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Is Lebanon facing a 'new breed' of Al Qaeda?

Little is known about Fatah al-Islam, but experts say it is similar to other militant groups inspired by Osama bin Laden.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2007

Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp, Lebanon

As the fight between Islamic militants Fatah al-Islam and Lebanese forces entered its fourth day Wednesday – with a cease-fire holding just long enough to allow many civilians to flee – little is known about the group that says it refuses to surrender.

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Some observers say that the 200-300 fighters holed up inside Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, and seemingly preparing for a protracted battle with Lebanon's Army, are adherents of Osama bin Laden, part of a new generation of extremists tied to Al Qaeda.

But many of Lebanon's leading anti-Syrian politicians charge that this faction is little more than a tool of Syrian intelligence planted in Lebanon to wreak havoc and further destabilize the Western-backed government in Beirut.

"Either way, this group is Al Qaeda," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "Whoever supports this group does not detract from the fact that their ideology is Al Qaeda."

She adds that Fatah al-Islam is an example of the "new breed" of Al Qaeda, similar to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was made famous by its first leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before his death a year ago. "They are much more localized in aims and makeup like Al Qaeda in Iraq," she says.

Syria has denied any involvement with the group, arguing that it faces threats of its own from home-grown jihadi militants. There have been several shootouts and attacks in the past three years, including one on the US Embassy in Damascus, by suspected Islamic militants.

"Our forces have been after them, even through Interpol," Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, said earlier this week. "We reject this organization. It does not serve the Palestinian cause, and it is not after liberating Palestine."

Still, the violent politics and shifting alliances and interests of the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows.

Many analysts say there is little doubt that although the Syrian regime is nominally secular, its intelligence services for years have exploited militant Islamic extremists to serve their own purposes.

"Syrian intelligence sent hundreds if not thousands of innocent-minded young men to Iraq to struggle against the Americans," says Radwan al-Sayyed, a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University and adviser to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. "They tried to make an Islamist International in Iraq, like the Arabs and Americans did against the Soviets in Afghanistan."

Fatah al-Islam first arrived in Lebanon a year ago, setting up positions in the Nahr al-Bared camp, home to more than 30,000 refugees and located on the coast 10 miles south of the border with Syria.

They claimed to have split from the pro-Syrian Palestinian faction Fatah al-Intifada, which is headquartered in Damascus. Palestinians fleeing the fighting of the past three days, which has killed at least 69 people, say the group is composed of several nationalities, including Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis, and Iraqis. Lebanese sympathizers as well as Palestinians Islamic militants from refugee camps in Beirut and the south are believed to have helped swell their ranks.