Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon becoming less of a hotbed for militancy
The recent murder of a top Al Qaeda-inspired militant and an exodus of other militants may signal increased stability, due in part to cooperation between Fatah and Islamist factions.
Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, south Lebanon
The murder of a senior Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadi and the exodus of other militants from here in recent months may herald some welcome stability for this impoverished Palestinian refugee camp.Skip to next paragraph
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With some 70,000 Palestinian refugees squashed into little more than a square mile near Sidon, Ain al-Hilweh lies outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese government and has long been plagued by Islamic radicalism and factional violence.
But a tacit agreement for calm between a coalition of Islamist factions and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has left little space for militants seeking to plot and stage attacks against the Lebanese state or foreign targets in Lebanon.
“Fatah and the Islamic groups are working together. The security of the camp is a red line,” says Mahmoud Issa, popularly known as Lino, a top Fatah official in the camp. He heads up Fatah’s Armed Struggle Faction in Lebanon, which is responsible for maintaining order in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps.
Dwindling band of militants
Ghandi “Abu Ramez” Sahmarani, the middle-aged leader of the now defunct Sunni jihadist faction Jund ash-Sham, was found dead in a car park at dawn last Saturday. He reportedly was tortured and executed. There was no claim of responsibility for his death and, unusually, it has not triggered any serious reprisal violence. A small bomb explosion the next day against a shop owned by a figure in the Fatah movement was quickly played down.
There are no shortage of potential suspects behind Sahmarani’s death. Among them is Fatah, which has regularly clashed with Jund ash-Sham militants since the group first emerged in 2004; Lebanese military intelligence, which wanted Sahmarani for attacks he led against Lebanese army checkpoints in 2007; and possibly rivals within the small jihadist community in the camp.
Still, Sahmarani’s death further reduces the influence of the dwindling band of jihadist militants remaining in Ain al-Hilweh. The camp’s largest jihadist group, Esbat al-Ansar – listed by the United States as a terrorist organization – has toned down its militancy since forging a tacit understanding with one-time rival Fatah to help keep stability in the camp.
That leaves a few isolated jihadists under threat of arrest or attack by Fatah and the Lebanese security authorities while living under the watchful eye of Esbat al-Ansar.
Crackdown on Ain al-Hilweh radicals
Sahmarani was living in a small quarter of the camp controlled by Esbat al-Ansar faction. The group gained notoriety in the 1990s for killing a prominent rival Islamic cleric in Beirut and fatally shooting four Lebanese judges in a court in Sidon.
Jund ash-Sham was formed in 2004 and comprised of several tiny jihadist factions and dissidents from the larger and more powerful Esbat al-Ansar. Jund ash-Sham’s founding leadership quit within months after a series of gun battles with the secular Fatah, leaving Sahmarani in charge.
The catalyst for the crackdown on the Ain al-Hilweh radicals came in 2007 when the Lebanese army was locked in a fierce 106-day battle with Fatah al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-inspired group in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon.
The fighting left more than 400 people dead and reduced the center of the camp to rubble. Days after fighting broke out in Nahr al-Bared, Sahmarani’s Jund ash-Sham militants attacked Lebanese army checkpoints on the edge of Ain al-Hilweh in support of their Islamist allies in the north. Twelve hours of clashes left two soldiers and two militants dead.