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Al-Qaeda expanding in Lebanon

The sources say al-Qaeda is now seeking to expand in Lebanon, particularly the northern city of Tripoli.

FILE: Lebanese civilians gather at the site of a blast outside the Al-Taqwa Mosque in Tripoli on 23 August 2013. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - Faced with recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda is slowly but firmly gaining influence in Lebanon, helped by the country's increasing sectarian violence and the turmoil caused by Syria's civil war, sources close to the group say.

Lebanon, a small Mediterranean state with a fragile sectarian power sharing system, has seen the worst of the Syria's war spillover with car bombs in Beirut and Tripoli, gunfights in city streets and rocket fire in the Bekaa Valley.

The violence is exacerbated by Lebanon's own sectarian divisions and entrenching them. Shi'ite Hezbollah supports President Bashar al-Assad while his rebel opponents are backed by Sunni Muslims including Islamists and al Qaeda fighters.

In Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds territory in the north and east but has been on the defensive in recent weeks after coming under attack from rival rebel groups that resent its harsh rule.

The sources say it is now seeking to expand in Lebanon, particularly the northern city of Tripoli, plagued by violence and lawlessness since the start of Syria's uprising nearly three years ago.

The accounts from the sources, including fighters who support and oppose al Qaeda in Syria, appeared to be supported at the weekend when a statement in the name of Abu Sayyaf al-Ansary - described as al-Qaeda's commander in Lebanon - said the group had put down roots in Lebanon.

In an audio statement Ansary declared allegiance to the head of ISIL. Speaking, he said, from Tripoli, he announced Lebanon would be a gateway for al Qaeda to strike at Israel.

Several Syrian rebel sources said the group was in the final stages of establishing itself in Lebanon's north - a region seen as fertile ground for the group where many people have adopted a stricter interpretation of Sunni Islam in the past few years.

Dozens of people have been killed in Tripoli in the past year in violence between Alawites - the offshoot of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad and his family belong - and Sunnis.

ROOTS OF CONFLICT

The hatred goes back to the 1980s when Syrian troops, sent by Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad, with the help of local Alawites in Tripoli crushed Sunnis who were seen close to the Palestinian groups fighting in Lebanon.

After Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990, consecutive governments concentrated rebuilding and investment in the capital Beirut, leaving other cities struggling with relative poverty, unemployment and an alienated underclass.

As well as the deprived cities, the mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugee camps - home to most of the 440,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon - are also a potential breeding ground for jihadis. So far they have produced small groups who have gone to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts abroad rather than building up forces in Lebanon itself.

Against that backdrop, a local commander in Syria who is close to al-Qaeda commanders there said Ansary had been given the conditional blessing of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to announce al-Qaeda's presence in Lebanon.

"There will be statement in the next few days and the world will know then what will happen in Lebanon, and with God's will it will warm the heart of the faithful," he said.

While the group is expected to focus on Tripoli as a base, local commanders may be present in the northern province of Akkar, in the Bekaa Valley and the southern city of Sidon, where supporters of Sunni Islamist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir clashed with the army last year.

Residents say al-Qaeda is already calling the shots in some Tripoli neighborhoods and areas of the northern province of Akkar and the Bekaa Valley. Black and white flags associated with its uncompromising Islamist agenda openly fly from the streets and balconies of some Tripoli districts.

But many Syrian fighters grew to resent his dominance, especially after his fighters killed and tortured hundreds of Syrians including other Islamist fighters.

LOOKING FOR A NEW HOME

After that setback in Syria - and an army offensive against its stronghold in western Iraq - Lebanon could offer both a new recruiting ground and a base for attacks.

The sources were divided over how powerful the group is at this stage in Lebanon. Some said it had already established its base and would launch more organized attacks in the country, while others said it was still in final preparatory stages.

Sources in Tripoli said that a debate took place for weeks among the jihadis on whether to go public.

Saturday's audio statement, posted on YouTube in Abu Sayyaf al-Ansary's name, suggests that approval has been granted.

Ansary said Sunnis in Lebanon were mistreated by the powerful Shi'ite Hezbollah. He called on Sunnis to unite and saluted recent bombings in Shi'ite areas claimed by al-Qaeda-linked Abdallah Azzam Brigades but said they were not enough.

Lebanon arrested a leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam brigades this month, who died in custody days later.