An uneasy calm settled over Nahr al-Bared camp when Lebanese defence minister Elias al-Murr declared on June 22 that government troops had captured all the positions of the Islamic militants holed up on the outskirts of this refugee-camp outside the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The announcement marked the end of a fierce battle in which the thud of bombing and the clatter of machine-gun fire echoed almost continuously around Nahr al-Bared while most of its 40,000 residents sought refuge mainly in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.
Al-Murr's announcement, however, came short of a confident claim of total victory. He said that Lebanese army troops would continue to besiege the camp until the surviving fighters, who had fled into the narrow alleyways of the camp, had surrendered. The clashes, the worst of their kind since the Lebanese civil war (1975 – 90), seem to have inched Lebanon closer to a new quagmire in which the country has to contend with a new breed of heavily-armed cells with links to al-Qa‘ida, or inspired by it.
The clashes were set off on May 20, when police stormed an apartment in Tripoli used as a safe house by members of a salafist organisation known as Fatah al-Islam. The police had linked the group to a robbery on May 19 of a branch of the Mediterranean Bank, owned by Sa'ad al-Hariri, leader of the Future Current movement, in Amyoun, a coastal town to the south of Tripoli. Fatah al-Islam's response was swift and deadly. The group's seemingly well-trained and experienced men launched a series of simultaneous and well-organised attacks against army positions around the camp, in which some 27 soldiers were killed (some of them were slaughtered or beheaded while asleep), and scores of others were wounded.
Fatah al-Islam split from Fatah al-Intifadah (Fatah Uprising), a pro-Syrian group that broke away from the mainstream Fatah movement in 1983 because of an internal struggle over the policies of Yasser Arafat during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The group declared its existence on November 26, saying that its main goal is to fight for the Palestinian cause and against western influence. But the group subscribes to the al-Qa‘ida agenda that marries anti-western rhetoric to deep sectarian bigotry. Statements given by the group's leaders, as well as communiqués, have pledged to defend the Lebanese Sunni community against the Shi‘as. Although it denies an organisational link with al-Qa‘ida, Fatah al-Islam makes no bones about being modelled on al-Qa‘ida and deriving its inspiration from Usama bin Laden.
The group is led by Shakir Youssuf al-Absi, a Palestinian guerrilla-fighter who once trained in the Syrian Air Force and is believed to have taken part in the insurgency in Iraq. Born in Jericho in 1955, Absi dropped out of medical school in the 1970s to join Fatah. In 1983 he was among Palestinian fighters who broke away from Arafat's Fatah to set up Fatah Uprising, with its headquarters in Damascus. Although little is known about his life or whereabouts after joining Fatah Uprising, it is clear that Absi at some point forged links with Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian head of al-Qa‘ida in Iraq who was killed in a US air-raid near the city of Ba'aquba on June 7, 2006. He was sentenced to death in absentia, along with six others including Zarqawi, by a Jordanian court in 2004 for his role in the murder of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Amman, in 2002. The charge-sheet identified Absi as a Palestinian living in Syria and nicknamed Abu Yussuf. At the time, he was serving a three-year jail-sentence in Syria, and Damascus refused to extradite him to Jordan upon his release last year.
Fatah al-Islam is suspected of having been involved in a double-bomb attack on February 13 that targeted two commuter minibuses in the Christian area of ‘Ayn ‘Alaq, northeast of Beirut, killing three people. Four of those arrested for involvement in this bombing have confessed to belonging to Fatah al-Islam. Authorities in Lebanon have also said that members of the group have been involved in at least three recent bank-robberies. The group has been implicated in some armed activities outside Lebanon as well. In January, after a gun-battle with armed gunmen in the city of Irbid in northern Jordan, Jordanian authorities accused Absi of sending the gunmen to create confusion and chaos in Jordan.
Anti-Syrian politicians in the March 14 Coalition, which forms the backbone of the Lebanese government of prime minister Fouad al-Siniora, used the clashes to unleash an avalanche of allegations to the effect that Damascus stands behind the violence. They contended that Fatah al-Islam is merely a tool used by Syria in its efforts to foment instability in an attempt to obstruct the work of the international tribunal set up under Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter in order to try suspects of a string of political murders which claimed the lives of a number of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, including former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed in a truck-bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005.
Blaming Syria for all of Lebanon's ills and troubles has become a habit of the leaders of the March 14 Coalition. But scapegoating Syria is not just a reflex; it is designed to obfuscate the truth and cloud the issues. In the case of Fatah al-Islam, it seems to be part of a calculated strategy to conceal the role played by the pro-western Siniora government in propping up salafist organisations in hopes of using them to contain the rising influence of Hizbullah.
If anyone inside Lebanon is to blame for the phenomenon of Fatah al-Islam, it is the Siniora government and some of its allies in the March 14 Coalition. The shifting landscape of alliances and interests in Lebanese political life has always produced strange bedfellows, and Fatah al-Islam seems to be no exception. Despite being small in size and marginal in influence, Fatah al-Islam has benefited from the political crisis that has pitted the pro-western Siniora government and its supporters in the March 14 Coalition against a potpourri of opposition groups led by Hizbullah. Since the end of the war launched by Israel last summer, Hizbullah has been engaged in a running dispute with the Siniora government, accusing it of working hand-in-glove with the Americans to undermine Hizbullah. Cabinet-ministers representing the two main Shi‘a political groups have resigned, opposition groups have maintained an open-ended sit-in in front of government offices in central Beirut since December 1, and parliament speaker Nabih Berry continues to refuse to call the legislature into session as presidential elections approach.
In an article in the March issue of The New Yorker magazine, celebrated investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh shed light on a US policy-shift in the Middle East that involves backing salafist jihadist groups in an attempt to oppose Iran and its allies in the region. “The ‘redirection,' as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims,” wrote Hersh. With respect toLebanon, the new policy shift was reflected in moves by “the Siniora government and its allies [who] had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.”
Similarities between al-Qa‘ida and Fatah al-Islam go beyond ideological resemblances. Much like al-Qa‘ida, the group is multinational in composition. Most of the fighters belonging to Fatah al-Islam are not Palestinians. Its ranks include Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans and others. They began to enter Lebanon last year with the help of Abu Khalid al-‘Imleh, the deputy leader of Fatah Uprising. ‘Imleh, who is currently under house arrest in Syria, facilitated the cross-border infiltration of dozens of Fatah al-Islam fighters into Lebanon, providing them with identity-cards and permitting them to be stationed in Fatah Uprising bases, first in the eastern Beqa'a Valley and later in a number of Palestinian refugee-camps in Beirut, mainly Bourj el-Barajneh, Sabra and Chatila. Informed Lebanese sources say that when Fatah Uprising chairman Sa‘id Musa, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Musa, in early December ordered Fatah al-Islam fighters to leave his group's bases, they were transported to the Nahr al-Bared and Beddawi camps on board buses belonging to the Lebanese Intelligence Branch (Shu'bat al-Ma'alumat), an internal security apparatus headed by Wissam al-Hassan, a Hariri crony. On December 9 Absi ordered his fighters to take control of the Fatah Uprising positions and weapons caches in Nahr al-Bared, where he regrouped his fighters. This happened only a day after Abu Musa had issued an ultimatum giving Absi and his men 24 hours to leave Beddawi. On December 13, Abu Musa held a press conference in Damascus in which he publicly accused ‘Imleh of getting money from unidentified sources to help create a Sunni salafist militia to counter Hizbullah. In Nahr al-Bared, Fatah al-Islam grew quickly in numbers, winning popularity in the impoverished refugee-camp by providing much-needed social services and distributing generous monetary handouts.
Yet Fatah al-Islam seems to be the tip of a swelling al-Qa‘ida-affiliated salafist iceberg in Lebanon. On June 19, a Lebanese daily reported that authorities have charged 14 suspects with forming a terrorist cell in Barr Elias, a small town in the Beqa'a. The suspects, who include a Saudi, two Syrians and six Lebanese, were arrested during or after a raid in which authorities found booby-trapped cars that had been rigged using “unfamiliar digital techniques.” Interestingly, Lebanese security forces were not able to defuse the rigged cars without the help of the Saudi detainee, Abd al-Aziz al-Meghamis. A statement issued by the General Directorate for State Security said that three of the detainees confessed to belonging to al-Qa‘ida (as-Safir, June 19). On June 8, Lebanese border police detained twelve men who were trying to enter the country from Syria using forged foreign passports.
The Siniora government, which has, wittingly or unwittingly, nurtured the expansion of salafist armed groups in Lebanon, finds itself in an uneasy position. Much like Mary Shelley'sFrankenstein, salafist groups in Lebanon seem to be coming back to haunt and torment their architects. Day after day, the Siniora government is finding out that quelling al-Qa‘ida'soperational presence is a difficult task. As events in Iraq and Afghanistan show, such groups are tenacious foes. They have proven themselves to be extremely resilient, highly adaptable to different environments and capable of keeping pace with rapidly changing circumstances. The genie of al-Qa‘ida-inspired salafism has come out of the bottle in Lebanon, and it will be very difficult to put it back. The last thing that Lebanon's delicate social and political fabric needs is to be on the verge of plunging once again into the dangerous quicksand of another civil war.