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memri
March 23, 2018 No.
1383

Leading Salafi-Jihadis In Ein Al-Hilweh Palestinian Refugee Camp, Lebanon: The Struggle Against Israel Takes Priority Over The Struggles In Iraq And Syria

By: N. Mozes*

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

In early March 2018, senior leaders of the Salafi-jihadi stream in the Ein Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon called a meeting with Lebanese journalists to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine rather than to operate in Iraq and Syria, which had for nearly two decades been the global jihad's main arenas of activity. They said that as Palestinians, they had a responsibility to fight for and defend their own land.

The leaders of the initiative, Osama Al-Shihabi and Jamal Hamed, leader and senior member, respectively, of the Fath Al-Islam organization, and Tawfiq Taha, senior official of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, clarified that the move had followed a months-long comprehensive reexamination of the stream's strategies and priorities, in light of developments in the international arena, primarily U.S. President Donald Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Israeli government's striving for recognition as a Jewish state in the past year. The three also stressed that the shift in priorities would be a long-term plan, to including winning hearts and minds, drawing up strategies, and preparing militarily.

With this initiative, the three were turning their backs on the global jihad movement led by Al-Qaeda, which has to date prioritized the struggle against the U.S. and against the regimes in some Arab and Muslim countries. In statements about their move, they criticized the global jihad movement for, they said, its neglect of Palestine in order to focus on fighting in other arenas such as Syria and Iraq, and its involvement of the Palestinians in matters to which they "have no connection." They made it clear that they and their followers have no ties to Al-Qaeda, and that their decision to shift focus was arrived at independently by Salafi-jihadi activists in the refugee camps in Lebanon.

It may be that by focusing on resistance against Israel – perceived as a legitimate stance by broad sectors in Lebanon, primarily among Hizbullah supporters – and by turning their back on Al-Qaeda, the leaders are aiming to ease the pressure on the Salafi-jihadi activists operating in Ein Al-Hilweh who are wanted by Lebanese security forces. This is reflected in the assurances they gave the journalists that they would stay away from all conflicts and struggles within the camp and in the Lebanese arena in general.[1] Likewise, the officials chose to make their announcement to Lebanese media – including the Al-Akhbar daily, affiliated with Hizbullah which is waging an all-out war against Salafi-jihadism – and not in the Salafi-jihadi media. Al-Shihabi himself even wrote an article for Al-Akhbar explaining the reasons for the shift in focus, and reiterating that they would be staying out of conflicts within the camps.

The possibility that the move is aimed at easing pressure on Salafi-jihadi operatives in the camp is strengthened by reports in the Lebanese press that these activists have for months been attempting to coordinate with the Lebanese government to leave the camp. In July 2017, it was reported that when a deal was signed that month between Hizbullah and the Islamic State (ISIS) on the departure of ISIS activists and their families from Arsal, Lebanon to Syria,[2] elements in Ein Al-Hilweh who were close to Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS proposed to the Lebanese government that they be included in the deal and be able to leave Ein Al-Hilweh. According to one report, they asked to go to Syria;[3] according to another, they asked to go to the Syrian Golan Heights to establish a force there, to be called the Ghuraba Falesteen Brigade, to fight Israel.[4]

Another possibility is that the initiative is directed by the Syrian regime and its ally Hizbullah, who now seek to revive the resistance front against Israel after eliminating most of the strongholds of the rebels fighting the regime. Supporting this theory is the fact that the leaders of the initiative are top members of Fath Al-Islam – an organization that had been accused by top Lebanese officials in the security and political systems of being operated by Syrian security and intelligence forces.[5]

A further indication of this are statements about the shift in direction by Al-Shihabi that can be interpreted as a message to the Syrian regime. He said that although the revolutions in the Arab world in recent years were indeed sparked by oppression, it is the U.S. that is directing them, in order to divert the struggle from Jerusalem and Palestine. This echoes the narrative of the Syrian regime and its allies, who claim that the revolution in Syria is not authentic and homegrown, but is an American plot against them.

This report will review statements by these three Salafi-jihadi leaders in the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon regarding the shift in the focus of their activity.

From Now On, The Focus Of Activity Will Be Palestine And Al-Aqsa

In early March, senior leaders of the Salafi-jihadi stream in the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon invited Lebanese journalists to the camp and spoke to them about their decision to distance themselves from the bloody struggles within the camp and from every conflict with the Lebanese security apparatuses.[6] Al-Akhbar correspondent Radwan Murdata reported on March 3 that Al-Shihabi had asked to meet with him urgently in order to discuss "a most important issue." He wrote that the meeting, held the following night at Shihabi's home in the refugee camp, was attended also by Jamal Hamed and a man referred to as Abu Ubayda. At the meeting, the two leaders said that they represented a large group of supporters of the Salafi-jihadi stream in the camp that had conducted a months-long "reexamination [that was] not a retreat." At the end of that examination, they said, they reached the conclusion that "the rifle" should be "re-aimed" towards Jerusalem, because the obligation to defend Palestine and Jerusalem lies first and foremost with them, as Palestinians and residents of the land.

In an article published by Al-Akhbar, Al-Shihabi wrote: "We have not backed down, and we will not back down, but we have conducted a reexamination, in order to re-aim the rifle. We are a group among the young Muslims who long to fight the criminal Jews who have occupied and expelled us from our land and sentenced us to death, expulsion, oppression, and prison. Therefore, after scrutiny, examination, study, consultation, and requests for aid from Allah, we have decided on the following: to prepare, to the best of our ability, to confront the criminal Zionist Jews. This preparation is demanded by the shari'a and by reality, because negotiations with the Jews and making concessions to them will not help. A bullet demands a[nother] bullet [in response]. With regard to religious law, preparation is an obligation, because the issue of Palestine and Al-Aqsa belongs to all Muslims... Preparation is a necessity of reality for us, since we are residents of Palestine. Our duty is double. The effort that we are obligated to make is much greater, since it is upon the residents of the occupied land to do as much as they can, and if they cannot, then the matter moves to the neighboring states."

Explaining that this will be a long-term program requiring ideological, cultural, and military preparation – that is, not necessarily an intent to launch military activity against Israel immediately – Al-Shihabi continued: "We will study their [i.e. Israel's] past, present, and future – what they are planning, what their aims are, how they draw up their policy, and who helps them and supports their oppressing decisions. [We will study] how they fight us ideologically, and why they have succeeded and we have failed. We will begin with ourselves and our men. Since this will be a long-term battle, we will prepare ways and means to fight the Jews for the next generation, so that they will go [forward] with clear perception and goals."[7]

Prior to that, on March 1, Osama Al-Shihabi and Jamal Hamed gave an interview to Al-Jadeed TV, in which they explained their initiative.


Osama Al-Shihabi (center) and Jamal Hamed (right) on Al-Jadeed TV (Image source: Youtube.com/watch?v=g2o_CH_9G3w, March 1, 2018)

Addressing The Lebanese People And Syria

Many of the statements by these Salafi-jihadi leaders were addressed to the Lebanese people. Since most of the top members of this stream are wanted by Lebanese security forces for involvement in the bloody struggles in the camps, and for their attacks on Lebanese and foreign targets across the country,[8] one motive for this change in position might be pressure by Lebanese security forces and by their Palestinian rivals in the camps. Thus, Al-Shihabi also wrote in his article: "We will distance ourselves from the struggle within the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp, and we will not be party to any conflict. If we have the ability to stop any problem that emerges, we will do anything to preserve the security of the people in the camp. The people are tired of the clashes in which innocent people are killed and wounded... These clashes have only increased the fear and alarm among the people, prompted them to leave [the camp], destroyed their homes, and wasted resources that should have been put towards fighting the Jews – [and if they had been,] our situation today would be better. For 30 years, we have waged battles in the camp that have aroused [desire] for revenge, handed down from generation to generation. The only ones benefiting from this are the Jews and their helpers. We will not be involved in the [internal] Lebanese struggle."[9]

On its website, the Lebanese MTV channel reported, citing activists in the Salafi-jihadi stream, that the motivation for the decision on the conflict with Israel is the leaders' understanding that "difficult battles are expected between Israel and the resistance in Gaza and Lebanon."[10] These statements can be interpreted as indicating an intention to help Hizbullah – which is at this time waging an all-out war against them in Syria and Lebanon – in a future war against Israel. Jamal Hamed even said that the Salafi-jihadis were determined "to fight the Jews alongside anyone who bears arms to liberate Al-Aqsa."[11]

The leaders also directed a reassuring message to the Syrian regime, the toppling of which they had until recently supported. Thus, Al-Shihabi, by saying "There is one direction and it is Jerusalem and Palestine," was espousing the Syrian regime's narrative about the revolution against it. With regard to the rest of the fronts, such as Syria and Iraq, he said: "Even if the motive that led them to break out was oppression – and it is this that we believe, and for this that we and our young people have come out – we are certain that America's hand is guiding the revolutions [in the region] in order to divert the struggle from its real direction."

Al-Akhbar reported, citing a Lebanese source, that several wanted men in Ein Al-Hilweh had in July 2017 asked that the Lebanese government allow them to be included in the Hizbullah-ISIS deal regarding Arsal and that they be "permitted [to leave to leave the refugee camp and] go to the [Syrian] Golan Heights, to establish there a Ghuraba Falesteen Brigade." The source added: "They promised that they do not want to be involved in the Syrian quagmire but want to plan for jihad for the sake of Palestine, which they think is nigh." The source also stressed that the Lebanese government had rejected this proposal.[12] Al-Akhbar had published a report on this matter in July 2017, in which it stated that wanted men from Ein Al-Hilweh, among them Osama Al-Shihabi, had asked to be included in the deal and to be allowed to leave the camp for Syria, and that the Lebanese government had rejected their request.[13]

Criticism Of Al-Qaeda

Apparently, as part of their efforts to reconcile Lebanese public opinion, which is apprehensive about the establishment of pro-Al-Qaeda elements on their soil, Al-Shihabi and Hamed stressed in their statements that their move was independent, and that they had no ties to Al-Qaeda. Al-Shihabi told Al-Akhbar: "Our contacts with the leadership of the organization [i.e. Al-Qaeda] have been severed, and [this initiative] is independently motivated."

Criticizing Al-Qaeda and the global jihad movement, which they said had diverted the struggle from Jerusalem to other arenas, Al-Shihabi stressed that there is "one direction, and that is Jerusalem and Palestine," before Syria and Iraq. He noted: "According to our perception, jihad is a means and not an end. We will not be deterred even if thousands of martyrs fall among us – but we want it to be for a goal. We want to eat the fruit, not burn the tree...

"Palestine is ours. This was the direction [before], and there must be a return to it... The situation that existed until today will not return... The idea of the fighting the Jews is very ancient. We had dreamed of fighting the Jews in the framework of a great plan, but all these plans have failed...  [To date] there has been no courage to relinquish several previous perceptions."

Likewise, Jamal Hamed said: "Throughout history, they have thwarted us [Palestinians], and involved us in issues to which we are unconnected. The rifle that we will carry from today onwards will be in order to fight the Zionist-Crusader program."[14]

* N. Mozes is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] For years, Ein Al-Hilweh, situated near Sidon and the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, was known as a center of tension due to the rivalry and struggles for areas of control among the various Palestinian factions, and gun battles between groups frequently made headlines. Over time, the camp became a refuge for men wanted by the Lebanese security forces. Additionally, Salafi-jihadi activists in the camp participated in the 2013 clashes alongside followers of Lebanese Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir against Lebanese Army forces (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 988, Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Al-Asir Launches Armed Struggle Against 'Shi'ite' Lebanese Army, June 26, 2013). Some Salafi-jihadi activists, such as Al-Shihabi, were also wanted by Lebanese security forces for their involvement in attacks within Lebanon against Lebanese and foreign interests.

[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7077, Iraqi PM Protests Hizbullah-ISIS Deal, Ignites Controversy Within Resistance Camp, September 3, 2017.

[3] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 31, 2017.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018.

[6] See Endnote 1.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018.

[8] MTV.com.lb, March 3, 2018.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018. 

[10] MTV.com.lb, March 3, 2018.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 31, 2018.

[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 3, 2018.