After the war in south Lebanon last summer, the small United Nations peacekeeping mission here was bolstered by the arrival of thousands of crack European troops determined to keep Hizballah fighters away from the border with Israel. A year on, however, and some of those same European contingents are now seeking the cooperation of the Iran-backed Hizballah to help protect them from Al-Qaeda-inspired militants.
The contingents comprising the peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL have good cause for concern. Last month, six Spanish and Colombian UNIFIL soldiers were killed in a bomb ambush, the deadliest attack against the peacekeeping mission in its 29-year history. In a video message released this week, Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri hailed the attack as "a response against those invading Crusader forces who were occupying a beloved part of the land of Islam". And, UNIFIL officials fear, given the worsening security situation in Lebanon, there could be more attacks on the way. "The major difficulty we are going to face for sure is this kind of terrorist attack because even if we have no idea yet who could be the perpetrators... another attack can come," Major General Claudio Graziano, UNIFIL's commander, told TIME in an interview at his headquarters in the southern coastal village of Naqoura.
Indeed, the deadly bombing and the threat of further attacks has cast a shadow over an otherwise successful year for UNIFIL. From 2,000 armed observers last summer, UNIFIL today stands at some 13,500 troops drawn from 30 nations, including European heavyweights such as France, Italy and Spain. It even includes a naval component to prevent arms being smuggled into Lebanon by sea. UNIFIL's mandate is to assist the Lebanese army in securing Lebanon's volatile southern frontier in accordance with U.N. Resolution 1701, which helped end last summer's 34-day war. "The mission has been, by and large, highly successful... because not only has it been the quietest time in the last 40 years maybe [along the Lebanon-Israel border] but what's more we have accomplished many points of 1701," the Italian general said, citing the near absence of cross-border violence.
Hizballah grudgingly accepted Resolution 1701 at the end of the war and redeployed its fighters and military hardware north of the border district. "Here, [Hizballah] are not moving anything during the night or during the day," Graziano said "We have 400 patrols [a day] and 150 permanent observation posts, so it's not easy for them."
With Hizballah adopting a low profile, UNIFIL has closely eyed the growing threat in Lebanon posed by groups inspired by Al-Qaeda. Graziano admitted that UNIFIL regularly receives warnings of imminent attacks, but "the level of credibility of the warning is not always very high". There was no prior warning, however, to the June 24 car bomb attack against an armored patrol of Spanish peacekeepers. The remote-controlled explosion knocked an armored personnel carrier (APC) off the road, killing six soldiers in what a Western military officer familiar with the investigation said was an "extraordinarily sophisticated" operation.
No claim of responsibility for the attack has been made, although Spanish intelligence officials reportedly are pointing the finger at three Sunni jihadist groups, linked to Al-Qaeda, based in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The military officer said that the operation would have required weeks if not months of planning by a highly skilled team. "Incredibly detailed planning went into this," the officer told TIME on strict condition of anonymity. The bomb was approximately 220 pounds, with the blast directed laterally against the targeted APC.
Sources tell TIME that, since the attack, there have been discreet contacts between some UNIFIL contingents and Hizballah representatives. UNIFIL is supposed to confine liaison to the Lebanese army, and Graziano said that direct contacts between UNIFIL troops and Hizballah, or any other Lebanese political party, was "highly forbidden". But keeping some type of contact may be critical to UNIFIL's mission. The goal of the informal communications is partly to harness Hizballah's local intelligence gathering abilities, but also to ensure that the powerful Shi'ite group remains supportive of UNIFIL. The unspoken fear among some peacekeepers is that although Hizballah strongly denounced the bombing, it may have known of the attack beforehand or may even have been involved, which, if true, would have dire repercussions on UNIFIL's future. "I cannot dismiss that at a national level there is a diplomatic relation [between troop contributing states and Hizballah] but that has nothing to do with the United Nations," Graziano said. "If somebody [in UNIFIL] does have a relation [with Hizballah] it's against my will."
Nonetheless, a Hizballah official in south Lebanon confirmed to TIME that there was at least one meeting between Spanish UNIFIL officers and Hizballah representatives after the bomb attack. Furthermore, Hizballah officials have met with Spanish diplomats in Beirut and the Madrid government is believed to have held talks with Iran, Hizballah's patron, on the safety of its peacekeepers. At least one other European contingent enjoys regular direct contact with Hizballah, finessing Graziano's order by using a civilian advisor who was hired outside the UNIFIL framework.
Graziano said that the heightened risk of attack has not affected performance, but he said he has asked the U.N. for additional "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets," suggesting a need to enhance UNIFIL's security as much as improving its ability to carry out the mandate. Graziano said he wants cameras and thermal imaging equipment to watch over UNIFIL bases, the border and remote areas, freeing up troops for force protection and rapid reaction duties. He even hopes to receive reconnaissance drones. The French battalion is equipped with pilotless drones, although they have not been employed due to objections by Hizballah, which suspects that any intelligence gathered by UNIFIL's drones could fall into the hands of its enemies. "I would like to have this [drone] capability, but just for protection of our units and not for gathering information," Graziano said.
But until the U.N. greenlights the new surveillance equipment, UNIFIL had better ensure it maintains good relations with Hizballah.