(UK – Telegraph) – A seething Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon has been infiltrated by al-Qa’eda extremists, according to Lebanese intelligence officials who believe that the terror group was behind a rocket attack on Beirut last week.
They blame the fundamentalist Esbat Al-Ansar (League of Warriors) faction inside Ain Al-Hilweh for the attack on a television station, describing it as an extension of last month’s suicide bombing campaign in Saudi Arabia in which at least 35 people died, including 10 Americans.
Security at the camp, a festering square mile of rusting metal and cracked concrete near the southern port of Sidon, was tightened last week after the attack on Future TV, which is controlled by Lebanon’s prime minister, Raqif Harriri.
The rocket attack at 10.30pm last Saturday devasted the television station’s newsroom but caused no injuries as no one was on duty at the time. Photographs of the prime minister standing in the wreckage, however, were seen as a symbol of Lebanon’s inability to control extremists.
A previously unknown group called Ansar Allah claimed responsibility but the intelligence official said it was a cover name for Esbat. Previously, Lebanon has denied that al-Qa’eda has infiltrated Ain Al-Hilweh.
“The attack was planned from within the camp,” the official admitted. “It’s an extension of the campaign in Saudi Arabia. They want to hit at Saudi interests in Lebanon, to cause them problems.”
More than 200 hardened al-Qa’eda and Taliban veterans arrived in the camp last year and took control of a district known as Emergency Street after a bitter turf war with Fatah, the movement for the liberation of Palestine, whose leader last week boasted to The Telegraph about orchestrating suicide attacks in Israel.
Since then, Esbat has imposed Islamic customs on residents of the 100,000-strong camp. Three men have been killed in the past month after they smuggled alcohol past Lebanese army checkpoints.
Squalid side streets in the Emergency quarter are patrolled by dozens of men wearing long beards. They question every passer-by, turning away those who are not welcome. In the crowded alleys, no women are visible.
Israeli intelligence officials believe that Faruq Al-Masri, an Egyptian militant who was murdered in March, led the group of men who fled Afghanistan after the war in 2001 and reached Lebanon with help from Iran.
Al-Masri took control of Esbat after his arrival, transforming it from a Palestinian faction into a radical Muslim organisation. The group’s previous leader, Abu Mohjen, a trusted ally of Osama bin Laden, had sent dozens of fighters to training camps in Afghanistan.
Relations between the militants and other residents have been strained since Esbat emerged victorious from the battle for territory after Al-Masri’s death. Hamad Obeida is among dozens of youths who have been forcibly shaved bald by Esbat in retribution for his “short back and sides” haircut.
Hamad (not his real name) was taking a shortcut down Emergency Street when he was pulled into a doorway and had an automatic rifle jammed into his ribs. “You are not wearing the hair of Allah’s teachings,” he was told. “You look like an American marine, the people who are killing our fellow Muslims in Iraq. The allies of our persecutors in Israel.”
Zain Farhoud, 42, suffered at the hands of Esbat after she went shopping at an American store. “They said my shopping was suspect because I had broken a fatwah to shop at the supermarket,” she said.
“They insisted on searching my bags. There was a magazine for brides that I had bought for my daughter. When they found that they became enraged.
“There are many foreigners who have come to this camp in the last one or two years,” she said. “They are taking the young boys and filling their heads with the glories of martyrdom for Islam.”
Munir Maqdah, the local Fatah leader, is scornful about the “road map” peace efforts being made by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, who is also known as Abu Mazen, and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
“As long as there is one piece of Arab land occupied and one refugee outside the country of their birth, the Palestinians have only one weapon that the Americans, Israelis and Abu Mazen cannot deprive them of and that is the martyrdom spirit,” he says.
Although he was found guilty of being an al-Qa’eda operative by a Jordanian court, Maqdah denies allowing its fighters to establish a base in Ain Al-Hilweh.
However, outsiders get little chance to find out if he is telling the truth. The Lebanese army fears a bloodbath if it enters the camp. In the office of Lebanese intelligence on a hill opposite Ain Al-Hilweh, the resident commander gave out his telephone number, but with a warning. “Don’t use it in Ain Al-Hilweh,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do for you there.”