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