In Lebanon, pragmatism tempers jihadist aims
In a move to avoid a second deadly battle in a Palestinian refugee camp, some groups have taken a rare step away from Islamist militancy.
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On a recent visit to the camp, members of the group lolled outside their mosque. Some had long hair and thick beards and wore the salwar khameez, the long tunic and baggy trousers common in Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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"Esbat al-Ansar have become wiser and have a greater understanding of the situation. They came to the conclusion that they have to change their behavior," says Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the leader of Harakat Islamiyya Mujahidda and the top representative of Islamist forces in Ein el-Hilweh, in a rare interview with a Western reporter.
Diplomatic sources say that Lebanese authorities have offered amnesty to Esbat al-Ansar and other militants for past crimes so long as they moderate their behavior, a deal that apparently has encouraged the transition.
Sheikh Khattab, who holds a degree in business administration from the American University of Beirut and speaks fluent English, smiles often during the conversation. His demeanor is in marked contrast to his reputation as an advocate of the extremist Islam of Al Qaeda.
In the 1980s, his Al-Nour mosque was reportedly a logistics hub for recruits to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 2003, Khattab's group allegedly resumed its earlier role, assisting militants traveling to Iraq. Asked to comment on some of these allegations, Khattab smiles through his salt-and-pepper beard and denies them.
"Why would I care about Afghanistan when our struggle is for Palestine?" he asks. As for Iraq, he says, "Some from Esbat al-Ansar traveled to Iraq. When the resistance turned sectarian in Iraq, the volunteers from Ein el-Hilweh stopped going."
Some jihadists in Ein el-Hilweh, however, reject the new moderation of Esbat al-Ansar.
Confined to a tiny quarter of the camp, they comprise a loose coalition from Jund ash-Sham, a jihadi group formed in 2004 but formally dissolved last year, and remnants of Fatah al-Islam. Some have been indicted for staging attacks against United Nations peacekeepers. Lebanese authorities have no jurisdiction in the Palestinian camps, although Lebanese military intelligence has been playing a greater role in Ein el-Hilweh.
Islamists insist that Jund ash-Sham has been contained and blame secular Fatah, which is riven by an internal power struggle, for stirring up trouble. "We think the problem is with Fatah because it has too many leaders [in the camp] and there is no one in overall control of them," says Sheikh Yussef, the Palestinian cleric.
But "Lino," a prominent Fatah commander, says Fatah prefers a peaceful solution. "All the Palestinian forces are discussing how to get rid of Jund ash-Sham," he says. "If a peaceful solution is not found, we will mount a security operation against them and finish them off once and for all."