Sunni groups in an effort to counter-act Iranian-influence, Hezbollah and Shia power in general.
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has an extensive infrastructure, an estimated two to three thousand active fighters, and thousands of additional members.
American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.
During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting “to hijack the state,” but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. “Salafis are sick and hateful, and I’m very much against the idea of flirting with them,” he said. “They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly.”
Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, “The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.” Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,” Crooke said.
The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.
The size, membership and influence of the [Abdullah Azzam Brigades] are unclear; its infrequent, small-scale operations and relatively prolific message output seem to imply it is a small group tasked with expanding, organizing, providing guidance and acting as middlemen. In Syria its only visible role has been in the release of various messages, mostly written and recorded statements by its leaders.
At the center of the AAB’s messages is a recurring preoccupation with the plight of Sunnis in the Levant, specifically their perceived oppression at the hands of the Shi’a of Lebanon and Iran, with Syria’s Alawi government enforcing this order and acting as a bridge between the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese ally. One of the group’s first releases was a September 2010 documentary titled “The Oppressed Sect,” an amateurish look at the region’s modern history, particularly the Lebanese Civil War, in which Sunni oppression becomes the principal narrative thread. Syria’s Baath government and Lebanon’s Shi’a parties (Hizbullah and Amal) are seen as ruthless players engaged in a dual conspiracy directed from Iran: on the one hand the oppression of Sunnis, on the other securing the integrity of Israel’s borders. The main piece of evidence furnished to prove this is that neither of the two has attacked Israel (presumably since the 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel), while the AAB has launched several rockets. This is then weaved into a broader narrative of the repression (and labeling as “terrorist”) of any Sunni who takes actions to liberate Palestine.
At least a couple of players in Lebanon have suspected that non-Islamist political interests are behind the “Oppressed Sect” documentary:
In an attempt to tap into Sunni frustrations, an hour-long propaganda film began circulating in Sunni areas of Lebanon some six months ago with the clear intention of inciting anti-Shiite feeling. Titled “The Oppressed Sect,” a reference to Sunnis, the film purports to have been produced by the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda offshoot.
Using archive footage dating back to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the film lists historic Sunni grievances against Shiites. But some Islamist clerics who have studied the film question its authenticity. Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric who has recently begun to support Hezbollah, says it “smells of nationalism and secularism” and suggests that Hariri’s Future Movement fabricated it.
Another prominent cleric, Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the leading Islamic figure in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon, also notes that “the Islamic terminology is wrong” and believes it is an “intelligence deception.”
But when asked whom he thinks was responsible for the film, Khattab gives a discreet smile and says, “We like to blame such things on Israel.”
This evidence seems to suggest that the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades” (at least in the case of Lebanon) is a moniker for an organization or agency that has little sincere interest in radical Sunni Islamism but puts a great deal of weight on counter-balancing Iran and Shia influence in Lebanon. There’s a case to be made for these attacks being an operation done by Sunni figures in the Lebanese ruling class and their Saudi allies. As Ali Abunimah points out on Twitter, Geneva negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program resume tomorrow:
Terrorist (and likely state-sponsored) bombing of Iran embassy in Beirut occurs the day before Geneva talks resume on nuclear deal.
— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) November 19, 2013
Also remember that there is a clear precedent for state-sponsored terrorism against Shia in Lebanon done by the US, Saudi Arabia and Lebanese Sunni figures.