Road To Jerusalem (via Lebanon)
By Robert Fisk
23 May, 2007
They came into Lebanon last summer
when the world was watching Israel smash this small nation in a vain
attempt to destroy the Hizbollah. But the men who set up their grubby
little office in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, some of them fighters
from the Iraq war, others from Yemen, Syria or Lebanon itself, were
far more dangerous than America and Israel believed the Hizbollah to
be. They had come, they told the few journalists who bothered to seek
them out "to liberate" Jerusalem because "to free our
territory is a sacred duty inscribed in the Koran".
That the men of Fatah al-Islam
should believe that the road to Jerusalem lay through the Lebanese city
of Tripoli and might be gained by killing almost 30 Lebanese soldiers
- many of them Sunni Muslims like themselves, four of whom it now emerges
had their heads cut off - was one of the weirder manifestations of an
organisation which, while it denies being part of al-Qa'ida, is clearly
sympathetic to the "brothers" who serve the ideas of Osama
Last night their gunmen in
Nahr el-Bared offered a ceasefire to the Lebanese troops surrounding
them after doctors had pleaded for a truce in which the dead and wounded
could be cleared from the streets. It was an equally odd idea from a
group which only 24 hours earlier had promised to open the "gates
of hell" all over Lebanon and "shoot to the last bullet"
if the army did not halt its fire. The nature of their politics, however,
is less sinister than their savagery. At least two, it now transpires,
blew themselves up with explosive belts in Tripoli on Sunday after taking
One survivor recalled that
a dying member of Fatah-al-Islam spent his last moments reading to him
from the Koran.
The organisation - we still
do not know if they have 300 armed men at their disposal - clearly took
some inspiration from the famous declaration of al-Qa'ida's Ayman al-Zawahiri
that Palestine was close to Iraq and that thus "warriors should
take their holy war to the frontiers of Palestine". One of those
frontiers, of course, is the Lebanese-Israeli border. Chaker al-Absi
told Lebanese journalists last year that his movement "was founded
on the Koran and holy law" and that it was a "reformist movement
created to bring an end to corruption and to brandish in the sky over
Jerusalem the banner which says 'There is only one God but God'."
And he added that "we
are neither allied to a regime or any group existing on this earth."
Absi, it should be added, is wanted in Jordan for the murder of an American
diplomat. No less a figure than Omar al-Bakri - deported from Britain
more than a year ago - has described Fatah al-Islam as "well and
truly Syria's winning card".
If it is, then Syria will
have some work explaining how the group also announced its responsibility
for two bombings in Beirut at the weekend, one of which killed a middle-aged
Christian woman. The Lebanese army suspect that it also placed bombs
on buses in the Christian district of Ain Alak earlier this year.
But why Tripoli? And why
now? Well, of course there's the imminent United Nations tribunal into
who killed ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Was it Syria? But reports
in Lebanon become more dramatic the more they are repeated; that Fatah
al-Islam is funded by Bin Laden's two sons, Saad and Mohamed; that two
of the gunmen killed in Tripoli were brothers of a Lebanese man from
Akkar - also in the north of Lebanon - who was arrested in Germany last
year for allegedly plotting to put bombs on railway trains; that the
Tripoli dead also included a Bangladeshi and a Yemeni.
Certainly, we know that one
of the dead - possibly two - are sons of a 60-year-old Lebanese man
from Sidon, Darwish Haity. He is aware that his son Ahmad is dead and
fears that Mahmoud Haity was also among those who fought to the death
in the Tripoli apartment blocks. "My children are not like that,"
the father was quoted as saying. "Fatah al-Islam fooled them and
turned them into criminals." Ahmad Haity was a married father of
Sidon itself is home to the
largest camp in Lebanon, Ein el-Helweh, from where at least 20 Palestinians
set off to be suicide bombers against US troops in Iraq. One Tripoli
Sunni Muslim movement boasts that it sent "at least" 300.
And Ein el-Helweh boasts a set of tiny Islamic groups like Issbat al-Anssar
which broke apart when its leadership founded Issbat al-Noor - "The
Community of Illumination" - whose chief was assassinated, supposedly
by a PLO faction.
If these internecine Palestinian
disputes appear tiresome, it should be remembered that many have their
origins in the Lebanese civil war, when Arafat's PLO fought on the Muslim
side against Christian Maronite militia.
When Lebanese troops arrested
Moamar Abdullah al-Awami, a Yemeni, in Sidon in 2003 and accused him
of plotting to blow up a McDonald's restaurant, Awami - who used the
nom de guerre "Ibn al-Shaheed" (son of the martyr) - claimed
to have met three al-Qa'ida operatives in Ein el-Helweh. Several Lebanese
fundamentalists involved in a battle against the Lebanese army in 2000
at Sir el-Dinniye, joined a Palestinian group known as Jund al-Shams
(Soldier of Damascus) whose leader, Mohamed Sharqiye, arrived in Sidon
10 years ago - and here the story comes full circle - from the same
Nahr el-Bared camp where Fatah el-Islam was established in the summer
of last year.
It is too simple to claim
that this is Syria's work. Syria may have an interest is watching this
destabilisation, even - through its security networks - assisting these
groups with logistics. But other organisations might have found common
interest; the Iraqi insurgents, for example, even the Taliban, perhaps
equally small groups in the Palestinian occupied territories. That's
how these things work in the Middle East, where there is no such thing
as responsibility - only a commonality of interests. Perhaps the Americans
might have learnt something about this if they had not two years ago
insulted the Syrians for allowing fighters into Iraq - at which point,
the Syrians halted all military and intelligence co-operation with the
Interviewed earlier this
year, another of Fatah al-Islam's leaders who called himself "Abu
Mouayed", insisted that "we are not in contact with other
Islamists... we are not at the point of recruiting fighters, but those
who want to work with us and struggle against the Jews are welcome".
He also threatened to attack the enlarged UN force in southern Lebanon
which is run by four Nato generals. At the time, the PLO's officials
in Nahr el-Bared claimed that they were "keeping their eye"
on Fatah al-Islam. But sometime in the last two months, their gaze clearly
The army and the Internal
Security Force - a mild version of a paramilitary police unit - appear
to have caught 11 of the gunmen before they could kill themselves and
they are now under interrogation (a process that is definitely not going
to be mild, although one of the men was seriously wounded). Photographers
managed to catch pictures of one of the captured men as he was grabbed
by soldiers after one of their comrades had been killed. But is it likely
that these fierce - vicious - warriors are going to talk when they were
all prepared to die?
The army, too, has its feelings.
About half of their dead appear to be Sunni Muslims, and many of them
come from northern Lebanon.
This is a part of the country
where revenge killings have often been a feature of social anger and
once the battles at Nahr al-Bared are over, there will be families desperate
to make up for the loss of husbands and sons, especially those who were
done to death so cruelly. Back at Sir el-Dinniye in 2000, there were
no revenge deaths after 11 soldiers were killed. But some of the gunmen
who killed them seven years ago are now themselves - and here we go
full circle again - in the Ein el-Helweh camp in Sidon.
The PLO's Fatah movement
has called its namesake "a gang of criminals" - a wise precaution
given the suppressed fury of the Lebanese that the Palestinians allowed
the group to be created in the northern refugee camp. In Ein el-Helweh,
the PLO are on the streets, ensuring that there is no recurrence, although
one Palestinian Islamist did open fire into the air on Monday in anger
at the death of his "brothers" who are fighting the army.
If the siege of Nahr el-Bared
continues, however, it may not be so easy to control the Palestinian
groups in Beirut and in the south of Lebanon. And then the Lebanese
army - which is all that stands between peace and anarchy here - will
be even further stretched.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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