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.
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The fighting served as a wake-up call to Esbat al-Ansar and other allied Islamic militants in Ain al-Hilweh who realized that Jund ash-Sham radicals could trigger a major attack by the Lebanese army similar to the confrontation then ravaging the Nahr al-Bared in the north. Esbat al-Ansar agreed with traditional rival Fatah that it would keep watch over the more unruly Islamic elements in the quarter under its control, as both groups have a shared interest in preventing the situation in the camp from exploding.Skip to next paragraph
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“Esbat al-Ansar changed its leadership and they have played an important role [in keeping the peace]. They have the experience of many years and this has given them the right attitude and behavior,” said Sheikh Jamal Khattab, leader of the coalition of Islamic factions in Ain al-Hilweh, in a recent Monitor interview.
20 to 25 militants flee to Europe
In the summer of 2008, several Jund ash-Sham militants were targeted for assassination, reportedly by Fatah in cooperation with Lebanese military intelligence.
Wanted by Fatah and the Lebanese authorities, Sahmarani lived under virtual house arrest, rarely leaving his home and always informing Esbat al-Ansar of his movements.
Others traveled to Iraq to fight coalition forces, turned themselves in to the Lebanese army, or fled Ain al-Hilweh for European countries. According to Issa, the Fatah commander, around 20 to 25 militants escaped Ain al-Hilweh for Europe with the help of professional human smugglers. They reached Europe via Syria, Turkey, and the Balkan countries.
“The pressure they are under made the situation very difficult for them here,” Issa says.
Some of them appear to be seeking a better life by disappearing into immigrant communities in Europe, but there is always the risk that they may attempt to link up with cells of militants to carry out attacks. In April 2010, Imad Kroum, a former senior Jund ash-Sham official, was arrested in Greece and extradited back to Lebanon.
Those that remain behind face high risks. In August, Lebanese intelligence agents shot and killed Abdel-Rahman Awad, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, after he departed for Iraq.
Awad was wanted by the Lebanese authorities for staging attacks against Lebanon troops and United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon. He reportedly was replaced by Osama Shehabi, a former member of Jund ash-Sham, who is believed to be still living in Ain al-Hilweh but is rarely seen.
“We still consider our camp under threat. We don’t underestimate these guys. They are under surveillance all the time,” Issa says.
Still, given the tacit cooperation between former rivals Esbat al-Ansar and Fatah, the prospects of jihadist radicals gaining ground once more in Ain al-Hilweh remains dim, for now at least.
One veteran Palestinian commander says the key to stability is to abolish the influence of the Takfiri brand of Islam, which treats non-Muslims and even some Muslims as apostates and underpins the ideology espoused by Al-Qaeda. Mounir Moqdah, leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Lebanon, says he has set up educational, athletic, and moderate religious institutions for youngsters between the ages of six and 20.
“You can’t fight Takfiri ideology with guns, but with institutions,” he says. “They [the militant jihadists] won’t find a base of support here. No one wants that ideology in the camp.”