The Link Between Lebanon and Gaza

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Hussein Malla / AP

A masked fighter from the Fatah Islam group stands at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon.

Talk about the heart of darkness: The Israeli army shelling the Palestinians in Gaza, the Lebanese army bombarding the Palestinians in a refugee camp outside of Tripoli. It may take a while for the smoke to clear, but one thing is for certain: neither Lebanon nor Israel fully understands its enemy and the nature of the relationship between the Palestinians and al-Qaeda, which is strengthening. The hope is that overwhelming military firepower will defeat unbendable faith, and, for our part, let's hope they have better success than we've had in Iraq

Lebanon's government would like us to believe Fatah Islam started the fighting there on Sunday on the orders of Damascus. I hope they know better. Whether Syria is providing tactical help or not, at the end of the day Fatah Islam is the Syrian regime's mortal enemy. If the fighting were to somehow lead to an all-out civil war, Syrian stability will be undermined. Lebanon has had a Sunni fundamentalist element in the north for more than 25 years. As I've written before in this column, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood used northern Lebanon as a rear base to seize the Syrian city of Hama in 1982. Lebanese Sunni, including fundamentalist Palestinians, were instrumental in the attack. In 2000, a Qaeda-affiliated group in northern Lebanon attacked the Lebanese army. Iraq and Afghanistan have only exacerbated the problem.

Spend time in any Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and you quickly understand that Osama bin Laden is a symbol of resistance. In the run-up to the Iraq war, TIME Beirut correspondent Nick Blanford and I visited 'Ayn al-Hilweh, a Palestinian camp outside of Sidon. Two things struck me. A fundamentalist Sunni group, Usbat al-Islam, occupied half the camp, which we didn't enter because we probably wouldn't have made it back out. And, two, the Fatah commander was already recruiting fighters to go to Iraq to fight the occupation. Both sides were signed up for the jihad.

Gaza is a mirror image of what is happening in Lebanon. Last year, Israelis have told me, Qaeda was growing like a fungus there, with both mainline Fatah and Hamas losing followers to it. In Gaza you could see the place was seething. But frankly the notion of bin Laden taking over sounded like propaganda to me. Now, though, watching the growing chaos, and with the kidnapping of a BBC journalist, I think the Israelis were right.

And it's not just in Lebanon and Gaza where Qaeda is poking its head up. In a startling interview with the Financial Times, John Negroponte, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State, said Qaeda is on the move in North Africa, as well as in the Sahel region, in such countries as Chad, Mali and Niger. Negroponte also said we should brace ourselves for a merger between Qaeda and the Algerian fundamentalists. I heard the same thing from a Libyan official, who said that one day in the near future Qaeda-associated groups could pose a threat to Libya's stability. Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia left a vacuum Qaeda is quickly filling.

All of this brings up the question, are the explosions we are seeing in Gaza and Lebanon a sign that the long-feared Qaeda resurgence is here?

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East and's intelligence columnist, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.