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.