Fatah al-Islam, the group of militants who fought an arduous summer-long battle with the Lebanese army in 2007, has always evoked more questions than answers, and the queries keep coming. Earlier this month, Lebanese security forces killed the group’s leader, Abdul Rahman Awad, prompting the obvious question: Who will step in to head the organization if, of course, there is even an organization left to lead.
Shaker al-Absi founded the group in Lebanon in 2006, shortly after his early release from a Syrian prison. Absi received a get-out-of-jail-free card from the Syrians to go wage war on American troops in Iraq, according to statements arrested group members made while being interrogated by security forces regularly accused of torturing detainees.
Simon Haddad, a professor at the American University of Beirut, reviewed the written records of Fatah al-Islam members’ interrogations and interviewed Judge Ghassan Oueidat, who heard several cases against them. Haddad published a paper earlier this year about the group based on his research and shared that paper with NOW Lebanon.
Instead of heading off to Baghdad, Absi wound up near Beirut, eventually settling in North Lebanon’s Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, the locale of the 2007 war. When two bombs tore through busses in Ain Alaq in February 2007, Lebanese authorities laid the blame on Fatah al-Islam, then less than a year old.
Just under a month later, acclaimed journalist Seymour Hersh published an article claiming that, in coordination with the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia was funneling money to Saad Hariri to fund Sunni extremists like the Salafi-Jihadi Fatah al-Islam, which Hersh specifically mentioned as a recipient of this money.
The report was denied in Beirut, where March 14 politicians countered that Saudi wasn’t funding Fatah al-Islam, but rather that the Syrians specifically let Absi out of jail to come wreak havoc in Lebanon as a pretext to re-occupy the country their troops had left less than two years prior following a nearly 30-year presence.
Haddad wrote in his paper that there is no evidence to prove the Syrian puppet theory, and told NOW Lebanon, when asked about the Saudi money theory – which was not addressed in the paper – that authorities curiously did not ask arrested militants how they were funded.
After the Nahr al-Bared fighting, the Lebanese army said they had killed Absi, and after viewing his body, his wife agreed. DNA tests, however, proved otherwise, and by mid-September 2007 it was clear that Absi had got away. A year later, claims that Absi was again in Syrian prison and about to be turned over to Lebanese authorities were being made in the press. At the time, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar, text messaged by NOW Lebanon for comment, said he knew nothing about the issue, and Absi never arrived.
By then, Absi’s replacement, Abdul Rahman Awad, was leading a weakened Fatah al-Islam. The group moved to Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s most notorious and dangerous Palestinian refugee camp after Nahr al-Bared. And while Awad was the group’s recognized leader, as early as December 2008, he wasn’t in the camp.
His group, meanwhile, was not doing all that much. Lebanese authorities were arresting the odd member here and there, and Awad and a close associate, Abed al-Ghani Jawhar, were apparently busy causing more chaos. The two allegedly planted two bombs in Tripoli during 2008 and joined a terrorist cell the authorities broke up in 2009.
Today, officials in Ain al-Hilweh say the group is still around.
“Fatah al-Islam members have been living on the outskirts of the camp, in the Tawarek area,” said Mohammad Issa, head of the Palestinian Armed Struggle in Ain al-Hilweh, who is also known by his nom de guerre, “al-Lino.” The Tawarek area, at the edge of the camp near the Taamir quarter of Saida, is known as the bastion of radical Islamist groups such as Jund al-Sham and Osbat al-Ansar. About 20 or so members of Fatah al-Islam seem to have regrouped in the southern enclave in 2007 after fleeing Nahr al-Bared at the end of the conflict with the Lebanese army.
Issa said that today the Tawarek area is home to many notorious Fatah al-Islam figures such as Mohammad Chaabi and Jawhar, Awad’s former number two and a Lebanese national.
“Jawhar seems to have gone into hiding after the killing of Awad,” Issa said.
Other fighters from Fatah al-Islam remain safely tucked away in the run-down Tawarek neighborhood, such as Mohamad Doukhi, Oussam Chehabi and Naim Abbas. News that Doukhi is still in residence in the southern enclave may come to many as a surprise: He was detained by the Lebanese Armed Forces in 2008, and NOW Lebanon could not ascertain why he was released.
Issa said his organization handed over 32 Fatah al-Islam militants to the army since 2007, and that “other Fatah al-Islam members have left Lebanon and tried their luck in Belgium or Bulgaria.”
That said, in recent years, former members of Jund al-Sham have joined the ranks of Fatah al-Islam, and the group now has over 100 men, several sources in Ain al-Hilweh who wished to remain anonymous told NOW Lebanon.
Still leaderless since Awad’s death, Fatah al-Islam members are likely to start escaping Lebanon to fight in Iraq, Issa said. Other sources interviewed by NOW Lebanon believe nonetheless that the appointment of a new leader will take place in a few days.
Regardless of who takes the lead of the radical group, their core views will remain the same, said Hajj Maher Oueid, head of the Ansar Allah organization, an Islamic faction close to Hezbollah. “They haven’t been able to evolve, contrary to the Osbat al-Ansar movement, which has come to terms with accepting the Lebanese political reality and power structure. Fatah al-Islam still opposes the idea of a Lebanese state,” he said. Indeed, the group apparently wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate in North Lebanon.
Haddad, the researcher, agreed with Issa that the group is more or less done, though one political source familiar with the group who is not authorized to speak with the press told NOW Lebanon that “their numbers are still significant. In spite of the fact that they may be only armed with small arms and light weapons, they can still be a nuisance.”
However, political factions inside the camp believe that Fatah al-Islam members can be kept in check by the coalition of Palestinian forces. “Ain al-Hilweh residents are heavily armed and organized in various military factions; they can certainly thwart any possible uprising of Fatah al- Islam,” Oueid said.