BEIRUT, LEBANON, May 23, 2007 -- Fatah al-Islam, a radical Sunni Islamist group, has come under the spotlight this week. Lebanese officials say the group is at the center of the deadly uprisings at refugee camps. Many worry the strife could lead to all-out civil war.
So what is the Fatah al-Islam?
The group emerged in late 2006 after it split from Fatah al-Intifada, a pro-Syrian Palestinian faction that had split from Yasser Arafat's organization, Fatah. Yet Fatah al-Islam is less of a traditional Palestinian group and is very much in line with the multitude of small militant Islamist organizations that have sprung up around the Middle East since the advent of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization.
Mainstream Palestinian groups in Lebanon, such as Fatah, Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, all openly oppose Fatah al-Islam and see it as a threat to themselves and also to the stability of the country.
The Nahr Al-Bared camp, located on the outskirts of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, is the second-largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country, with more than 35,000 people living in dismal conditions. Fatah al-Islam uses the camp as its main base. Under a 1969 agreement between the Lebanese government and the PLO, brokered by the Arab League, Lebanon's army may not enter the refugee camps, which are supposed to be "self-policing."
The withdrawal of Syrian intelligence and security agents in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, left a security vacuum that Fatah al-Islam has exploited. The group's several hundred fighters are concentrated in the camp but have also established small footholds in Tripoli and other refugee camps in both Beirut and the south.
Lebanese authorities accused the group of bombing two minibuses in a Christian town in February 2006, killing three people. They also hold Fatah al-Islam members responsible for at least three bank robberies, most recently on May 19 in a coastal town south of Tripoli, after which a raid by security forces triggered the latest violence. Lebanese authorities have accused Fatah al-Islam, which is said to be ideologically inspired by the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, of working for the Syrian intelligence services. But Syria has denied any links to the group, and Fatah al-Islam has denied any involvement in the bombings, and has also denied that it is linked to al Qaeda. It in turn has accused the Beirut government of trying to pave the way for an offensive against the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which house more than half of the country's nearly 400,000 refugees.
Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian wanted by both Syria and Jordan. heads the group. In his early 50s, Abssi is said to be linked to the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006. A Jordanian military court in 2004 sentenced Abssi to death in absentia for his alleged involvement in the murder of American USAID diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002, along with six others, including Zarqawi. At the time, the charge sheet identified Abssi as a Palestinian nicknamed Abu Yussef, and said he lived in Syria. Around the time of the diplomat's death in Jordan, Abssi was jailed in Syria on charges of planning terrorist attacks inside that country. He was released in the fall, and he reportedly headed to Lebanon, where he set up base in the Nahr el-Bared camp.
Palestinian officials in the Lebanese camps have expressed mounting concern about Fatah al-Islam. According to the PLO, Fatah al-Islam has no link with the Fatah movement. Following his release from jail in Syria, Abssi was said to have lived in Damascus, where Fatah-Intifada, the Palestinian group he used to belong to, is based. That group also denies any link with Fatah al-Islam and calls Abssi a renegade from its movement. Lebanese security officials said Fatah al-Islam members come from Arab countries, and the group also includes local sympathizers who belong to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam, many of whom can be found in Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic fundamentalists.
Throughout the 55 years since its creation, Nahr el-Bared has differed from the other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Pictures of Saddam Hussein are widely posted throughout the camp, and the way Saddam Hussein was executed stirred a wave of sympathy and compassion among the refugees. This no doubt helped lead the way for the acceptance of a group like Fatah al-Islam into the camp, especially when news spread that some of its members had been with the "jihad" in Iraq. Those returning from Iraq will be far more dangerous than those who returned from Afghanistan, because they acquired their experience from confronting the American Army, which is considered to be the most professional and the best armed in the world.
Most members of Fatah al-Islam are Syrians, some are Saudis, Yemenis and Lebanese. Palestinians maybe come at the end of the list, while Lebanese security sources say Moroccans and Algerians are also members. So, why did they come to this camp? And how did their numbers grow from a handful to a few hundred fighters? These are questions that have no clear answer at the moment but need to be explained promptly before the situation gets out of hand and Lebanon does become a breeding ground for al Qaeda.