June 11, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 362

Who Is Behind Fath Al-Islam?

June 11, 2007 | By H. Varulkar*
Syria, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 362


On May 20, 2007, militants from the Fath Al-Islam organization attacked Lebanese Army outposts at the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Since then, the violence has spread into other areas, including the city of Tripoli, and dozens of Lebanese soldiers, civilians, and Fath Al-Islam militants have been killed. [1]

The Lebanese government and the March 14 forces are accusing Syria of training and arming the Fath Al-Islam militants, and of bringing them into Lebanon. They are claiming that Syria ordered the organization to launch a large-scale attack on the Lebanese army at this point in time so as to prevent the U.N. Security Council from approving the establishment of an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination.

Furthermore, the March 14 Forces link Fath Al-Islam's attack on the Lebanese army to the threats made recently by Syrian President Bashar Assad, which were reported by numerous media outlets. According to the reports, Assad threatened, in a conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, to set fire to the region "from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean"; another time, he threatened that civil war would break out in Lebanon if the tribunal was approved. [2]

The Lebanese opposition, headed by Hizbullah, accused the Lebanese government, primarily the Sunni Al-Mustaqbal faction led by Sa'd Al-Hariri, of being behind Fath Al-Islam and of funding it.

March 14 Forces: Syria Sent Fath Al-Islam into Lebanon Because of the International Tribunal

With the first reports of Fath Al-Islam's emergence, in November 2006, the March 14 Forces claimed that the Fath Al-Islam militants had been sent into Lebanon by Syria to carry out attacks and to assassinate senior Lebanese officials.

In a communiqué, the March 14 Forces stated that "the Lebanese army, the internal forces, and the citizens in Tripoli and the north have, since [May 20, 2007,] been subjected to an attack that is the realization of the threats made by the head of the Syrian regime - to set Lebanon on fire if the international tribunal was approved." [3]

In a May 21, 2007 editorial, the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal wrote that the clashes between the Lebanese army and Fath Al-Islam were the result of orders by Syrian President Bashar Assad: "There is no doubt that the attack by the Fath Al-Islam terror gang on the [Lebanese] army and security forces is connected to the madness [that gripped] the Syrian regime and its subordinates [in Lebanon] with the approach of the date of the approval of the international tribunal in the Security Council under Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter]..."

"All Lebanese Know Who Fath Al-Islam is and What Its Connection is With Syrian Intelligence"

The paper writes that Assad had drawn up a plan to storm the internal front in Lebanon: "All Lebanese know who Fath Al-Islam is and what its connection is with Syrian intelligence and its networks. The Syrian attack on the [Lebanese] army must be seen... as the first stop in Syria's plan for this stage. Under this plan, the [Lebanese] army will be forced into a battle, at a time not of its choosing... and will be exhausted by it... In this way, the Syrian regime and its subordinates [in Lebanon] will undermine the [Lebanese] military establishment. As a result, anarchy will spread throughout northern [Lebanon]...

"The problem is that the Assad regime, which is dealing in terrorism, is incapable of recognizing that it has failed in its planning, and that it has been exposed. This is because the Lebanese have not forgotten the threats made by the head of the Syrian regime, to set Lebanon on fire. They have not forgotten his promise regarding [the emergence of] Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. [4] They have not forgotten Assad's recent statements to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon regarding setting the region on fire 'from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.'

"The Lebanese have not forgotten that on the eve of the [Fath Al-Islam] attack on the [Lebanese] army, the Assad regime declared its objection to the [establishment of an] international tribunal under Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter] - [and this was] after it [claimed] that [the tribunal] had nothing to do with [Syria]..."

The paper went on to criticize Syria for closing its border crossing with Lebanon following the events [in Nahr Al-Bared], instead of cooperating with Lebanon and helping it apprehend the Fath Al-Islam militants. It added: "[The Syrian regime's actions are] not surprising at all, considering that it was the Syrian regime that brought them [i.e. Fath Al-Islam into Lebanon] and used them to threaten Lebanon's stability. It especially does not surprise those [of us] who know that this terror gang has continued to receive visits by senior Syrian intelligence officials, in addition to logistical help..." [5]

Lebanese Columnist: The Nahr Al-Bared Explosion Came From Outside the Border, Cloaking Itself in a Thousand Guises

In a May 22, 2007 article, columnist Ali Hamada: "The explosion in the Lebanese security [situation] came as no surprise. Moreover, it would have been surprising if calm had prevailed. Why?... Because the international tribunal that will deal with the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri and the other terrorist crimes [in Lebanon] is imminent. In fact, [the tribunal] is a matter of life or death for the Syrian regime, which is involved in [those] crimes...

"Hasn't Syrian President Bashar Assad said that the region will be set on fire from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean? Didn't he make [extreme] statements during his recent phone conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, hinting at an explosion in Lebanon's situation if the international tribunal were to be approved? [Well,] here is the explosion, which came from outside the borders [of Lebanon, i.e. from Syria], cloaking itself in a thousand guises [like the jihadist guise of Fatah Al-Islam].

"These things only add to our determination in the matter of the international tribunal - because [the tribunal] represents the rope that should be wrapped around the necks of the assassins, in order to paralyze their capability to sow political destruction and terror." [6]

Sa'd Al-Hariri: Fath Al-Islam is Playing a Role - On Orders From Syrian Intelligence

Al-Mustaqbal faction chairman Sa'd Al-Hariri charged that it was Syria that had sent Fath Al-Islam into Lebanon - in order to harm Al-Mustaqbal, because Al-Mustaqbal is the largest faction in Lebanon's Muslim arena. He added: "Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-'Absi was in prison in Syria. No one has given any explanation or clarification regarding how he was released from prison."

Al-Hariri accused the Syrians of attempting to undermine Lebanon since the Rafiq Al-Hariri assassination, saying: "The Syrians are claiming that [Fath Al-Islam] is Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda is an organization that lays claim to its actions, while the cowards [of Fath Al-Islam], like the Syrian regime, do not." [7]

Geagea: Syria is Sentencing the Muslim Brotherhood to Death - So How Come It Released the Leader of Fath Al-Islam?

Lebanese Forces executive body chairman Samir Geagea said in a press conference that there were clear signs that Syria was behind Fath Al-Islam, and that the organization was the "spearhead" of the Syrian regime. He added: "Today, everyone knows that in Syria, if anyone is found out to be a Muslim Brotherhood activist, he receives a death sentence, and if he is very lucky, he [only] gets hard labor. So how come [Fath Al-Islam leader] Shaker Al-'Absi - 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 [8] - has been released [from prison]? By what logic? How? In what manner? Everyone knows that in Syria, if anyone says two words, he is put into prison for long years, and does not leave. So how was Al-'Absi released?"

Further on, Geagea states that during his Syrian prison term, Al-'Absi was recruited by Syrian intelligence: "In many countries in the world, in prisons some people are recruited to be used in certain operations... Shaker Al-'Absi was freed [from Syrian prison] in 2005, that is, after the Syrian army left Lebanon. The Syrians saw that he was a leader with sufficient qualifications, [and therefore] they sent him [to Lebanon]. The refugee camps where he first settled are clearly Syrian refugee camps - 'Ain Al-Hilweh, Qusaya, Sultan Ya'aqoub, and so on... These are refugee camps that serve as training camps, under the direct oversight of Syrian intelligence. In light of all these signs, how can we not think that Fath Al-Islam is run directly by Syrian intelligence?" [9]

The Lebanese Opposition, Under Hizbullah's Leadership: The Lebanese Regime is Behind Fath Al-Islam

Hizbullah Secretary-General Nasrallah: Elements in the Lebanese Regime Funded Fath Al-Islam

In a speech marking the seventh anniversary of "the liberation of southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupation," Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah referred to the clashes between the Lebanese army and Fath Al-Islam, warning the Lebanese regime against entering the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp. At the same time, he also accused elements within the Lebanese regime of giving funding and [help] to Fath Al-Islam, saying:

"Every attack on the [Lebanese] army, on the Lebanese security forces, or on Lebanon's security and stability, by any element, is shameful. It is a red line that everyone must abide by, and there must be no clemency towards [those who cross it]... [However], there must be a fair trial for [the Fath Al-Islam members] accused of the attack on 'Ain 'Alaq, where Lebanese martyrs were killed... [10]

"In the first two days [of the fighting in Nahr Al-Bared], we heard [calls for the Lebanese army] to invade the [Nahr Al-Bared] refugee camp. How can they invade the camp when there are 35,000 people in it, many of whom have no connection to the problem[?] If we want to arrest an armed group, should we attack 35,000 people?..."

Nasrallah warned that "he who decides to enter the refugee camp will bear the responsibility. I think that any decision to enter the Nahr Al-Bared camp [means] sacrificing the [Lebanese] army, the Lebanese people, and Lebanon, and [these words] are not in defense of the Fath Al-Islam group. There are those in the [Lebanese] regime who maintained contacts with Fath Al-Islam, and some of them gave them [i.e. Fath Al-Islam] financial assistance and [help]. We, [on the other hand], do not know [Fath Al-Islam], and we had no contacts with them. They do not know us, and there is no connection between us and them..."

Further on in his speech, Nasrallah condemned "U.S. intervention" in the events at Nahr Al-Bared, and the shipment of arms from the U.S. to the Lebanese army, calling it "a grave matter." [11] He even warned against Lebanon becoming "an arena of struggle in which we will fight Al-Qaeda on behalf of the U.S." [12]

Senior Oppositionist: "The Fath Al-Islam Militants Were Brought [to Lebanon] to Serve as a Military Arm Against... the Lebanese Opposition"

In a speech at a Hizbullah-organized ceremony in the town of Al-Kfour in southern Lebanon, former Lebanese MP and a leader of the Lebanese opposition Wi'am Wahhab attacked the Lebanese government and hinted that it supported Fath Al-Islam: "The one who sought [to bring] the American influence [to Lebanon], whoever is pleased with being under the American political and military aegis, and whoever wants to establish an airlift in order to get American weapons is the one who brought in Al-Qaeda... Fath Al-Islam militants were brought [to Lebanon] to serve as a military arm against... the Lebanese opposition." [13]

Lebanese Daily Associated With the Opposition: A Lebanese Minister From the Al-Mustaqbal Faction Met With the Leader of Fatah Al-Islam

On May 25, 2007, the Lebanese daily Al-Diyar, which is associated with the Lebanese opposition, wrote that it was the Lebanese regime that had smuggled Fath Al-Islam militants into Lebanon: "MPs from the northern region and organizations in the northern region know with certainty that [Fath Al-Islam leader] Shaker Al-'Absi met with [Youth and Sport Minister from the Al-Mustaqbal faction] Ahmad Fatfat, twice or three times. The MPs from Al-Mustaqbal know that the apartments of the Fatah Al-Islam militants were purchased or rented by Lebanese [individuals]... from among the supporters of the Al-Mustaqbal faction or by faction activists and senior officials... Sources say that for the past two years, the Al-Mustaqbal faction had cultivated the Fath Al-Islam phenomenon as a phenomenon that could be relied upon in order to spark civil war on ethnic grounds..."

Further on, the article stated that "hundreds of [Fath Al-Islam] militants were smuggled into Lebanon via the Beirut airport, and from there were transferred to northern Lebanon - in contrast to what some senior [March 14 Forces] officials claimed, which was that these militants came via the Syria-Lebanon border. Moreover, the Lebanese [opposition] MPs... have information that the [Fatah Al-Islam] militants entered [Lebanon]... via the Beirut airport under cover of the [Lebanese] government security apparatuses." [14]

The Syrian and Iranian Position: Fatah Al-Islam Was Created by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14 Forces, and Israel

The Syrian position was similar to that taken by the Lebanese opposition. On May 24, 2007, Syrian Vice President Farouq Al-Shar' accused a senior March 14 Forces official of funding Fath Al-Islam. Iran too is accusing the March 14 Forces, and together with them the U.S. and various Arab countries, of forming Fath Al-Islam.

On June 1, 2007, Iranian Foreign Minister Menouchehr Mottaki accused the U.S. and Israel of being behind Fath Al-Islam. In a May 28, 2007 article, Sobh-e Sadeq, the mouthpiece of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei circulated among the Revolutionary Guards, claimed that Fath Al-Islam was established according to a plan devised by U.S. intelligence agencies together with Saudi National Security Council chairman Bandar bin Sultan, and with Jordanian intelligence elements, which, according to the paper, were running Fath Al-Islam. The paper stated that Fath Al-Islam was established in order to expand the chaos in Lebanon and to confront Hizbullah. Also, in an editorial, the daily Kayhan, also identified with Khamenei, said that Fath Al-Islam was established by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the March 14 Forces, in order to fight Hizbullah. [15]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] In November 2006, Fath Al-Islam issued a communiqué announcing its split from the Palestinian organization Fath Al-Intifada. Immediately afterwards, the March 14 Forces claimed that Fath Al-Islam militants had been sent into Lebanon by Syria in order to carry out attacks and to assassinate senior Lebanese officials. Other reports presented Fath Al-Islam as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon; however, in various interviews, senior Fath Al-Islam officials denied any connection with Al-Qaeda.

On February 14, 2007, the second anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, a bus was attacked in the Christian town of 'Ain 'Alaq, resulting in the death of three Lebanese and in the wounding of 23. A month later, on March 14, 2007, the Lebanese security apparatuses announced that they had apprehended four Syrians belonging to Fath Al-Islam who acknowledged carrying out the attack. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal reported that under interrogation the suspects had confessed to a connection to Syrian intelligence, and said that they had directly received orders and funds from it, and had even been trained by it. Al-Mustaqbal, (Lebanon), March 14, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal, November 29, 2006; Al-Mustaqbal, (Lebanon), November 28, 2006; Al-Safir, (Lebanon), November 29, 2006; Al-Nahar, (Lebanon), March 16, 2007; Al-Hayat, (London), May 25, 2007.

[2] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 13, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 18, 2007. On May 17, 2007, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa reported that, after Russia and Qatar had informed Syrian President Bashar Assad that it was not possible to prevent the U.N. Security Council from approving the international tribunal, Assad was enraged and threatened vengeance against the forces in Lebanon that opposed Syria. The paper also reported that Assad had immediately summoned Syrian intelligence officers who had served in Lebanon to an urgent meeting, and even instructed Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement head Ramadan Shalah to "blow up" the situation in Lebanon, beginning with the refugee camps. Al-Siyassa, (Kuwait), May 17, 2007.

[3] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 21, 2007.

[4] In an interview published June 26, 2006, Syrian President Bashar Assad told the London daily Al-Hayat that even when Syrian forces were in Lebanon, Al-Qaeda had been present there but in limited numbers. In the interview, Assad noted that Syria had information on the expansion of Al-Qaeda's influence in Lebanon after the withdrawal of Syrian forces. He added that many activists from fundamentalist groups in Syria who were being hunted by the Syrian forces fled to Lebanon because Lebanon was nearby and easy to get to.

Similarly, in July 2006, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem warned against Lebanon "becoming another Iraq that will attract Al-Qaeda operatives who will fight the occupation forces." Al-Hayat, (London), June 26, 2006; Al-Hayat, August 1, 2006.

[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 21, 2007. On May 20, 2007, the day that the violence broke out in Nahr Al-Bared between the Lebanese army and Fath Al-Islam, Syria closed its border crossings with Lebanon in the north. Teshreen, (Syria), May 21, 2007.

[6] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 22, 2007.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 29, 2007.

[8] In 2003, Jordan's High Security Court sentenced Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-'Absi to death on charges of murdering a U.S. diplomat. In March 2007, Syria's interior minister stated that Al-'Absi had spent three years in a Syrian prison on charges of belonging to Al-Qaeda. However, in an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, Al-'Absi denied this, saying that his detention in Syria had been for an attempt to carry out an operation in the Golan, and that he had been charged with possession of weapons and transferring weapons to Palestine. Akhbar Al-Sharq, (London), March 28, 2007; Teshreen, (Syria), March 15, 2007; Al-Nahar, (Lebanon), March 16, 2007.

[9] Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), May 23, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 24, 2007.

[10] For more on the 'Ain 'Aleq attack, see Footnote No. 1.

[11] On May 25, 2007, the U.S. sent eight planes with military aid and weapons to the Lebanese army. Al-Mustaqbal, (Lebanon), May 26, 2007.

[12] Islamic Resistance in Lebanon website, May 25, 2007

[13] Islamic Resistance in Lebanon website, May 28, 2007.

[14] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), May 25, 2007. Likewise, on May 21, 2007, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, reported that individuals very close to Al-Mustaqbal were among the militants who were fighting the Lebanese army in the area of the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp. Al-Akhbar, (Lebanon), May 21, 2007.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), May 24, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 1, 2007; Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 28, 2007; Kayhan (Iran), May 28, 2007.

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