Nadine Elali

Brothers in Arms:
the IS and Fatah al-Islam

Nadine Elali investigates the relationship between the IS and Fatah al-Islam militants

A militant of Fatah al-Islam (L), an Al-Qaeda-linked Palestinian splinter group, adjusts the microphone for the group

The Islamic State’s (IS, formerly ISIS) recent statements have raised a few eyebrows; particularly ones that touch on the issue of Islamists in Roumieh prison. Sources suggest that current IS members have old ties to militant group Fatah al-Islam, which clashed with the Lebanese Army in Nahr al-Bared camp back in 2007. Back then, the group’s leader was accused of being a Syrian operative engaged in destabilizing Lebanon’s government. Today, circumstantial evidence also raises the possibility of the IS having been infiltrated by Syrian intelligence so as to gear the group’s activities towards the regime’s interests.


The formal declaration of an Islamic state by insurgents in Syria and Iraq reverberated immediately in Lebanon. Soon thereafter, the IS assigned a man identified as Abdel Salam al-Ordoni as the organization's emir, or leader, in Lebanon.


Days before this, security forces had intercepted jihadist cells at the Napoleon and Duroy Hotels in Beirut, which, according to reports, had been dispatched by ISIS to carry out suicide attacks against Hezbollah strongholds. The Islamic State claimed responsibility and has since been issuing threats to both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.


In one of its statements, the IS dedicated a song to Islamist inmates at Roumieh prison calling for their release, and set the holy month of Ramadan as a deadline past which it would use its own means to set them free, alluding to a possible attack against Lebanese armed forces.


The Islamic State and Fatah al-Islam


According to reports, Monther Khaldoun al-Hassan, a Lebanese resident from Akkar, is suspected of provisioning suicide bombers and other ISIS networks in Lebanon with suicide belts and explosives. General Security circulated a photo of Hassan, who is believed to be operating under Ordoni’s leadership. Information leaked to Lebanese media outlets suggests that Hassan is a resident of Tripoli, though it seems few Tripoli residents know him.


A Syrian man with ties to locals who have fought alongside Syrian opposition groups, currently living in Tripoli, told NOW that Hassan comes from a family of militant jihadists. His brother Moatasem, he said, was the first Lebanese to execute a suicide bombing in Syria, detonating himself at a Syrian army checkpoint in Talkalakh last year. A second brother was killed in clashes that followed the attack. Hassan’s uncle, Khaled Mahmoud, also referred to as “Abu Suleiman,” was leader of the Jund al-Sham group in Qalat al-Hosn in Talkalakh. Two other uncles fought with Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared conflict in 2007 – one is believed to be the militant who blew himself up in the Tripoli raid that paved the way for the clashes, and the other has been arrested for similar charges and is currently in Roumieh prison.


The Syrian national, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, told NOW that Hassan initially travelled to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra, but left Nusra to join ISIS under Ordoni’s leadership. Men like Hassan, he said, who travel to Syria to fight alongside opposition groups, also tend to support ISIS.


Brothers in arms: the 2003 Iraq war


Sitting outside his corner store, a middle-aged man who goes by the name Abu Mohamad observes passersby as they rush from one store to another shopping before Iftar. Somewhat reluctantly, he tells NOW that “to understand the relation between ISIS and Fatah al-Islam you need to go back in time to the [2003] Iraq war.”


Retired from security forces, Abu Mohamad, who is of Palestinian origin and had close ties to Palestinian factions living inside Nahr al-Bared, says Fatah al-Islam had previously fought in Iraq under the leadership of infamous al-Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Returning to Lebanon, the group and their leader, Shaker al-Abbsi, as well as youths he met in Iraq – Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians – set themselves up in Fatah Al-Intifada’s headquarters in western Bekaa, and then headed for Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon.


“The idea of ISIS,” Abu Mohamad says, “was one propagated by Zarqawi’s group in Iraq. Thanks to modern-day technology,” he added, “the group was able to reconnect with what was left of the old fighters who were either in hiding or are serving time in Roumieh prison.”


Zarqawi, a militant Islamist from Jordan, began coordinating the entry of al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq through Syria shortly before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. By the Fall of year, a steady flow of Arab Islamists were infiltrating Iraq, Lebanese fighters among them. “Sheikh al-Qaa'qaa, an imam from Aleppo,” says Abu Mohamad “called for jihad publically, and every Friday he would give fiery sermons and then fill the buses with men, and send them straight over into Iraq.”


Jihadists infiltrated by Syrian regime intelligence


One month into the Syrian people’s uprising against President Bashar al Assad’s regime, the government freed over 200 political prisoners, including Islamists and Kurds, from the notorious Saydnaya prison in Damascus. Maher Esber, then a political prisoner and now a political activist, fled Syria to Lebanon.   


According to Esber, and based on his cell mates’ personal accounts, the Syrian regime was well aware of the flow of jihadists into Iraq and at times even coordinated their safe passage. One Islamist, he said, talked of how the military and political security branches distributed permits to jihadists allowing them to cross military checkpoints from Syria into Iraq in cars and vans carrying armor. A Lebanese inmate spoke of how the Lebanese were being recruited by Baath party members.


Among the stories, he says, was one about a militant group called Jund al-Sham, formed by five Syrians who were close to Zarqawi. Near the end of 2004, and after their success in Iraq, they proposed to Zarqawi that they carry out similar operations in Syria. Zarqawi advised them not to, but they decided to anyway, and began liaising with Ghazi Kenaan, Syria’s interior minister at the time. “Syrian intelligence knew what they were up to and killed them all,” said Esber, “along with Kenaan, with the exception of one of the five founders, whose name was Abu Abdallah al-Zamel.”


Esber explained that Zamel would often accuse Fatah al-Islam inmates of being spies for the regime. Shaker al-Abssi, he would say, is believed to have been released from Syrian prison for the purpose of forming a militant group that would destabilize Lebanon.


“One of our inmates was a Syrian intelligence operative,” said Esber. “He worked closely with Jamil al-Hassan, Jawiya [Air Force Brigade] intelligence chief at the time. He was tasked with infiltrating the Fatah al-Islam group. He was embedded with them for months and was gathering information about their activities.”


“Apart from leadership,” he said, “members of Fatah al-Islam were not aware that their high-ranking members were coordinating closely with the Syrian regime’s intelligence.”  

Sources say Shaker Al-Abbsi was released by the Syrian regime to destabilize Lebanon. (AFP Photo/Nicola Toahmeh)

Sheikh al-Qaa'qaa, an imam from Aleppo, called for jihad publically, and every Friday he would give fiery sermons and then fill the buses with men and send them straight over into Iraq.”