“The Rise of Fatah al-Islam” – SITE Institute intelligence brief
(The Site Institute) Though seemingly appearing from nothing, Fatah al-Islam, a jihadist group based in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli and currently engaged in battle with the Lebanese army, was not established overnight. Rather, Fatah al-Islam is the result of a concerted effort by jihadists to establish a front in Lebanon and the Levant that began in earnest following the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah. With the help of foreign, experienced jihadists, Fatah al-Islam was able to transform itself from a non-existent, unknown group to the most important jihadist group operating in Lebanon today.
The global jihadist movement has long had its eye on the Levant. Al-Qaeda’s “2020 Plan,” a long-term blueprint for success written by al-Qaeda strategist Saif al-Adel, outlines a six-stage plan enabling jihadists to emerge as the reigning superpower of the world. The first stage, called “The Stage of Arousal,” was accomplished with the attacks on 9/11. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 began the second stage, “The Stage of Opening the Eyes.” The third stage, “The Stage of Standing Up and Rising on Two Feet,” is to begin in the Levant and last from approximately 2007 to 2010. Lebanon, in particular, with a weak central government and containing several religious sects competing for power, is ripe for exploitation by the jihadists, as happened in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Any base or stronghold in Lebanon or Syria would provide the jihadists with an excellent staging ground for attacks against Israel and the surrounding Arab regimes. According to al-Adel’s plan, “By the end of [the third] stage, Al-Qaeda will have finished its preparations for a direct confrontation with the Jews, within Palestine and along its borders.”
The leaders of Al-Qaeda have also advocated for the jihad to spread to the Levant. For example, in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, “It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established…[and] the center would be in al-Sham [the Levant] and Egypt.” Zarqawi himself advocated a jihadist presence in the Levant, releasing an audio message in July 2005, asking followers, “When are we going to continue our efforts in defending the lands and the Muslim people, when the cross-worshipers will enter the land of al-Sham, Mecca, and Medina and dishonor us? We should spend more effort in our fight.” In October 2005, jihadists on online forums discussed bringing the jihad from Iraq to the Levant, with one member proclaiming, “So you, young men and lions of al-Sham, be ready and cheer up for prosperity and blessing in your land . . . the jihad is coming as promised by Allah.”
While the jihad has intensified over the last few years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Somalia, and now, Lebanon, the focus for many jihadists remained on Iraq. Even jihadist groups already operating in Lebanon, such as Asbat Al-Ansar, based in the Ayn al-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp, were sending their own members to fight alongside Zarqawi in Iraq. One such member, Ayman Noor Salah, died in Iraq under Zarqawi’s command, and noted in his video will released in May 2006, “And to my friends, the mujahideen, who are in the al-Sham lands, I mean all of them by names; my friends, I tell you to continue going on this path and do not be afraid of this strong nation or any unbelieving ruler.” Jaafar al-Maqdisi, a commander in Zarqawi’s army, was also from Asbat Al-Ansar. In his video will released in June 2006 after his death, al-Maqdisi told his family, “I send to you this message from a heart that feels for you. I tell you to join the convoys of the mujahideen. You have to promise yourselves to the land of jihad and to be with the group of the believers.”
As often happens, it took a war to move the jihad in Lebanon from a propaganda phase to the establishment of an active jihadist front. When war broke out between Israel and Hizballah in July 2006, the jihad in Lebanon became one of the foremost issues discussed within the entire jihadist community. The direct confrontation between Hizballah and Israel perplexed jihadists, as they were unsure whom to support. The Israelis, of course, were naturally the enemies of the jihadists, but Hizballah, though fighting the Israelis, was a Shi’a organization created and funded by Iran, also a doctrinal enemy of the jihadists. Soon, fatwas from jihadist ideologues made clear that the jihadists must not support Hizballah, as the group was Shi’a, whom jihadists view as apostates. In an unequivocating fatwa forbidding support to Hizballah released on July 31, the radical Kuwait shaykh Hamid
al-Ali ruled, “Let it be known to all that the Iranian army in Lebanon – Nasrallah’s party – is only a card which Iran plays within its competition with the Crusader West to control the Ummah in fighting its belief. And Iran wanted to use it to strike a deal with the Zio-Crusade campaign to achieve and gain its objectives in Iraq and other places. And also, to achieve supremacy in the Gulf area to serve its expansionist goals on the account of the Sunni people, after sacrificing their blood and the unity of Iraq for that cause.”
Still, the jihadists felt paralyzed and frustrated. In their eyes, the jihadists themselves should have been defending Lebanon from the Israelis, not a group of apostates funded by Iran. “Why does al-Qaeda not announce its presence in Palestine or Lebanon? What is it waiting for?” one member wrote on a jihadist forum. Responding to the uproar in the jihadist community and the war in Lebanon, Zawahiri released a video on July 27 urging the formation of a jihadist front in Palestine, and possibly Lebanon, suggesting that the region’s proximity to Iraq would allow for coordination, and ultimately unity, between the groups of mujahideen. Zawahiri argued, “We cannot remain silent and cringe while watching these missiles pouring fire on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon…Iraq being near Palestine is an advantage; therefore, the Muslims should support its mujahideen until an Islamic emirate of jihad is established there. Subsequently, it would transfer the jihad to the borders of Palestine with the aid of Allah, then the mujahideen in and out of Palestine would unite and the greatest conquest would be accomplished.”
Following the speech, jihadist forum members debated over whether Zawahiri sanctioned the opening of a jihadist front in Lebanon or only in Palestine. “The shaykh [Zawahiri] ordered a response outside Lebanon . . . but [as for a] response in Lebanon, he left that to al-Qaeda in Iraq; they are the nearest and know the circumstances of the field,” one member suggested. Another asked, “Why does [Zawahiri] consider Iraq the closest front to Palestine even though Lebanon is closer and shares a border with it?”
As the war between Israel and Hizballah continued, a message outlining an initiative for success in Lebanon appeared on messageboards. The author of the message, an individual calling himself Atta Najdi, discussed the strategy the jihadists must take in Lebanon. In his message posted published on July 31, 2006, Najdi argued that the jihadists could benefit greatly from the war between Israel and Hizballah and establish “a pure Sunni, Salafist fighting front” in Lebanon. This new group would initially lie dormant, Najdi suggested, allowing Hizballah and Israel to exhaust each other. During this time, support from previously established groups in Palestinian refugee camps, like Asbat al-Ansar, would be consolidated by drawing particular attention to the perceived Shi’a threat in Lebanon as a result of the Shi’a killing Sunnis in Iraq. Ultimately, the group would take on the “Shi’a enemies of Allah in Lebanon,” Najdi wrote.
A few months after Najdi’s proposition, Fatah al-Islam proclaimed its existence in a communique issued to jihadist messageboards on November 29, which said, “Starting today we announce the name of this movement which we represent as ‘Fatah al-Islam.’ To you, the multitude of our Muslim people, we are for you and from you. We have what you have and pay what you pay. Your honors are ours and your peace is ours.” As Najdi had suggested, Fatah al-Islam’s principles were based upon the radical Sunni-Salafist ideology espoused by al-Qaeda. In an March interview with the New York Times, the leader of Fatah
al-Islam, Shaker Al-Abssi, made clear that the group was following al-Qaeda’s ideology, stating, “Osama bin Laden does make the fatwas . . . Should his fatwas follow the Sunnah [or Islamic law]…we will carry them out.”
The establishment of Fatah al-Islam may seem like a simple matter of posting a message to a website and giving an interview to the media, but the group’s rise to prominence required a significant amount of support from foreign jihadists willing to travel to Lebanon to spread the jihad. While the group was officially led by Shaker Al-Abssi, who with ties to Zarqawi and a history of engaging in jihad on behalf of Palestinians likely commands respect within the refugee camps of Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam’s success depended on the aid of seasoned jihadists, both in terms of military experience and issuing propaganda. Without this external support from jihadists near and far, Fatah al-Islam would likely never have been able to make its mark in Lebanon in such a short period of time.
One of those endeavoring to bring jihad to Lebanon was Abdulrahman Yahya al-Yahya, who, according to jihadist messageboards like Ekhlaas, is the son of the prominent Saudi shaykh, Yahya bin Abdulaziz al-Yahya. Al-Yahya left his home of Saudi Arabia to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan subsequent to 9/11. He then left Afghanistan and returned to Saudi Arabia, where he was wanted by Saudi authorities. While Al-Yahya managed to evade capture, his brother, Abu Asem, was arrested northwest of Riyadh. Al-Yahya then traveled to Iraq, where he joined and fought with the Islamic State of Iraq. Clearly believing in the need to establish a jihadist front in the Levant, al-Yahya left Iraq for Lebanon in late 2006, where he helped found Fatah al-Islam. As a member of jihadist messageboards, al-Yahya was able to recruit others remotely and while on the move. The valuable experience that he gained fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his contacts, enabled al-Yahya to become one of the leaders of Fatah al-Islam and help the group operationally, strategically, and in media warfare.
Al-Yahya was not the only individual with a strong presence on jihadist messageboards who went to Lebanon after the war between Israel and Hizballah ended. Another prominent jihadist who aided in the establishment of Fatah al-Islam was an individual known on jihadist messageboards by his username “Al-Faris Al-Ta’an.” On December 4, a message appeared on the Ekhlaas jihadist forum announcing that one of the messageboard’s moderators had departed for “the land of glory.” The phrase traditionally meant Iraq or Afghanistan, but in this case, signified Lebanon, indicating how strongly jihadists desired to form a front in the country. Al-Ta’an’s role was not to shoot bullets or make IEDs, but instead to aid the nascent group in creating a media wing to produce propaganda, crucial to the success of any jihadist group. Al-Ta’an’s experience as a moderator of the highly influential Ekhlaas forum put him in an excellent position to help Fatah al-Islam appeal to the global jihadist movement.
The group remained largely silent for the few months after the announcement of its initial formation, biding time to prepare itself for the coming jihad by recruiting, training, solidifying its local presence, and establishing trusted channels to distribute propaganda. By March 2007, Fatah al-Islam began releasing communiques to the most prominent jihadist messageboards much more frequently, demonstrating to the global jihadist community that Fatah al-Islam was indeed well-established and engaging in military training. The connections and contacts that Al-Yahya and Al-Ta’an brought the group enabled Fatah al-Islam to distribute its communiques through the Al-Fajr Media Center, the online distribution committee that al-Qaeda and other prominent jihadist groups utilize to disseminate their propaganda online. With an instant global audience obtained through the al-Fajr Media Center, Fatah al-Islam was soon appealing to Palestinians in refugee camps to provide their support to Fatah al-Islam and releasing savvy statements designed to attract jihadists to join the fight.
By May 2007, Fatah al-Islam was very well-known and supported within the jihadist community, evidencing the major success that Fatah al-Islam had achieved without even claiming credit for a single terrorist attack or operation. Fatah al-Islam’s propaganda campaign was so successful, that when fighting broke out between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam on May 19, jihadists across the world offered their support to the group and condemned the actions of the Lebanese military, with one jihadist forum member writing that Fatah al-Islam is “our hope in Lebanon and the land of al-Sham. So do not abandon them, our brothers in Lebanon, especially in the north.”
Groups, known and unknown, issued statements offering their support to Fatah al-Islam. Jeish al-Islam, the group that claims to have kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston, issued a communique exhorting others to take up the fight with Fatah al-Islam, stating, “Our brothers, the people of al-Sunnah, in particular the mujahideen in Lebanon, we say to you that what is happening now to your brothers in Nahr al-Bared is nothing but an example of what the party of harm is preparing for you. So hurry to support your brothers; show Allah the sincerity of your intentions.” Another previously unknown group, Al-Qaeda in the Land of Al-Sham, released a video promising its support for the Palestinians in refugee camps, in which a masked figure says, “In the name of Allah, we shall not let you down, and you will see from the Sunni people in general, and in Lebanon and Tripoli in particular, what will please you.”
The Global Islamic Media Front, one of the most recognized distributors of jihadist propaganda, also encouraged others to support Fatah Al-Islam, writing, “So support your brothers with what you can…for this battle is not against Fatah al-Islam alone, but it is for the destruction of the jihad and the mujahideen in the lands of Islam, the lands of al-Sham.” Muhammad Khalil al-Hukaymah, the respected leader of the faction of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya [The Islamic Group] that pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda, also told jihadists in a message released on May 31, “Stand up and support your brothers in Nahr al-Bared camp as this is your Shari’a duty… It is imperative today for the immigrant mujahideen in Lebanon to support them…Support them today… before it is too late.”
The calls of support from both prominent and unknown jihadists indicates how important the jihad in Lebanon is to the global jihadist movement. Some have already proclaimed that the jihad in Iraq must be replicated in Lebanon, with one jihadist ominously predicting, “Tripoli is Ramadi, Al-Mina is Fallujah, Beirut is Baghdad, and Lebanon is Iraq.” The calls to aid the jihadists in Lebanon will not be ignored. As has happened repeatedly since 9/11, the requests of jihadists to support one another throughout the world have been heard and followed. Heeding the calls of the jihadist movement, jihadists from all over the world have flocked to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya, and Algeria, seeking to support the mujahideen in any way they can. Lebanon will likely be no different.
While the outcome of the current conflict between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam is unknown, in many ways, it is too late to stop the momentum of the jihadists, no matter how the issue is resolved. Fatah al-Islam, engendered and supported by experienced jihadists, has already opened a jihadist front that can not be easily closed. Already, in response to the actions of the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Bared, clashes with jihadists have spread to southern Lebanon in the Ayn al-Hilwa refugee camp. One Asbat al-Ansar member, known as Abu Hamza, was announced in a communique to have been killed in Ayn al-Hilwa while defending the honor of the jihadists in the Nahr al-Bared camp.
Fear of the hegemony of Hizballah and Iran in Lebanon, coupled with a desire to defend Palestinians and Sunnis from Israel, has focused jihadist eyes on Lebanon as the next logical step to continue their jihad. The current conflict between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese government has demonstrated to jihadists that the government is a direct threat and is now inspiring militant activity outside of Nahr al-Bared. Whether the manifestation of the jihadist movement in Lebanon continues under the name Fatah al-Islam or another, the movement will proceed to make inroads into the Levant to establish an influential presence to combat their enemies and spread jihad.
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