Is Lebanon facing a 'new breed' of Al Qaeda?
Little is known about Fatah al-Islam, but experts say it is similar to other militant groups inspired by Osama bin Laden.
Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp, Lebanon
As the fight between Islamic militants Fatah al-Islam and Lebanese forces entered its fourth day Wednesday – with a cease-fire holding just long enough to allow many civilians to flee – little is known about the group that says it refuses to surrender.
Some observers say that the 200-300 fighters holed up inside Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, and seemingly preparing for a protracted battle with Lebanon's Army, are adherents of Osama bin Laden, part of a new generation of extremists tied to Al Qaeda.
But many of Lebanon's leading anti-Syrian politicians charge that this faction is little more than a tool of Syrian intelligence planted in Lebanon to wreak havoc and further destabilize the Western-backed government in Beirut.
"Either way, this group is Al Qaeda," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "Whoever supports this group does not detract from the fact that their ideology is Al Qaeda."
She adds that Fatah al-Islam is an example of the "new breed" of Al Qaeda, similar to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was made famous by its first leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before his death a year ago. "They are much more localized in aims and makeup like Al Qaeda in Iraq," she says.
Syria has denied any involvement with the group, arguing that it faces threats of its own from home-grown jihadi militants. There have been several shootouts and attacks in the past three years, including one on the US Embassy in Damascus, by suspected Islamic militants.
"Our forces have been after them, even through Interpol," Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, said earlier this week. "We reject this organization. It does not serve the Palestinian cause, and it is not after liberating Palestine."
Still, the violent politics and shifting alliances and interests of the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows.
Many analysts say there is little doubt that although the Syrian regime is nominally secular, its intelligence services for years have exploited militant Islamic extremists to serve their own purposes.
"Syrian intelligence sent hundreds if not thousands of innocent-minded young men to Iraq to struggle against the Americans," says Radwan al-Sayyed, a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University and adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "They tried to make an Islamist International in Iraq, like the Arabs and Americans did against the Soviets in Afghanistan."
Fatah al-Islam first arrived in Lebanon a year ago, setting up positions in the Nahr al-Bared camp, home to more than 30,000 refugees and located on the coast 10 miles south of the border with Syria.
They claimed to have split from the pro-Syrian Palestinian faction Fatah al-Intifada, which is headquartered in Damascus. Palestinians fleeing the fighting of the past three days, which has killed at least 69 people, say the group is composed of several nationalities, including Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis, and Iraqis. Lebanese sympathizers as well as Palestinians Islamic militants from refugee camps in Beirut and the south are believed to have helped swell their ranks.
The group is led by Shaker al-Absi, a veteran Palestinian guerrilla fighter who originally trained in the Syrian Air Force and allegedly fought with Mr. Zarqawi in Iraq. The Jordanian authorities sentenced Mr. Absi to death in absentia in 2004 for the killing of an American diplomat in Amman. At the time, he was serving a three year jail sentence in Syria, but Damascus refused to extradite Absi to Jordan. He was released last year and his arrival in Lebanon coincided with the issuance of another arrest warrant for him by the Syrian authorities.
Absi has said that Fatah al-Islam "wishes to fight no one but Israel" but has made veiled threats against the 13,000 UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon.
The Lebanese government has blamed deadly twin bus bombings and a string of bank robberies on the group.
Ghazi Aridi, the Lebanese information minister, described Fatah al-Islam as a "terrorist phenomenon that is alien to the values and nature of the Palestinian people."
Sheikh Mohammed Meri, a Palestinian cleric from Nahr al-Bared, said the militants were a "virus."
"Whoever is behind this group has put a virus in our hearts," he said, standing outside the camp entrance as fleeing refugees left in packed vehicles. "But our immunity is greater than this virus."
Still, although the Palestinian residents of Nahr al-Bared say they have little sympathy for the group, the heavy civilian casualty toll and seemingly indiscriminate shelling of the camp by the Lebanese Army is causing an uproar among Lebanon's Palestinian population.
The leaders of all the Palestinian factions have sided with the Lebanese government in tackling Fatah al-Islam, viewing the group as a threat to Palestinian stability. But Sultan Abul Aynayn, the head of the mainstream Fatah faction in Lebanon, has warned that if the shelling continues ,there will be "uprisings in all the camps in Lebanon."
Sahaar Baasiri, writing in Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper, said, "Everybody knows that Fatah al-Islam does not represent the Palestinian people, and Palestinian mainstream factions should not hesitate to hit the militant group, which if left unchallenged by other Palestinian groups will jeopardize the security of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon."
Much like other Al Qaeda-inspired militants, the Fatah al-Islam fighters have strapped explosives and detonators to themselves and appear determined to keep fighting until the end.
Saad Ghorayeb, the analyst, warned that the environment in Lebanon and the region is conducive to the emergence of other groups that share Fatah al-Islam's militant ideology.
"If this group is wiped out, another will emerge," she says. "These small groups have the ability to breed and mutate, and are very difficult to completely crush."