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    Middle East
     May 23, 2007
Lebanon battles a new demon
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The last thing Lebanon needed was an internal war between its armed forces and clandestine cells with links to al-Qaeda. The last thing Syria needed was to be blamed for the violence.

The Lebanese are already worried - too worried - about what the future holds for them. The standoff between the March 14 Coalition and the Hezbollah-backed opposition continues, headed by US-backed Saad al-Hariri on one front and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and his Christian ally Michel Aoun on the other.

Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora refuses to step down, and

Parliament is still in recess as presidential elections approach, with no consensus on who the new president will be. The Lebanese public has barely recovered from the Israeli war on Hezbollah last summer to be confronted with internal political bickering and, now, radical military-political Islam.

On Sunday, fighting broke out at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon near Tripoli between a relatively unknown terrorist group called Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army. At least 20 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians had been killed in the fighting by Tuesday, and it was still raging.

On Monday night a bomb went off in the Christian district of Ashrafiyya in Beirut, killing one woman, followed by a deadly bomb in the Verdun district of Beirut - a posh neighborhood. On Tuesday, Fatah al-Islam militants claimed responsibility for the attacks and threatened to set Beirut "ablaze" again.

The fighting in the refugee camp is some of the bloodiest internal feuding since the 1975-90 civil war and threatens Lebanon's delicate political fabric with disintegration.

Fatah al-Islam comes out guns blazing
Fatah al-Islam, or the new al-Qaeda as some are calling it, was established last November by guerrillas who had grown disenchanted with the increasingly pro-Syrian line of Fatah al-Intifada. That in turn is a splinter group of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, founded in the 1960s in Kuwait and which currently is heading its own war against Hamas in the occupied territories.

The founder of the new group is a Palestinian named Shaker al-Abssi, who declared that it would be a jihadist group modeled after al-Qaeda and inspired by Osama bin Laden. Its stated goal is to establish Islamic law in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and eventually destroy both the United States and Israel.
Born in Jericho in 1955, Abssi joined the resistance of Arafat in the 1970s, leaving behind his medical studies to become a member of the much-praised fedayeen - the commandos of the post-1967 era. Arafat's nationalism was secular, however, and Abssi quickly lost faith in the veteran leader.

He was among the Palestinian commandos who split from Arafat's Fatah to set up base in Syria. The Syrians, however, contrary to what is coming out of the March 14 media outlets in Lebanon, did not tolerate him and he spent three years in Syrian jails, for terrorist activity.

The Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which is close to Syria, has renounced him. So have Fatah and Hezbollah. Abssi is a self-declared disciple of Abu Abdullah Mohammed al-Boukhari, a 9th-century Islamic scholar who, according to the US Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Center, is one of the 20 Islamic figures who are more influential than bin Laden.

Abssi became close to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq - and was sentenced to death in absentia with him in 2004 for the assassination in 2002 of Laurence Foley, a US diplomat in Jordan. Abssi denied any ties to the Amman killing, saying he was in jail in Syria when it occurred, but is quoted as saying, "I don't know what Foley's role was but I can say that any person that comes to our region with a military, security or political aim, then he is a legitimate target."

Abssi meanwhile had taken sanctuary in Lebanon. His fingerprints showed up in Jordan in January when police had a long battle with suspected terrorists in the city of Irbid. Jordanian authorities said the armed gunmen had been sent by Abssi to create havoc in Jordan. Since then he has remained based in the refugee camp in Lebanon where the current fighting is taking place. He claimed, "One of the reasons for choosing this camp is our belief that the people here are close to God as they feel the same suffering as our brothers in Palestine."

Recently he gave an interview to the New York Times, saying: "The only way to achieve our rights is by force. This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened, they will know that they will leave."

But somebody failed to remind Abssi on Sunday that the battle he had started was not with the United States but with the armed forces of his host country.

The Times described Abssi as having "salt-and-pepper hair", saying he gave its correspondent an interview "in a bare room inside a small cinder-block building on the edge of a field where training was under way". In the 90-minute interview, the leader of Fatah al-Islam said killing Americans in Iraq was no longer enough: the bigger goal was getting the US public to pressure its government to withdraw its troops from the Arab world. Justifying the September 11, 2001, attacks near Washington and in New York, he said: "It is our right to hit them in their homes the same as they hit us in our homes." He wrapped up saying: "We are not afraid of being named terrorists."

Abssi has threatened to strike outside Tripoli if the Lebanese Army continues its offensive against him and Fatah al-Islam. The United Nations has warned that if this happens it would mean a complete breakdown in Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam said the attacks on the refugee camp were chaotic, targeting mosques and civilians, and that food and medical equipment were badly needed.

Last December, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Fatah al-Islam planned to assassinate 36 leading figures in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have already accused the terrorist group of twin minibus bombings in February in the Ain Alaq district of Mount Lebanon. Four of those arrested for the crime confessed to being members of the group.

That attack, and other indicators of growing Sunni Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon, prove that the handwriting has been on the wall for some time. French General Alain Pelligrini, who left the UN Interim Force in Lebanon this year, said small Sunni groups affiliated with al-Qaeda were now the "No 1 danger" in Lebanon.

Clearly a radical group like Fatah al-Islam makes the situation more complicated in the overall political situation in Lebanon, which is already on the verge of explosion. It will strain security for the Siniora cabinet and give it an additional thing to blame on the Syrians.

Yet it makes no sense for Syria to support a radical political and military Islamic group in Lebanon. Abssi's record in Syrian jails is enough proof of how illogical it would be to accuse him of being on the payroll of the Syrians. Radical political Islam has been a threat to Syria ever since the republic was created in 1932. It always has been a secular regime in Damascus - at times without the Syrians even knowing it.

The Syrians will not and cannot ally themselves with political Islam. Simply put, such an alliance would backfire and result in violence within Syria, something that President Bashar al-Assad will not tolerate. That explains why the Syrians have closed their border with Lebanon over the fighting, fearing the worst.

Some want to use Fatah al-Islam's outburst as further ammunition against Damascus. Some equally want to use the incident to justify a clampdown on Islamic groups in Lebanon, either Sunni or Shi'ite.

It is always easy for the Lebanese to blame Syria. But the Lebanese government and, particularly, its army and security forces are too weak to crack down on a bunch of terrorists on their own territory.

If anybody is to blame for Fatah al-Islam, it is the Siniora government, which has tolerated it for six months, knowing perfectly well that it has existed since last November.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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Lebanon: Shadow of civil war looms again (Jan 27, '07)


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