International Papers

Future Shock

It wasn’t a good weekend for Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In the early hours of Sunday morning, his TV and radio station in Beirut was the target of a remote-controlled rocket attack. On the same day, newspapers reported that one of his closest allies has been banned from traveling to the United States because he donated money to an Islamic charity the Bush administration considers a supporter of terrorism.

Hariri’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, used a clever double entendre in its headline on the strike against the TV station, also called Al-Mustaqbal. “Mustaqbal” means future in Arabic, which allowed the paper to write, “Lebanon Confronts an Assault Against the Future.” A previously unknown Islamist group known as Ansar Allah, literally “partisans of God,” claimed responsibility for the rocket attack. In a statement translated by the English-language Daily Star, the group warned that the operation was destined to prevent “anyone, even if they are powerful and influential, to fire poison arrows at the heart of the resistance.” When resistance is mentioned in Lebanon, it usually refers to Hezbollah, and the statement implied the prime minister was trying to clip the party’s wings. However, the daily Al-Safir put a revealing post-attack Hariri statement in its headline: “It’s Not Islamists Who Hit Future Television!” When in doubt, it’s always safe to blame Israel, and the Al-Mustaqbal newspaper reported that two statements had been received from Ansar Allah, one claiming responsibility for the attack and the other condemning it and calling it “the work of [Israel’s] Mossad [intelligence service].” In searching for culprits, however, some local observers will look, instead, toward Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, which has been wary of Hariri’s recent friendliness toward the Bush administration. One theory is that the Syrians (or a group in Syria) arranged the attack to warn Hariri against satisfying Washington’s demands on Hezbollah. Even if this hypothesis is hogwash, it would be remarkable if the attack took place without the Syrians knowing about it.

If Hariri was indeed punished for his closeness to Washington, it is ironic that his leading collaborator, Finance Minister Fouad Sanioura, has been banned from traveling to the United States—apparently the most senior “friendly” Arab official to pay the price for U.S. anti-terrorism legislation. The U.S. ambassador in Lebanon told Sanioura of the decision some time ago, but the papers reported it for the first time on Sunday, when the minister publicly mentioned the ban. Sanioura admitted giving around $660 to the Islamic Benevolence Society, a charity established by a senior Shiite cleric, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who is often mistakenly called “Hezbollah’s spiritual guide.” In fact, Fadlallah and the party are on poor terms. Sanioura’s office defended the donation, saying it was part of the minister’s Muslim duty to give alms. This provoked merriment in Beirut, where Sanioura, an implacable tax levier, is known for taking rather than giving money.

Islamists were also on the minds of Saudi Arabia’s rulers, as many Arabic newspapers reported on fighting between Saudi police and members of an Islamist group in the holy city of Mecca. Al-Safir said that 10 people were killed—five police officers and five Islamists suspected of having ties to the perpetrators of May’s Riyadh bombings. The clash came as the Saudi authorities announced a program to “rehabilitate” 49,000 imams, or prayer leaders, in the kingdom’s mosques, with the aim of having “an impact on society with respect to social and ideological issues, and matters of terrorism and intellectual extremism.”

The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat offered a different casualty toll for the Mecca melee, listing fewer policemen killed. It also published a sidebar on the neighborhood where the shooting occurred, somewhat inanely listing land prices there. Far more useful was the paper’s interview with the father of Ali al-Faq’assi, one of the men sought by the Saudis in connection with the Riyadh bomb attacks.  Al-Sharq al-Awsat’s account offered an intimate portrait of the type of militant Saudi Islamist that has congregated around Osama bin Laden. Ali’s father asked his son to give himself up in exchange for a reduced sentence, adding, “We reject terrorism, whether by Ali or anyone else, because we are a country of love, security, and peace.”