The Mystery of Fatah Al-Islam

24 01 2008

Fatah Al-Islam has been shrouded by mystery and confusion since the day it officially declared it’s existence. Their story and plight has become politicised by frankly every single party involved in Lebanese politics – this includes outsider party’s as well as national one. Sadly, the misinformation broadcast by every politician, political party, news outles and governments has led to the obstruction of unveiling the truth behind this militant organisation either due to the inaccuracy of information gathered or journalist and freelancers’ fear of being accused of lying and siding by a political party – and in effect have all their research disregarded as well as their record stained – if they dare declare their findings.

We’ll start with the basics. Fatah Al-Islam became known in May 2007 after it officially declared it’s existence and fought the Lebanese National Army in the same month. It’s leader is Shaker Al-Abssi, a notorious criminal and hardcore militant who used to be an ex-Fighter Pilot for the Libyan army, sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan as well as jailed in Syria for smuggling weapons and is now again wanted by the Syrian Authorities.

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The March 14 camp in Lebanon (US/Western-backed) claims that Fatah Al-Islam is a small splinter or sleeper terrorist group in Lebanon under Syrian direction and support (including arms and finances). Meanwhile, the March 8 camp (Syrian/Iranian-backed) claims the contrary. That in fact, Fatah Al-Islam is a group created by the March 14 camp in order to weaken the relatively strong Army – essentially the only barrier to a confrontation with Hezbollah and total control in Lebanon.

Like any curious individual, I decided to conduct some research concerning this group. I found out a lot of information from different and totally independent sources (don’t worry, I did not get any of the information from Al-Manar or Future TV) which has gone unnoticed, or perhaps ignored, by mainstream media. Although, I must admit that I did find half-truths in claims made by both the 8 and 14 March camps.

The independent professor Dr. Franklin Lamb at AUB (American University of Beirut) went out on a fact-finding mission to truly find out who was behind FAI (Fatah Al-Islam). His information was collected mostly from interviews with both disclosed, undisclosed and civilian sources as well as excerpts from member confessions and from news archive at a time when the information seemed to lack relativeness. His finding were published in late May.

He found himself being told by Nahr Al-Bared citizens that members of Fatah Al-Islam were gaining lucrative salaries, homes and weapons. Their starting salary had been at a monthly rate of $700, living in luxury apartments facing the Mediterranean and Belgian state-of-the-art weaponry. When asked of their opinion of where the money was coming from, some opted out from giving such information but the majority of interviewees whom replied gave pretty much the same answer – “they are paid by the Hariri group”.

This, ofcourse, is just an assertio, a mere opinion. Call it anything but a fact, simply because there was nothing said by the interviewees to back-up or prove their claims. To determine under whose orders Fatah Al-Islam had been following and with whom the link was with – if any – we need to dig up some factual history and events that have occurred in the past which has some relevance to the militant organisation.

Let us start with the well-known club of Anti-Syrians in Lebanon. Waleed Jumblat, Samir GaeGae, Saad Harriri and the US under-secretary of state David Welch. Their plight was to strengthen the position of the March 14 camp in Lebanon and grab everything they possibly could while in administration.

They started with Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces. They laid off most of the veterans in this institution to replace them with loyal and sympathising activists – therefore hijacking a states intelligence and militant agency. Incidentally, this was the same institution which had offered tea to Israeli soldiers (following orders by the government) while the IDF invaded Lebanon and Hezbollah fighters vigorously tried to resist the destructive machine unleashed on Lebanon. The ISF members are regularly and wrongly confused with Army soldiers. However, the incident reveals both March 14’s willingness to resist Israel’s aggressions militarily and the ISF’s allegiance to the government (In 1996, they fought successfully with Hezbollah in downing a Helicopter and clashing with advancing troops).

Soon after taking over the ISF, the club tried to seize control of the presidency and when it failed it marginalized it – therefore neutralising the only official influence and power in the political elite system. Finally, in 2006, the government set eye on the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee as well as the states highest ranking courts, the Constitutional Judiciary. What better way to evade constitutional checks and balances by these groups on the governments’ policies, decisions and laws than by controlling them. However, they failed to do so and effectively did the same thing that any totalitarian regime would tend to do – they simply abolished both the Constitutional Committee and Judiciary. Lebanon’s government today has no-one with authority to officially and legitimately claim whether or not the governments actions are in line with the constitution or not.

Be patient, I am leading to the main points. Moving on, the only two main barriers to total control of March 14 of Lebanon was ofcourse the national Army and Hezbollah. A strong and unified army will not take orders from the government if they break the ‘rules of the game’. Similarly, a yet strongly Hezbollah will have both the resources and will to block any agreements with Israel and the incorporation of Lebanon as a political asset in Americas hands during it’s drive in Middle Eastern dominance.

First I will address the latter problem. What better way to confront and weaken the Shi’a Hezbollah by financing, arming and assisting Sunni militant groups (who tend to dislike or even hate Hezbollah) – taking into account the sectarian atmosphere in Lebanon, you could easily calculate the effectiveness of such a strategy. Overwhelming evidence points towards ‘the club’ being responsible behind the arming and financing of both Fatah Al-Islam and Jund Al-Sitt (Soldiers of the Sitt, where “Sitt” in Sidon, Ain Al-Hilwa and the outskirts pertain to Bahia Hariri, the sister of Rafiq Hariri, aunt of Saad, and Member of Parliament), albeit not creating or forming them. After all, according to members who were detained and interrogated from both Fatah Al-Islam and Jund-al-Sitt said their groups acted on the directive of the Club president, Saad Hariri.

“Fatah al-Islam is home for those who do not have a home not only physically but ideologically,” Bishara, an AlJazeera analyst says. “It has found a home paradoxically in a refugee camp.”

“It is not a resistance group and it is not an insurgency, it is not attempting to overthrow the Lebanese government, and it is certainly not close to being a guerrilla group that is expanding its territory,” he says.

You might find yourself asking how the hell this information fits in with my argument that factions from the ruling class had a hand to play in forming this anarchistic and extremist group. Again, this needs a bit of revision to explain properly.

Fatah Al-Islam had once indeed been a faction incorporated by Fatah al-Intifada, which had a Pro-Damascus Abu Khaled al-Omla as second-in-command. These ties had been made after the current leader of Fatah Al-Islam, Shaker Al-Abssi relocated from Libya (where he served as a colonel Fighter Jet pilot) to Syria in the early 90’s. However, despite these connections and links, he was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to three years in prison. However, contrary to common misinformed belief that Abssi was released a few months later, he actually served just over 2 years before being released according to a few conditions. Speculation evaluated this could be due to his links with Al-Omla. Therefore, one could legitimately establish an indirect relationship of some kind between a Syrian authority and Abssi.

However, many incidents had occurred in between the time Abssi was released from prison and the time of the clash between the Lebanese Army with Fatah Al-Islam which refutes any claims of links between the Syrian intelligence or authorities and the concerned militant group. In 2005, Shaker Al-Abssi and group of youth who he had been fighting with in Iraq relocated to the town of Helwa in the Beqaa’, in eastern Lebanon where they set themselves up in the headquarters of Fatah Al-Intifada within the region. In May 2006, Al-Abssi and this small group engaged in armed clashes with Lebanese soldiers that led to the killing of one young Syrian wanted by Damascus for fighting in Iraq. This youth had transferred from Syria to Lebanon with Abssi.

Following this incident, Syrian intelligence services then summoned al-Omla to ask him about al-Abssi and his group. The investigation unmasked the close coordination between al-Omla and al-Abssi that had been kept from the pro-Damascus Secretary General of Fatah Al-Intifada, Abu Moussa, and by extension, from the Syrian authorities. Al-Omla then reportedly ordered al-Abssi to leave the Western Beqaa, which is close to the borders with Syria, and head for refugee camps in northern Lebanon in fear of being captured by the Syrian military present in the Beqaa at the time.

The turn of events illustrate that the contrary of coordination was taking place between the Syrian intelligence and Shaker Al-Abssi’s cell. Instead of associating themselves with the Syrian intelligence, they were being secretive.

Furthermore, in November 2006 the Palestinian security committee in Al-Badawi refugee camp in Tripoli handed over two members of al-Abssi’s group to the Lebanese military intelligence. Al-Abssi was reportedly infuriated and decided to break with Fatah al-Intifada and establish his own group, Fatah al-Islam. In doing so, he had in essence severed all ties with the Syrians, whether directly or indirectly.

In November 2006 Fatah al-Islam set up a headquarters in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahar Al-Bared in northern Lebanon. The group seized three compounds in the camp that had belonged to the secular Palestinian militant group, Fatah al-Intifada. However, the location of Fatah Al-Islam had been dispersed between Al-Badawi and Ein Al-Hilwe refugee camps, not Nahar Al-Bared. How did they end up in Nahar Al-Bared and in such a dense quantity and with such power to overthrow the long-established Fatah Al-Intifada?

The credit for that could in part be given to Bahia Harriri, Saad Harriri’s Aunt. She had bribed what were to become Fatah Al-Islam members out of the vicinity, which had been a part of a constituency represented by her in Parliament, and into the far-away Nahar Al-Bared. In essence, she had been involved in financing Fatah Al-Islam. No-one really known in what form and shape these bribes came in.

After the take-over by Fatah Al-Islam, the club (Jumblat, Gaegae, Harriri and Welch) had become interested in the group. A radical Sunni Islamic group which was appealing to a great deal of Lebanese Sunnis (a third of the militant group’s members had been Lebanese nationals) and ofcourse opposed Hezbollah due to their Al-Qaeda mind-set. The best group to support at a time when Hezbollah’s power was surging among the Lebanese society.

You have to start asking yourself, if this group of militants came into Lebanon without money or wealth and survived from what Fatah Al-Intifada gave them, how did they end up with Belgian-made weaponry, luxury homes, cars and paying double the price of their shopping fees in a Palestinian refugee camp that has the worst rates of poverty and unemployment in Lebanon? Well, if you read back to the sections about bribes and sudden interest of the club in the group, then maybe everything starts fitting together. It is, after all common sense.

Then, something starts going wrong for the club. They found out that Hezbollah intelligence knew all about the Clubs activities and was in a position to flip the two groups who were supposed to ignite a Sunni-Shi’a civil war which Hezbollah vows to prevent. Then information started leaking to Seymoure Hersh, who was in turn publishing embarrassing stories with potentially serious implications for the Bush-Harriri administrations alike. Harriri, fearing a Hezbollah flip that could destroy everything he, his party and government had worked for, “stopped” the payroll of Fatah Al-Islam’s account at the Hariri family owned bank. Fatah-al-Islam, tried to negotiate at least ‘severance pay’ with no luck and they felt betrayed. (Remember many of their fighters are easily frustrated teenagers and their pay supports their families). Militia members knocked off the bank which issued their worthless checks. They were doubly angry when they learned FM is claiming in the media a loss much greater than they actually snatched and that the Club is going to stiff the insurance company and actually make a huge profit. After all, why would a Syrian-owned militia go through the risky business of robbing banks if they had been on such lucrative payrolls from Syria? Did Syria bust itself penniless for a bunch of Islamists (coincidently, the ideology of the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria is secularist and anti-Islamist)? Rationale doesn’t suggest so.

Following the robbery, the perpetrators were traced to an apartment in Tripoli which turned out to be an office for Fatah al-Islam. Do not forget that Tripoli is a stronghold of the Harriri family. The armed militants at the office resisted arrest and a gun battle ensued. An unsuccessful three-day stand-off between security forces and militants at the apartment ended on 23 May. The security forces were forced to call in the Lebanese army, who ended the battle successfully the same day after the last Fatah al-Islam militant at that location blew himself up.

The following night, Fatah Al-Islam militants ambush a Lebanese Army barracks, murdering off-duty civilian-clothed Lebanese soldiers in their sleep. This particular attack took the lives of 18 Lebanese soldiers, of which 4 had their heads severed from their bodies. The outrage that ensued was massive. This had come as such a shock. However, notice that Fatah Al-Islam did not go after the Security Services which hunted them in the first place. This was due to the belief of Abssi that his group could pressure Harriri in providing them with further finances through this particular attack on the Lebanese Army.

However, this was not the case. The same night, the Seniora cabinet convenes and asks the Lebanese Army to first attack and then enter the refugee camp and silence (in more ways than one) Fatah-al-Islam. Since entrance into the Camps is forbidden by the 1969 Arab league agreement, the Army refuses after realising the extent of the conspiracy against it by the Welch Club. The army knows that entering a refugee camp in force will open a front against the Army in all twelve Palestinian refugee camps and tear the army apart along sectarian cracks – effectively ending its role as the sole neutral and strong official institution in Lebanon that could keep the peace.

Hezbollah, realising what had started to happen, released a statement saying, “We feel that there is someone out there who wants to drag the [Lebanese] army to this confrontation and bloody struggle … to serve well-known projects and aims,” and it called for a political solution to the crisis.

Half-way during the battles, the Army General Michelle Suleiman claimed that Fatah Al-Islam is an Al-Qaeda group rather than a Syrian cell placed in Lebanon to cause anarchy. He was systematically attacked by all March 14 politicians and accused of being a Syrian puppet, even though he had been partly responsible time and again in cooling tensions and preventing possible civil unrest in the fragile country. His soldiers and leadership was to be criticised after the Army’s victory over Fatah Al-Islam for countless reason and in countless instances; being too slow, being too weak, not preventing protests etc.

Now you know the full truth behind the twisted tale of Fatah Al-Islam. It resembles a freelance group of loose, anarchistic but fundamentalist militants who would ally themselves to anyone, in return for a pay-check. Indeed, a Fatah Al-Islam militant interviewed by Reuters just before the outbreak of violence in the summer of 2007 between the group and the Lebanese army claimed that his group will follow whoever gives them money. In this case, it had been, whether directly or indirectly, both Syria and Harriri – however the much bigger and direct share is well-deserved by Harriri. However, Samir Gaegae oncer asked a question which I thought to be legitimate. He asked:

“why if anyone is found out to be a Muslim Brotherhood activist, he receives a death sentence, and if he is very lucky, he gets hard labour. So how come Shaker Al-‘Abssi – who is no ordinary militant but a leader… and who committed a crime in Jordan and was sentenced to death there, and was arrested in Syria – has been released [from prison]?”I would urge Dr. (earned the title by sitting a few pre-med sessions before becoming a full-time militant in the civil war) Samir Gaegae to read this post to why he was released. But in case you don’t have the time, I’m sure you’re busy drawing plans of which politician to kill next, then here’s the short version:

  1. His release happened five years before he had a militia.
  2. His release took place at a time when the Syrian army existed in Lebanon, all 15,000 of them, while you were rotting in prison.
  3. He was of no use to the Syrians when his release took place.
  4. He was not convicted of being part of an extremist group, but of smuggling arms and ammo between borders.
  5. Etc

On Wednesday, January 9, 2008, Fatah al-Islam chief Shaker al-Abssi made a public speech in Lebanon, acknowledging his escape and vowing for revenge against the Lebanese army after the group’s defeat in the 2007 Lebanon conflict.

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