This article is a follow up to two studies by the authors on al Qaeda in Lebanon entitled “Securing Lebanon from the Threat of Salafist Jihadism” and “Al Qaeda’s Terrorist Threat to UNIFIL”.
Fatah al Islam is defeated; well at least its core group is. Not only were an estimated 319 lives lost (42 of them civilian), but also a 105-day siege of the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared by the Lebanese army, and a brutal destruction of that camp — the first attack on a Palestinian camp in Lebanon by the Lebanese army since May 1973 – were needed to crush the terrorist group.
The battle for Nahr el-Bared was, as a number of analysts concurred, a battle for Lebanon’s future as a sovereign nation rather than a fight against a ragtag Islamist militia. No thanks to its political leadership, Lebanon won the battle. In the aftermath, a number of questions continue to be raised. We attempt to answer one of the most critical ones: to what extent was Fatah al Islam a spillover effect from the neighboring Iraq conflict?
IRAQ AND NAHR AL BARED
More than three months after its demise, Fatah al Islam’s story is still shrouded in mystery. The group started as a Palestinian entity supporting the struggle for the liberation of Palestine while at the same time spreading a certain Islamic message. Infiltration of extremists (many of whom were Arab fighters who fled Iraq because of sectarian infighting) into the organization’s leadership and shura committee radicalized Fatah al Islam and transformed it into an al Qaeda -like entity. Fatah al Islam gradually morphed into a formidable local terrorist network that had an ambitious agenda which fit neatly in al Qaeda’s manifesto and global insurgency.
Early members who formulated Fatah al Islam’s basic principles and initial mission statement saw the forced changes as a coup within the group. Of those members was the son in law of leader Shaker al Abssi, nicknamed Abu Laith, who left Nahr al Bared with Abdel Rahman al Shami due to his strong disagreements with the extremists. He was later killed by Syrian intelligence officers as he was crossing the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Abu Midyan, the commander of the cell which was behind the double attack on a bus in the mountains of Ein Alak in March 2006, also had reservations about the transformation. After relinquishing his military responsibilities in the leadership council, Abu Midyan refused to participate in the confrontations with the Lebanese army. On the third day of the battle, as he was pulling some of the dead bodies out of the debris at the northern entrance of the camp, he suffered from a direct hit which instantly killed him. Before his death, Abu Midyan had confessed to a sheikh that “[his group] came at the wrong time, and that [their] real battle was with Israel, but the July War of 2006 prevented that, which forced [them] to meet in Nahr al Bared and agree on different objectives.” But what were these objectives and how did they come about? The real story of Fatah al Islam actually starts in Iraq.
When a group of young Arabs (mostly Palestinians and Syrians) fighting the US forces in Iraq saw themselves in grave danger as a result of the Sunni-Shia sectarian rift there, they decided to leave the Iraqi battlefield. A large number of them, led by Abu Midyan, returned to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Syria before they were chased down by Syrian intelligence. Faced with Syrian intransigence toward their stay in the camp, Abu Midyan, his family and a number of loyal fighters transferred to the camp of Shatila in Lebanon where they joined Shaker al Abssi (an old friend from Yarmouk) under the umbrella of Fatah al Intifada. In Shatila, Abu Midyan recruited large numbers of poor and unemployed Syrians and Palestinians. In a couple of months, Fatah al Intifada’s expansion began to elicit concerns of rival groups as well as the Lebanese military intelligence services. Fearing the repercussions of such expansion on the survival of the group, senior officers inside Fatah al Intifada warned Shaker al Abssi, their leader, and advised him to reverse the trend. Abssi did not listen.
As the war between Hizb’allah and Israel began on July 14, 2006, Abssi and his now 400-500 fighters transferred from the Shatila camp to those of Baddawi and Nahr al Bared in the North. Residents of the two northern camps were quite surprised by the arrival of scores of foreign faces who were all of a sudden living in their neighborhoods and praying in their mosques. When asked where they came from, the fighters answered: “we come from the Shatila camp and our leader god bless his soul is Shaker al Abssi.”
The name of Fatah al Islam came as a result of the split between al Abssi and senior leaders of Fatah al Intifada. Feeling betrayed by Fatah al Intifada after its senior leaders handed over two of his men to the Lebanese military intelligence, Al Abssi left his former group and formed what became known as Fatah al Islam. The leaders of Fatah al Intifada were never comfortable with the advent of foreign fighters who had Islamist and jihadist inclinations and were happy to let two of them go after a security incident in Baddawi in which two of al Abssi’s men were involved.
The initial mission statement of Fatah al Islam lacked any takfiri or salafist jihadist ideology. Instead it called for the Islamization of the Palestinian cause and to rid it of any signs of corruption and vices. Soon after its creation, Fatah al Islam moved on to occupy the bases of Fatah al Intifada in Nahr al Bared where resistance there was almost negligible (Fatah al Intifada’s main power lied in Baddawi). Now that it had a safe haven, Fatah al Islam was able to move freely inside the camp and plan its operations with no worry in mind.
Now that his group was based in a camp resided by Palestinian refugees, al Abssi’s first objective was to avoid any frictions with the local populace and win their support instead. To present his group as another Palestinian entity of Nahr al Bared, al Abssi reached out to weapons dealer and influential camp resident Nasser Ismail to ask him to join Fatah al Islam. With many Palestinian factions inside Nahr al Bared already calling on al Abssi and his men to vacate the bases they had occupied, al Abssi sought to counter that by recruiting Ismail who had considerable clout and leverage over these factions. At this stage, the still pragmatic leadership of Fatah al Islam consisted of Palestinians and Syrians, namely al Abssi, his son in law Abu Laith, Abu Midyan, Abu Yazn, Abu Bakr, and Abu Salim Taha who accompanied al Abssi from Syria to Lebanon and became the group’s official spokesperson. When Abu Hureira, a former member of Osbat al Ansar in the camp of Ein el Helweh who later switched to the more radicalized Jund al Sham joined (after Ismail convinced him to join), he exerted an extremist-takfiri influence on the whole group.
RADICALIZATION AND FACTIONALISM INSIDE FATAH AL ISLAM
Abu Hureira did not come alone to Fatah al Islam as he brought with him dozens of loyal Lebanese fighters from Ein el Helweh who belonged to Jund al Sham, including Naim Ghali (Abu Riyadh) and Walid Bustani who led the cell of Qalamoun. Abu Hureira’s band of fighters was forcibly changing the habits and traditions of Nahr al Bared, which ultimately caused the local populace to distance itself from Fatah al Islam and sometimes revolt against its leaders. Residents of Nahr al Bared, the majority of which are secular Palestinians, were totally against being subjected to extremist versions of Islam. Faced with this ordeal, a large number of refugees decided to move to the neighboring camp of Baddawi.
Abu Hureira’s mistreatment of and frictions with the local populace upset the leadership council of Fatah al Islam. Abu Midyan was often heard yelling at Abu Hureira and telling him that “[they] came to the camp to relate to the people and win their support, not to scare them off.” But al Abssi was hesitant to forcefully intervene for fear of causing any major splits within his group and of losing the logistical and military support of Abu Hureira and his men.
The radicalization process of Fatah al Islam was almost complete with the advent of a Saudi Sheikh by the name of Abu al Hareth who presided over its shura council. A strong ally of Osama bin Laden and a senior member of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Abu al Hareth had an extensive network of extremist fighters in Iraq and the Saudi Kingdom. With Abu al Hareth and the Arab fighters he called upon from the Iraqi battlefield, Fatah al Islam transformed from a hierarchical group of mostly Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese supposedly with a mission of supporting the Palestinian cause (irrespective how they intended to carry out that mission) to a decentralized salafist jihadist network of semi-autonomous cells made up of Arab fighters who had in mind turning Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, to an Islamic emirate.
This organizational structure of independent cells allowed many of the cells’ leaders to carry out extremely provocative and counterproductive attacks. The battle of Nahr al Bared actually started when a cell led by Abu Hureira attacked on May 20 a Lebanese army outpost near Tripoli and beheaded most of its soldiers. That incident was enough to trigger the army’s response and counter-offensive. The call to attack the army was made unilaterally by Abu Hureira, who had very strong feelings against the Lebanese military institution and who also wanted to divert the attention of the army away from the mi’atayan street in Tripoli, where a number of Fatah al Islam senior leaders were meeting in an apartment compound. It was also Abu Hureira who, in response to the army’s bombardment of Nahr al Bared with heavy artillery, threatened the Lebanese authorities to “open the battle of Tripoli” and “burn all the city and whoever is in it”. On the night of May 20, Shaker al Abssi woke up to the sound of army shelling as he had no idea of what Abu Hureira had just done.
Attempts to reach an early compromise with the Lebanese army failed due largely to Abu Hureira’s and other extremists’ categorical refusal to negotiate with the ‘crusader army’. This situation led al Abssi to openly declare to the shura council and a number of mediators who eventually entered the camp that “[they] were forced to wage a battle [they] did not want and [that] there had to be a peaceful solution to it”. Disagreements and factionalism within Fatah al Islam continued throughout the battle with the Lebanese army leading to lack of coordination and miscommunication amongst its members and ultimately to the group’s downfall.
Seven conclusions and observations can be drawn from the battle of Nahr al Bared that can more broadly shed light on al Qaeda and the global war on terrorism:
- Despite Fatah al Islam’s Islamist appeal and repeated calls for support throughout its battle with the Lebanese army, not one major salafist jihadist group in Lebanon headed its call. Osbat al Ansar, Jund al Sham (who have now re-merged with Osbat al Ansar), the Qarun group, the Arqoub group, and the Majdal Anjar group remained fairly silent and distanced themselves from the battle. For these groups and others, the battle that Fatah al Islam was waging was the wrong one. The jihadist compass, according to these groups’ leaders, was to be set South (against Israel) not North. This experience solidifies the authors’ earlier conclusion put forth in a study entitled “Securing Lebanon from the Threat of Salafist Jihadism” in which they argued that salafist jihadist entities in Lebanon are not united under a single umbrella or organization, instead they have dissimilar agendas and are relatively small and clandestine semi-autonomous entities with informal organizational structures. Each is more concerned about its own survival than about waging an offensive jihad against “infidels.”
- The battle against Fatah al Islam underscores the argument (also made in the above-mentioned study) that the salafist jihadist phenomenon in Lebanon is not purely a Palestinian phenomenon. Lebanese make a sizable part of the salafist jihadist movement in Lebanon, as evidenced by the high number of Lebanese cells operating in Tripoli, Akkar, al Koura and other northern regions.
- Fatah al Islam was not a mechanical creation of Syrian intelligence. While Syria did not prevent large transfers of Arab fighters from Iraq to Lebanon, via Syrian territories, it did not play a major role in arming or financing Fatah al Islam.
- Fatah al Islam could not have survived or accomplished any of its initial or later goals if it had not benefited from the large influx of Arab fighters from Iraq and from the financial support of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. In that sense, Fatah al Islam, as Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack — authors of “Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War” — would argue is a manifestation of spillover from the conflict in Iraq.
- It is very interesting to note that throughout the battle, neither Osama bin Laden nor Ayman al Zawahiri issued a statement supporting Fatah al Islam or endorsing its insurgency. This raises a number of important questions: does al Qaeda only support winners? Why did al Zawahiri praise the attack against UNIFIL on June 24, 2007 but remain silent on Fatah al Islam? Is it because al Qaeda’s senior leadership, mostly based in western Pakistan, is more inclined to support successful terrorist acts as opposed to reckless jihadist enterprises?
- UNIFIL, as argued in an earlier study by the authors entitled “Al Qaeda’s Terrorist Threat to UNIFIL”, remains highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks (as evidenced in the attack against the Spanish contingent on June 24, 2007). The international force is still working with a number of major handicaps most important of which are a lack of good intelligence and force protection measures.
- The failure of the jihadist project of Fatah al Islam raises a critical point on terrorist organizational structures. Fatah al Islam morphed from a hierarchical group to a network of semi-autonomous cells. To what extent did that transformation contribute to its ultimate downfall? What does organizational structure say about the effectiveness and survivability of a terrorist enterprise?
[T]o sustain an uprising ... [Palestinian protests] have to be driven by political organization. [Instead,] Palestinian politics is in a state of disarray.