SaudiLeaks: Saudi funded Nahr al-Barid war on … Saudis

A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks (and which has gone under the radar) appears to show that Saudi Arabia paid the Lebanese army to attack the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp in 2007 to finish off a militant group with many Saudis in its ranks. At the time, Saudi Arabia was extremely embarrassed about the revelations that Saudis were among the Fatah al-Islam fighters ensconced in the Palestinian refugee camp (“Saudis fighting in Iraq, Lebanon embarrass homeland,” Reuters, 19 July 2007). Lebanese officials indicated during the fighting that there were dozens of Saudis among Fatah al-Islam fighters, which Saudi media said was exaggerated. One report from a Saudi analyst said there had been up to 300 Saudi jihadists operating in Nahr al-Barid, and PLO chief in Beirut Sultan Abul-Aynein has been quoted as saying 23 Saudis died there (see Sami Moubayed, “Loose Saudi Cannons in Lebanon,” Asia Times, 19 July 2007).

Suspicions were high at the time that Saudi money had found its way to Fatah al-Islam and perhaps other groups like Fatah al-Intifada, as part of a wider programme of Saudi funding for Sunni groups in Lebanon, paramilitary and otherwise, as a counterweight to Hizbollah – the usual haphazard and ill-conceived Saudi approach to things involving doling out money to all and sundry to act as proxies and do its bidding. Some of it may have gone to “soft” Salafi causes in Lebanon, and from there made its way to hardcore groups like Fatah al-Islam. American journalist Seymour Hersh made the most prominent of these allegations, two months before the fighting broke out in May (“The Redirection: Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?,” The New Yorker, 5 March 2007). Nearly 400 people are thought to have died by the time the Lebanese army retook control of the camp on 2 September. Two years later Saudi Arabia donated $25 million to UNRWA for the camp’s reconstruction after its destruction had left 31,000 refugees homeless.

So after the reports that Saudi Arabia funded Fatah al-Islam, peopled Fatah al-Islam and put up money to rebuild the refugee camp destroyed after Fatah al-Islam made it their home, now comes word from a leaked document bearing the sign-off of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Saudi Arabia gave Lebanon the cash – “quietly” – to fight Fatah al-Islam – in other words, to flatten the camp and potentially kill Saudi nationals. It says only vaguely that this happened in “mid-2007”. It’s quite possible the motivation was to rid Saudi Arabia of what had become an embarrassment.

The revelation comes in a message from Rice to the US embassy in Saudi Arabia in November 2009, asking the embassy to quickly arrange Saudi consent to buy or lend money for weaponry for the Lebanese army, again to help it act as a counterweight to Hizbollah. Titled “Saudi butter for Lebanese guns”, its list includes two $60 million grants for tanks and gunships (military helicopters). “Embassy Riyadh is requested to approach senior Saudi interlocutors in pursuing the following objectives,” it says. However, it goes on to say:

“Saudi Arabia has been a strong political and financial backer of the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] since mid-2007 when it quietly provided $100M to support LAF operations against Fatah al-Islam militants in Lebanon’s Nahr al-Barid refugee camp.”

Here’s the full text:

S E C R E T STATE 121325 

SIPDIS 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/14/2018
TAGS: PREL PTER PM LE SA
SUBJECT: SAUDI BUTTER FOR LEBANESE GUNS 

Classified By: NEA PDAS Jeffrey Feltman for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 

1. (U) This is an action request.  Please see paragraph three. 

SUMMARY
------- 

2. (C) The Department seeks Saudi assistance to deliver
advanced capabilities to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in
advance of Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections.  The LAF has
requested Cessna Caravan gunships for close air support as
well as a third-party transfer of Jordanian M-60 tanks, which
will require refurbishment and possibly upgrade.  These
systems will help the LAF counter threats to Lebanon's
internal security, demonstrate political support for the LAF
and the Lebanese government, bolster the electoral prospects
of March 14 and like-minded independents seeking a government
monopoly on the use of force in Lebanon, and bolster public
confidence in the LAF as an alternative to Hizballah. 

OBJECTIVES
---------- 

3. (C/REL SAUDI ARABIA) Embassy Riyadh is requested to
approach senior Saudi interlocutors in pursuing the following
objectives: 

-- Request a $60M grant to the LAF earmarked for the purchase
of Cessna Caravan gunships requested by the LAF for close air
support, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and surveillance
missions.  We expect to deliver at least one aircraft before
Lebanon's 2009 elections. 

-- Request a $60M grant to the LAF earmarked for the
refurbishment and possible upgrade of 66 Jordanian M-60 tanks
requested by the LAF for third-party transfer from Jordan,
complete with appropriate ammunition.  (Note:  Jordan has
offered M-60A1 tanks, but Lebanon may request M-60A3 tanks or
an upgrade of the M-60A1 tanks to M-60A3 standards.)  We
expect to deliver a company of tanks (approximately 11-14)
before Lebanon's 2009 elections. 

-- Note that the provision of these systems to the LAF is
subject to further procedural hurdles, including Exceptions
to National Disclosure Policy (ENDPs), formal authorization
to sell/transfer the systems, and Congressional notification.
 Given the intent to provide some assistance prior to
Lebanon's elections and the need to identify funding
immediately, we chose to approach Saudi Arabia as soon as we
and the LAF had identified a package of items that would
address the LAF's military needs and the U.S.-Saudi desire to
provide high-visibility assistance. 

REPORTING DEADLINE
------------------ 

4. (U) Post is requested to report the results of this
demarche by cable to NEA/ELA Lebanon Desk Officer Matthew
Irwin and PM/RSAT Lebanon Desk Officer David Burke by
Thursday, November 20. 

BACKGROUND
---------- 

5. (SBU) Saudi Arabia has been a strong political and
financial backer of the LAF since mid-2007 when it quietly
provided $100M to support LAF operations against Fatah
al-Islam militants in Lebanon's Nahr al-Barid refugee camp.
This assistance came in addition to a $1B deposit in the
Central Bank of Lebanon after the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war
and millions of dollars of humanitarian, reconstruction, and
development assistance since 2006. 

6. (C) Saudi Arabia has also pressed the United States to
provide advanced capabilities to the LAF to ensure it is
prepared to respond to emerging crisis and, more
strategically, as a political and military counterweight to
Syrian and Iranian support for Hizballah.  Various Saudi
officials including Prince Bandar as-Sultan and King Abdullah
himself have previously indicated to U.S. and Lebanese
officials, including Defense Minister Elias Murr and
parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, that they would be
willing to help the LAF procure more advanced capabilities if
and when they were offered by the United States. 

7. (S) After assessing the LAF's military needs, the
availability of U.S. equipment, and regional policy concern
including Israel's qualitative military edge (QME), the
Departments of State and Defense are moving to provide three
Cessna Caravan gunships and a third-party transfer of 66
Jordanian M-60 tanks pending consultations with Congress and
our regional allies.  These items would represent a
qualitatively different level of assistance than has been
provided to the LAF since the mid-1980s.  None of these
systems is assessed as a threat to Israel's QME. 

POINT OF CONTACT
---------------- 

8.  (U) Please contact NEA/ELA Lebanon Desk Officer Matthew
Irwin or PM/RSAT Lebanon Desk Officer David Burke with
questions or for further background information.
RICE

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