Once again, summer has made an early and scorching return to Lebanon.
The clashes at Nahr al Bared between elements of the Lebanese army and the Sunni extremist group, Fatah al Islam, raging in north Tripoli – the Sunni base in the north – send an alarming message that portends various forms of conflict that could unfold in Lebanon.
But first, let us reconstruct the latest events:
Fatah al Islam is a fundamentalist Muslim breakaway faction of Fatah al Intifada (Fatah Uprising) group, which in turn had originally split from the main Fatah Movement. Fatal al Intifada is a pro-Syrian group and its Secretary-General, Abu Khalid [al ‘Umla], is based in Damascus.
Fatah al Islam [faction emerged in November 2006 when it split from Fatah al-Intifada] is led by Shakir al Abssi who was formerly in the leadership of Fatah al-Intifada but who split from the group to form Fatah al Islam. The aim of the group, according to al Abssi who was interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat’s Sawsan al Atbah in Tripoli at his Nahr al Bared camp base, is to prepare the people to raise the banner of Islam, implement Shariah law in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and to liberate Jerusalem from the Jews.
Heedless of the Sykes-Picot Agreement’s boundaries, Al Abssi attaches no significance to the fact that he is operating in a foreign country, Lebanon, as all Muslim countries belong to him. In Asharq Al-Awsat’s March 1st issue of this year, al Abssi stated that he receives volunteers who are neither Palestinian nor Lebanese. It is worth pointing out that the ‘seven-cell’ organization members arrested recently in Saudi Arabia have received training in Lebanon!
Al Abssi entered the Nahr al Bared camp, which has a population of 40,000, and seized the position of the mother organization, Fatah al Intifada, applied the Islamic Shariah law, and started preparing for the liberation of Jerusalem. It started out by robbing the Mediterranean Bank, igniting confrontation with the army, which followed in hot pursuit until it located a flat in Tripoli’s Mitein Street that was crammed with arms last Sunday. Then the ongoing clash flared up.
And here lies Lebanon, embroiled in yet another conflict, the boundaries of Nahr al Bared camp have become a front for the clashes between the army and militants from the al Qaeda-connected terrorist group. The reference to al Qaeda is not mine but rather Omar Bakri’s; the fundamentalist icon who left London to live in Tripoli.
Like any other event in Lebanon, the battle between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army was appropriated and used in the country’s political showdown where accusations are hurled from all sides. General Aoun was quick to accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the arms belonging to the Palestinian and fundamentalist groups while keeping sharp focus on Hezbollah’s arms. Meanwhile, advocates of the opposite camp responded by reminding them of the link between Shakir al Abssi and his group to the Syrian regime. Al Abssi was the man Syria refused to hand over to Jordan after he was accused by the latter of plotting and participating of the assassination of American diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman (October 2002), in collaboration with Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Furthermore, that same camp stressed the Syrian agencies’ early penetration of the Palestinian camps in the north where Yasser Arafat was expelled during the Lebanese civil war and pointed out how it was then taken over by the pro-Syrian group following Ahmad Jibreel and Fatah al Intifada.
As such, it is the Syrian regime that knows the camps in the north all too well, in addition to being the party that benefits from manipulating the fundamentalist group and sabotaging the situation for Siniora’s government and the 14 March Coalition Forces in Lebanon. This comes at a time when the setting up of the tribunal [for the assassination of Rafik Hariri] draws close and after Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in a telephone call with Ban Ki-moon, threatened to set the area between the Caspian sea and the Mediterranean sea on fire if it [the United Nations] proceeded in establishing a tribunal – or so say the Syrian regime’s opponents in Lebanon. They also pointed out al Assad’s warning against the al Qaeda influx into Lebanon. The opposing camp, however, believe that it is the US who is responsible for spreading the ‘creative chaos’ and the one benefiting from this tension, and that Syria is fighting al Qaeda.
Regardless, one cannot overlook the overlap between the imminent setting up of an international tribunal and the Syrian regime’s apprehension about it, in addition to Shakir al Abssi’s history with the Syrian-backed Fatah al Intifada and the events taking place in Syria these days.
All this, however, should not render us blind to the fact that the militant Salafist ideology in Lebanon operates according to its own logic and has its own maneuvers and that many people in Lebanon – not just in the Palestinian camps of frustration and anger – believe in al Qaeda’s ideology and project (suffice it to recall that 9/11 culprit Ziad al Jarrah was a Lebanese from al Marj town in the town of Barce, also known Barca, who came from a wealthy family).
Below is a timeline of some fundamentalist Sunni acts of violence committed in Lebanon:
January 2000 – The Dinniyeh Group
After the Lebanese army received information from the intelligence unit in Tripoli that a group of gunmen who had set camp were training in the use of machine guns, medium guns and shoulder-held missiles, the Lebanese army engaged in an armed battle with a ‘terrorist group,’ according to the Lebanese prosecution, of Salafist youths from Tripoli in northern Lebanon’s mountainous Dinniyeh district. The group was led by Bassam Kanj, also known as Abu Aisha, who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Kanj was associated with, in addition to being an admirer of Bin Laden.
Abu Aisha and his group were determined to “arm and train well with the intention of going into battle with the Lebanese authority and army for a short duration of time. They were counting on splitting up the army so as to help rid it of the ‘infidel regime’ and to establish a fundamentalist regime in Lebanon after which they would appoint a Muslim caliph. As such, it would be the start of launching the Islamic state project trajectory in the region, and the rest of the regimes would follow and fall one after the other.”
The battles with the Dinniyeh Group lasted six days, 11 Lebanese troops and 16 gunmen, including Bassam Abu Aisha, were killed. Meanwhile, Ahmad Abdul Karim al Saadi, also known as Abu Mohjen, the Palestinian leader of the fundamentalist group Osbat al Ansar, fled to Ain al Hilweh camp in the south.
Summer 2000 – Kamal al Din Group
The Lebanese law enforcement agencies cracked down on a nine-member network led by the Egyptian, Ayman Kamal al Din, who was in possession of arms and explosives that he was attempting to smuggle though his luggage. The Intelligence found that they were trying to smuggle the weapons into Syria via Jordan. The detainees, most significantly their leader, admitted to being members of al Qaeda.
Autumn 2002 – Muhammad Sultan Group
During autumn 2002, the Lebanese prosecution announced the arrest of a group of four led by Lebanese Muhammad Sultan, including a Saudi national, over their attempt to form an al Qaeda network nucleus in Lebanon.
April 2003 – Ibn al Shaheed’s Group
Several people were injured in the bombing of a McDonald’s chain restaurant in the Dora district in Beirut. A car bomb was discovered and dismantled in front of McDonald’s. The police revealed that it belonged to one Khalid al Ali, also known as Abu Dusham, who was later found to be the mastermind of all the bombing operations.
This was followed by the discovery that Ibn al Shaheed Abdullah al Awami, a Yemeni who fought in Bosnia, had come to Lebanon to establish a Jihadi group. Ibn al Shaheed was based in Ain al Hilweh camp where he coordinated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
There were other ‘Lebanese’ terrorist groups such as Salih al Jama’s group and Ahmad al Miqati’s cell (Asharq Al-Awsat, October 8, 2004). This is not to mention Osbat al Ansar and Jund al Sham, which are Palestinian terrorist fundamentalist groups.
Naturally, in a complicated situation such as that of Lebanon where only half, or a little more, of the people recognize the government, while the camps remained armed (Palestinian camps are unarmed in Syria and Jordan!) and in light of the threat to the stability in the region and the Iranian-Syrian tension – Lebanon has become a favorable environment for the activities of the militant fundamentalist groups.
One must not neglect the fact that in his July 2006 remark on the Hezbollah-Israel war and the war in Gaza, Ayman al Zawahiri called for military action in Lebanon in an attempt to lend an al Qaeda character to the events unfolding there.
Unlike what is held by many Lebanese, Lebanon is not a peaceful country who’s nature does not suit al Qaeda’s political and social structure, neither is it true that it is invincible against the militant Salafist ideology. I heard many Lebanese mock the possibility of al Qaeda’s presence in the ‘pluralistic’ Lebanon. However, I believe that what happened and is happening in Tripoli at the hands of Fatah al Islam has shocked many.
But before Fatah al Islam’s story, many alarm bells had sounded.
Owning to many considerations and proofs, I cannot believe that the Syrian regime has no hand, whether directly or indirectly, in the recent chaos in one way or another. However, one key point has to be stressed: the antagonism between the authority ‘team’ and the Damascus regime must not shut its eyes to the fact that the danger of terrorism and the militarization of Islam is a real and independent danger that has its own internal operators. Yes, it converges with the interest of Syria or others, but the time may come when it clashes with the Syrian regime itself.
The point is that the Syrian regime is not solely to blame. That regime believes that it can play the card of religious instigation for short-term political gains – an illusion suffered by many countries – until the conspiracy turned against the conspirators.
The danger posed by religious Sunni terrorism in Lebanon is a grave matter. It is probably still at its early stages, but it has the distinctive characteristic of being complicated and interlaced with the Palestinian issue.
And so, can the Lebanese government and army strike the entrenched group in Nahr al Bared camp without being accused of perpetrating yet another Sabra and Shatila massacre?! It is a tough mission. The Lebanese government has to uproot this dangerous nucleus whilst simultaneously avoiding implication in the spilling of Palestinian blood, which may be, truly or erroneously, taken against it to further exacerbate the situation. Then the authority of the army, or what remains of it, will be in serious trouble.
What can be done? Indeed, it is perplexing.
Oh, and I forgot to welcome to the Lebanese summer season: This time the show will come from the Sunni north rather than the Shia south.