Lebanon's rising jihadi threat
Even after the Lebanese Army defeated Islamic militants Sunday, Al Qaeda's credo is spreading in Palestinian camps.
Nahr Al-Bared, Lebanon
Lebanese military helicopters flew low Monday over the smoking ruins of this Palestinian refugee camp as soldiers scoured the nearby countryside for remnants of the Al Qaeda-inspired group whose three-month battle against the Army ended Sunday.Skip to next paragraph
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Fatah al-Islam, which violently burst onto Lebanon's turbulent political scene, triggered the worst internal violence since the 1975-19 civil war. But even though its leader, Shaker al-Absi, is dead and almost all his militants killed or captured, many Lebanese worry that it's just a matter of time before Sunni jihadi violence erupts again.
A weak central government, ill-equipped and factionalized security services, extremist Islamic groups in Palestinian camps, and the tempting target of European-led United Nations peacekeepers in the south make Lebanon a potentially attractive base for operations, analysts say.
"There is a nucleus of groups here that could easily become Al Qaeda in Lebanon," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
The climax to a battle between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam began before dawn Sunday, when the last few dozen surviving militants launched an attempt to break through the Lebanese Army cordon surrounding the Nahr al-Bared camp. Several militants from outside the camp hijacked a taxi and forced the driver to head toward an Army position. When the militants opened fire, the soldiers shot back, killing the taxi driver and at least two other occupants. Simultaneously, groups of Fatah al-Islam fighters attacked Army posts at the southern, eastern, and northern entrances. One group of five militants emerged near an Army position on the coastal road, bypassing the eastern perimeter of the camp, and hailed the soldiers to come over, according to witnesses.
"They pretended to be civilians helping the Army. But when an officer and a soldier approached them, [the militants] shot them dead," says Ahmad Sayyed.
The militants ran across the highway and burst into a house, taking a family hostage. "One of them, speaking with a Saudi accent, put a gun to my head and asked how they could get away. I thought I was going to die," says Abdullah Bukhalil, sitting beside the road drinking coffee with family and friends. The fighters, carrying rifles and grenades and dressed in black uniforms, made their escape and were later killed by Lebanese troops.
"The Army asked me to identify their bodies, and I confirmed that they were the men who attacked our house," Bukhalil says.
A thick cloud of black smoke rose from the eastern end of the camp as helicopters swooped low over the piles of concrete and the skeletal remains of homes, combing the rubble for any surviving militants.
Residents say that several Fatah al-Islam militants are suspected of hiding out in the ruins, waiting for the situation to calm before escaping. Some militants attempted to flee by sea. The body of one militant, shaven-headed with a small goatee beard and dressed only in olive military trousers, was fished out of the sea Monday and briefly displayed to curious bystanders before being taken away.