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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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