They came into Lebanon last summer when the world was watching Israel smash this small nation in a vain attempt to destroy the Hizbollah. But the men who set up their grubby little office in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, some of them fighters from the Iraq war, others from Yemen, Syria or Lebanon itself, were far more dangerous than America and Israel believed the Hizbollah to be. They had come, they told the few journalists who bothered to seek them out “to liberate” Jerusalem because “to free our territory is a sacred duty inscribed in the Koran”.
That the men of Fatah al-Islam should believe that the road to Jerusalem lay through the Lebanese city of Tripoli and might be gained by killing almost 30 Lebanese soldiers – many of them Sunni Muslims like themselves, four of whom it now emerges had their heads cut off – was one of the weirder manifestations of an organisation which, while it denies being part of al-Qa’ida, is clearly sympathetic to the “brothers” who serve the ideas of Osama bin Laden.
Last night their gunmen in Nahr el-Bared offered a ceasefire to the Lebanese troops surrounding them after doctors had pleaded for a truce in which the dead and wounded could be cleared from the streets. It was an equally odd idea from a group which only 24 hours earlier had promised to open the “gates of hell” all over Lebanon and “shoot to the last bullet” if the army did not halt its fire. The nature of their politics, however, is less sinister than their savagery. At least two, it now transpires, blew themselves up with explosive belts in Tripoli on Sunday after taking civilians hostage.
One survivor recalled that a dying member of Fatah-al-Islam spent his last moments reading to him from the Koran.
The organisation – we still do not know if they have 300 armed men at their disposal – clearly took some inspiration from the famous declaration of al-Qa’ida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri that Palestine was close to Iraq and that thus “warriors should take their holy war to the frontiers of Palestine”. One of those frontiers, of course, is the Lebanese-Israeli border. Chaker al-Absi told Lebanese journalists last year that his movement “was founded on the Koran and holy law” and that it was a “reformist movement created to bring an end to corruption and to brandish in the sky over Jerusalem the banner which says ‘There is only one God but God’.”
And he added that “we are neither allied to a regime or any group existing on this earth.” Absi, it should be added, is wanted in Jordan for the murder of an American diplomat. No less a figure than Omar al-Bakri – deported from Britain more than a year ago – has described Fatah al-Islam as “well and truly Syria’s winning card”.
If it is, then Syria will have some work explaining how the group also announced its responsibility for two bombings in Beirut at the weekend, one of which killed a middle-aged Christian woman. The Lebanese army suspect that it also placed bombs on buses in the Christian district of Ain Alak earlier this year.
But why Tripoli? And why now? Well, of course there’s the imminent United Nations tribunal into who killed ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Was it Syria? But reports in Lebanon become more dramatic the more they are repeated; that Fatah al-Islam is funded by Bin Laden’s two sons, Saad and Mohamed; that two of the gunmen killed in Tripoli were brothers of a Lebanese man from Akkar – also in the north of Lebanon – who was arrested in Germany last year for allegedly plotting to put bombs on railway trains; that the Tripoli dead also included a Bangladeshi and a Yemeni.
Certainly, we know that one of the dead – possibly two – are sons of a 60-year-old Lebanese man from Sidon, Darwish Haity. He is aware that his son Ahmad is dead and fears that Mahmoud Haity was also among those who fought to the death in the Tripoli apartment blocks. “My children are not like that,” the father was quoted as saying. “Fatah al-Islam fooled them and turned them into criminals.” Ahmad Haity was a married father of three.
Sidon itself is home to the largest camp in Lebanon, Ein el-Helweh, from where at least 20 Palestinians set off to be suicide bombers against US troops in Iraq. One Tripoli Sunni Muslim movement boasts that it sent “at least” 300. And Ein el-Helweh boasts a set of tiny Islamic groups like Issbat al-Anssar which broke apart when its leadership founded Issbat al-Noor – “The Community of Illumination” – whose chief was assassinated, supposedly by a PLO faction.
If these internecine Palestinian disputes appear tiresome, it should be remembered that many have their origins in the Lebanese civil war, when Arafat’s PLO fought on the Muslim side against Christian Maronite militia.
When Lebanese troops arrested Moamar Abdullah al-Awami, a Yemeni, in Sidon in 2003 and accused him of plotting to blow up a McDonald’s restaurant, Awami – who used the nom de guerre “Ibn al-Shaheed” (son of the martyr) – claimed to have met three al-Qa’ida operatives in Ein el-Helweh. Several Lebanese fundamentalists involved in a battle against the Lebanese army in 2000 at Sir el-Dinniye, joined a Palestinian group known as Jund al-Shams (Soldier of Damascus) whose leader, Mohamed Sharqiye, arrived in Sidon 10 years ago – and here the story comes full circle – from the same Nahr el-Bared camp where Fatah el-Islam was established in the summer of last year.
It is too simple to claim that this is Syria’s work. Syria may have an interest is watching this destabilisation, even – through its security networks – assisting these groups with logistics. But other organisations might have found common interest; the Iraqi insurgents, for example, even the Taliban, perhaps equally small groups in the Palestinian occupied territories. That’s how these things work in the Middle East, where there is no such thing as responsibility – only a commonality of interests. Perhaps the Americans might have learnt something about this if they had not two years ago insulted the Syrians for allowing fighters into Iraq – at which point, the Syrians halted all military and intelligence co-operation with the US.
Interviewed earlier this year, another of Fatah al-Islam’s leaders who called himself “Abu Mouayed”, insisted that “we are not in contact with other Islamists… we are not at the point of recruiting fighters, but those who want to work with us and struggle against the Jews are welcome”. He also threatened to attack the enlarged UN force in southern Lebanon which is run by four Nato generals. At the time, the PLO’s officials in Nahr el-Bared claimed that they were “keeping their eye” on Fatah al-Islam. But sometime in the last two months, their gaze clearly wandered.
The army and the Internal Security Force – a mild version of a paramilitary police unit – appear to have caught 11 of the gunmen before they could kill themselves and they are now under interrogation (a process that is definitely not going to be mild, although one of the men was seriously wounded). Photographers managed to catch pictures of one of the captured men as he was grabbed by soldiers after one of their comrades had been killed. But is it likely that these fierce – vicious – warriors are going to talk when they were all prepared to die?
The army, too, has its feelings. About half of their dead appear to be Sunni Muslims, and many of them come from northern Lebanon.
This is a part of the country where revenge killings have often been a feature of social anger and once the battles at Nahr al-Bared are over, there will be families desperate to make up for the loss of husbands and sons, especially those who were done to death so cruelly. Back at Sir el-Dinniye in 2000, there were no revenge deaths after 11 soldiers were killed. But some of the gunmen who killed them seven years ago are now themselves – and here we go full circle again – in the Ein el-Helweh camp in Sidon.
The PLO’s Fatah movement has called its namesake “a gang of criminals” – a wise precaution given the suppressed fury of the Lebanese that the Palestinians allowed the group to be created in the northern refugee camp. In Ein el-Helweh, the PLO are on the streets, ensuring that there is no recurrence, although one Palestinian Islamist did open fire into the air on Monday in anger at the death of his “brothers” who are fighting the army.
If the siege of Nahr el-Bared continues, however, it may not be so easy to control the Palestinian groups in Beirut and in the south of Lebanon. And then the Lebanese army – which is all that stands between peace and anarchy here – will be even further stretched.
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