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June 22, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 365

Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence

June 22, 2007 | By H. Varulkar
Syria, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 365
Introduction

Following the exposure of an affiliation between Fath Al-Islam and Syrian intelligence during the interrogation of Fath Al-Islam members, Syrian and pro-Syrian elements and media have been making efforts to deny this affiliation. Fath Al-Islam leaders with connections to Syria have suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by new leaders, claimed to be connected to Al-Qaeda. In addition, one of the organization's new leaders and a pro-Syrian Lebanese source have stated that Fath Al-Islam is under the command of Al-Qaeda, a claim that was firmly denied by the organization's previous leadership.

Fath Al-Islam Detainees: The Organization Has Ties With the Head of the Syrian Military Intelligence

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora accused Syria of being behind the events in Nahr Al-Bared based on information exposed in interrogations of Fath Al-Islam members. In an interview on the TV channel France24, he said that the interrogations had revealed a connection between Fath Al-Islam and some of the Syrian intelligence apparatuses, and that it was mistaken to characterize the organization as an arm of Al-Qaeda. Siniora also called on the Syrians to monitor the border in order to prevent the infiltration of people and arms into Lebanon. [1]

Many other media reports in the last few weeks stated that Fath Al-Islam detainees had admitted a connection between their organization and Syrian intelligence. The first report, published June 8, 2007 in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, concerned a detainee named Muhammad Suleiman Mar'i. According to Al-Rai, Mar'i had revealed in his interrogation that his elder brother, Ahmad Mar'i, who is a senior leader in Fath Al-Islam, had close ties with the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawkat. Muhammad Mar'i explained that his brother had served as the chief liaison between Assef Shawkat and Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-Abs. In this capacity, he would pass instructions from Syria to Al-Absi, and occasionally would also convey Al-Absi's requests to Shawkat. With the help of Shawkat's men, his brother had also managed to smuggle into northern Lebanon an explosives expert from Al-Qaeda known as Abu Ahmad Al-Iraqi, and later to smuggle him back into Syria. [2]

Additional media reports, bringing information obtained from other Fath Al-Islam detainees, also stated that Ahmad Mar'i was the liaison between Syrian intelligence, Al-Qaeda and Fath Al-Islam, and that the Syrian intelligence had used his services in order to smuggle fighters to Nahr Al-Bared across the Syrian border. [3]

Fath Al-Islam Leaders With Ties to Syria Disappear From the Media

Following the exposure of the organization's ties with Syria, several Fath Al-Islam leaders who were imprisoned in Syria and released by the Syrian authorities - including Al-Absi and his deputy Shihab Al-Qaddour, known as Abu Hurairah - stopped appearing in the media. Rumors started to circulate that Al-Absi and Abu Hurairah had been wounded or killed in battle, or had even left the organization. Their place was taken by a new leader, known as Shahin Shahin, who is apparently serving both as the spokesman of Fath Al-Islam and as its military commander.

The disappearance of the leaders was confirmed by Islamist preacher Fathi Yakan, known to be close to the Syrian regime, who claims to have mediated the negotiation attempts between Fath Al-Islam and the Lebanese authorities in the past few weeks. On June 8, one day after the publication of Mari's information about the ties between Fath Al-Islam and Syrian intelligence, Yakan stated that the mediation attempts had run into difficulties owing to the sudden disappearance of the Fath Al-Islam leaders. "It seems," he said, "that something has happened in Nahr Al-Bared which has caused some of the Fath Al-Islam leaders to stop appearing [in public] and holding negotiations. Now, our only option is to negotiate with the [organization's] information officer, Shahin Shahin. This has complicated matters, [since] we are [no longer] meeting with the [organization's top] leader or hearing anything from him. In the past, we dealt with the head of the organization, Shaker Al-Absi, but now we are dealing with a different man, and we do not know what his status in the organization is, and to what extent he is authorized [to conduct negotiations]..." [4]

Who is Shahin Shahin?

A June 9, 2007report in the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir described Shahin as the Fath Al-Islam spokesman. According to this report, Shahin denied the rumors that Al-Absi and Abu Hurairah had been wounded, but confirmed that changes had been made in the organization leadership, saying that "circumstances [brought about] by the fighting forced [Fath Al-Islam] to make some changes on the ground." [5] The Pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar presented Shahin as a Fath Al-Islam field commander, but later described him as the organization's "new leader in the field." [6]

Abu Mus'ab, a second tier leader in Fath Al-Islam, told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the leadership of the organization had passed from Shaker Al-Absi and his deputy Abu Hurairah to the Saudi Shahin Shahin, also known as Abu Salma, after the former two leaders had disappeared. He said that Shahin was both the spokesman of the organization and its military commander, and that he served as the liaison between Fath Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda. According to Abu Mus'ab, Shahin came to Lebanon from North Africa and is accompanied by four comrades - masked men from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Abu Mus'ab also added that Shahin "approves Shaker Al-Absi's statements to the media and signs them, since he is in charge of the organization's funding." [7]

In her column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Sawsan Al-Abtah wondered about the disappearance of Fath Al-Islam's leaders and about who was really behind the organization:

"Suddenly, Shaker Al-Abs, the founder of Fath Al-Islam, has disappeared - as has senior military leader Abu Hurairah, who they say directed the battles against the Lebanese army at Nahr Al-Bared. Another leader who disappeared is Abu Salim Taha, known as the organization's spokesman, who maintained almost daily contact with journalists via cellphone...

"Instead of the three who disappeared... one man appeared. This man, Shahin Shahin, talks to journalists and negotiates with mediators, and they say he is now also directing the military battles in the refugee camp. Shahin's comrades in the organization call him 'Abu Salma'..." [8]

Further on in her column, Al-Abtah states that Shahin's appearance is nothing new, and that he had been mentioned several times as spokesman for the organization in March 2007. Al-Abtah tells how, in February 2007, she interviewed Shaker Al-Abs with Shahin Shahin sitting at his side and listening to every word, and how, every so often, he would pass notes to Al-Abs. She said that Shahin Shahin disappeared in March 2007 after Fath Al-Islam was accused of carrying out the bombing in the Christian town of Ain Alaq, and reappeared only a few days ago. [In the wake of this February 2007 bombing, the Lebanese security apparatuses arrested several Syrians belonging to Fath Al-Islam who said that they had received instructions and funds from Syrian intelligence, and had even been trained by them. [9] ]

Al-Abtah wrote that those who knew Al-Abs and Abu Hurairah said that they were not fighters or ground personnel at all, and that it was difficult to believe that they were waging a battle like the one at Nahr Al-Bared. "Therefore," she concluded, "one has to wonder who the real leader of Fath Al-Islam is at Nahr Al Bared, and who is directing the blood-soaked battles... Were Shaker Al-Abs and his deputy Abu Hurairah set up as a Palestinian-Lebanese front in order to camouflage the identity of others who are more influential and who led [the organization]? There are also those who claim that Abu Salma does not have the tremendous capability that we think he has. If so, who are the experienced [commanders] who are directing this ongoing hell...?" [10]

It should be noted that there is another individual in the organization, named Shahin Al-Shami, who was described by the Syrian government daily Teshreen as a Fath Al-Islam field commander. [11] It is not clear whether Shahin Al-Shami is the same person as the one called Shahin Shahin, who is being presented as the new leader of Fath Al-Islam, especially since statements by the two are contradictory. While Shahin Shahin has denied any connection to Al-Qaeda, Shahin Al-Shami has said that Fath Al-Islam belongs to Al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, a Palestinian Clerics Association member, Sheikh Ali Yousef, who is now conducting the negotiations between Fath Al-Islam and the Lebanese authorities, has said that it is indeed the same person. [12]

Pro-Syrian Sheikh Fathi Yakan: Fath Al-Islam Has Become a Subordinate of Al-Qaeda

In addition to the disappearance of the Fath Al-Islam leaders connected to Syria, any link between Fath Al-Islam and Syria was denied on the argument that international Al-Qaeda had taken over Fath Al-Islam. This came despite the fact that the previous Fath Al-Islam leaders had repeatedly denied any connection between their organization and Al-Qaeda.

On June 10, 2007, Fathi Yakan, announcing that his mediation attempts with Fath Al-Islam had come to naught, said, "It appears that the negotiations [are no longer decided at the local level of] the Nahr Al-Bared camp, and that international Al-Qaeda has taken the matter of Fath Al-Islam upon itself, and taken it over. This complicates matters... [since we] have not been able to reach the decision-maker, and have therefore come to a dead end." Yakan rejected the claim that Syrian intelligence was directing Fath Al-Islam, stating, "Whoever says this is running from the responsibility and from the truth, and using the Syrian side as a pretext, on which it pins his failure every time there is a security incident in Lebanon. This is exactly what happened with the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri - we saw how the accusations were prepared in advance and were leveled at one element only." [13]

Similarly, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that on June 10, 2007, following the televised confession of detainee Ahmad Mar'i (in which he confirmed Fath Al-Islam's connections with Assef Shawkat and another senior Syrian official), Shah in Al-Shami published a communiqué announcing that Fath Al-Islam belonged to Al-Qaeda, and that the organization had sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Sa'udi as emir instead of Al-Abs. [14]

The Syrian government daily Teshreen stated that Shah in Al-Shami had denied any connection between Fath Al-Islam and Syria. [15]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 9, 2007.

[2] Al-Rai (Kuwait), June 8, 2007.

[3] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 8, 2007; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 9, 2007.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 9, 2007.

[5] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 9, 2007.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 7, 2007; June 11, 2007.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 13, 2007.

[8] It should be noted that Al-Absi's name reappeared in the pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir on June 19, 2007. The daily reported that a delegation from the Palestinian Clerics Association had met with Al-Abs and Shahin Shahin as part of the negotiation attempts.

[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 14, 2007.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 14, 2007.

[11] Teshreen (Syria), June 11, 2007.

[12] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 11, 2007; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 11, 2007; http://www.14march.org/index.php?page=nd&newsid=18314, June 11, 2007.

The name "Al-Shami" means "the Syrian," but Sheikh Yakan said that Shahin Al-Shami was a Nablus-born Palestinian who resides in Jordan.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 11, 2007.

[14] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), June 11, 2007.

[15] Teshreen (Syria), June 11, 2007.

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