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.
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.
Others slipped out following the Bared River, after which the camp is named, upstream toward the mountains lying to the east. The Army said it killed 38 militants and captured another 24, but at least 10 are thought to have escaped.
The crackle of gunfire could be heard coming from dense orange orchards and olive groves lining the Bared River a few miles upstream of the camp as soldiers tracked down one militant who had been spotted in the morning. More than 220 people, including 163 soldiers, were killed in the fighting.
Outside Tripoli, several hundred people waved flags, beat drums, and flung handfuls of rice and rose petals at passing soldiers in a traditional gesture of celebration.
In a televised speech, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora addressed the Army, saying it had achieved “the biggest victory over terrorists.” The US-backed government says that neighboring Syria was responsible for creating Fatah al-Islam, recruiting veterans of the Iraq insurgency and pro-Syrian Palestinians to destabilize Lebanon.
Syria has repeatedly denied any involvement with the group. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said such a notion was “rejected.” But he congratulated Lebanon for defeating Fatah al-Islam, “which distracted the Lebanese Army from their enemy Israel.”
Although Fatah al-Islam inside Nahr al-Bared has been destroyed, the group is thought to have a few supporters or cells operating elsewhere in the country. Fatah al-Islam’s leadership vowed repeatedly during the fighting to unleash the “sleeper cells” against targets in Lebanon. Several militants were killed or arrested in gun battles with police outside the camp. Among them was the group’s deputy leader, Abu Hureira, who escaped from the camp early on in the fighting only to be shot dead by police last month in the coastal city of Tripoli, 10 miles south of Nahr al-Bared.
A senior security official played down the prospect of further violence from the Fatah al-Islam survivors, dismissing them as a “gang” rather than a genuine jihadi group.
“This battle has been a lesson for this kind of combatant that Lebanon is too small and does not give them space to maneuver. They tried to pretend they were defending the Sunnis of Lebanon, but they were rejected by the Sunnis,” the officer says, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press.
But other groups exist in Lebanon that have ties to Fatah al-Islam and share the same jihadist ideology of Al Qaeda. Among them is Esbat al-Ansar based in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon and classified by Washington as a terrorist organization.
Keeping a close eye on developments in north Lebanon is the UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL operating in the south along the border with Israel. In June, six UNIFIL peacekeepers were killed when a car bomb exploded beside their armored vehicle. Two weeks later, a small bomb exploded beside a UNIFIL checkpoint, causing no casualties. Although there was no claim of responsibility for the first attack, two people linked to Fatah al-Islam have been arrested for carrying out the second bombing.