Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Profile #1: Fatah al-Islam

Today's news that Fatah al-Islam took credit for a deadly bomb blast that killed a government troop in Northern Lebanon last week (Al Jazeera has the story) is a scary reminder about this newish and hot-headed militant faction. While Hezbollah, the Shiite militants backed by Iran and Syria, has everybody tweaked out, it's actually Fatah al-Islam that's willing to upset the urgent political compromise that cooled sectarian violence and political tensions in Lebanon last month. (Hezbollah, in fact, is invested in the political truce.)

Fatah al-Islam, a militant Sunni group based in the Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr el-Bared in Northern Lebanon, first grabbed my attention a few weeks ago when a spooky passage about them showed up in this NYT primer on the shaky situation in Lebanon:

Lebanese political leaders have tried hard to avoid stirring sectarian sentiment, emphasizing the religious diversity of both the governing coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition movement. In a speech delivered the day before Hezbollah supporters seized the capital, the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, went out of his way to deny that Sunni-Shiite tensions were an issue.

But after Hezbollah supporters humiliated Lebanon’s main Sunni political leader, Saad Hariri — crushing his weak militia, forcing his party’s television station off the air and burning two of his movement’s buildings — many of Mr. Hariri’s supporters were enraged, and they said they would look to another Sunni leader who would help them fight back.

That sentiment has stirred fears that moderate, secular Sunni leaders like Mr. Hariri could lose ground to more radical figures, including the jihadists who thrive in Lebanon’s teeming Palestinian refugee camps. Fatah al Islam, the radical group that fought a bloody three-month battle with the Lebanese Army in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year, issued a statement Thursday condemning Hezbollah’s actions. The group also gave a warning: “He who pushes our faces in the dirt must be confronted, even if that means sacrificing our lives and shedding blood.”

Fatah al-Islam was founded in 2006 by Shakir Al-Abisi. In the 1980s and '90s, Abisi was a member of a secular Palestinian militant group with Libyan and Syrian ties called Fatah al-Intifida. Abisi went to fight in Iraq alongside al Qaeda insurgents in 2003 allying himself with Qeada leader al-Zarqawi. Fleeing murder charges, Abisi left Iraq in 2004, bringing al Qaeda's religious fervor back to the Fatah group, which was now based in Northern Lebanon. Here, around Northern Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, Abisi organized young militants who had also fought in Iraq and created a Qaeda-inspired faction within Fatah al-Intifada.

Angry that Fatah al-Intifada had turned over two members of his militant faction to the Lebanese army, Abisi officially split off to form Fatah al-Islam in November 2006.

The armed Sunni group, about 150 strong now—mostly Syrians, Saudis, and radicalized Lebanese Sunnis—operates out of Nahr el-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp near the Lebanese city of Tripoli, and advocates bringing Lebanon's Palestinian camps under Sharia rule. Abisi claims allegiance with al Qaeda according to this March 2007 International Herald Tribune profile on Fatah al-Islam.

"We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn't it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?" said Abssi. "It is our right to hit them in their homes the same as they hit us in our homes."

"Originally, the killing of innocents and children was forbidden," Abssi said. "However, there are situations in which the killing of such is permissible. One of these exceptions is those that kill our women and children."

"Osama bin Laden does make the Fatwas," Abssi said, using the Arabic word for Islamic legal pronouncements. "Should his Fatwas follow the Sunnah," or Islamic law, he said, "we will carry them out."

A bank robbery near Tripoli in May, 2007, led Lebanese authorities to Fatah al-Islam and ultimately drew the army into a 3-month, bloody military skirmish with the group outside Nahr el-Bared. In September, the army eventually seized control of the camp. (UN rules actually prevent the Lebanese army from entering Palestinian refugee camps.)

As militant Sunnis, Fatah al-Islam are sworn enemies of the Lebanon's dominant power broker, Hezbollah, which operates out of Southern Lebanon. Both groups reject Lebanon's secular government—although Hezbollah is actually part of the current governing coalition. And although Hezbollah is in the minority, they did secure veto power after flexing military muscle in street battles last month.

Despite Fatah al-Islam's apparent connections to al Qaeda, conspiracy theories hold that the U.S. supports the group because it represents a challenge to Hezbollah and in turn, a challenge to Iran and Syria. However, conspiracy theories also tie the group to Syria because of Fatah al-Intifada's connections to Syria.

Given Lebanon's unruly mix of competing political factions—secular Sunnis (represented by the anti-Syrian, governing majority Future Movement party), Hezbollah, Druse (a Socialistic-y secular Islamic faction), Maronite Christians, religioius Sunnis—along with outside pupeteers like Syria, Iran, and Sunni Saudi Arabia—I don't see Fatah al-Islam as a rising political power.

But given their brazen attack on the army in Northern Lebanon last week (Lebanon's mixed identity army is viewed as a stabilizing force of legitimacy in Lebanon), and given their cocky fax claiming credit, I do think Fatah al-Islam is a dangerous wild card in this al Qaeda-age Middle East.

Here's a helpful Wikipedia entry on Fatah al-Islam.

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