The brutal fighting inside Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which has claimed 140 lives so far, seems incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the intricacies of Palestinian politics. But behind the killing lurks an urgent question: Is Fatah al Islam—the organization responsible for much of the fighting—a pawn of Syria, as charged by the U.S. and some Lebanese? Or is it an unintended outgrowth of a U.S.-backed plan to develop a Sunni counterweight to Hezbollah?
During a recent trip to the Middle East, I conducted exclusive interviews with Palestinian and Syrian government and intelligence officials as well as independent sources. All of them insisted that while some leaders of Fatah al Islam did indeed live in Syria, those leaders broke from a Syrian-supported group in 2006, well before the current Lebanese turmoil.
The groups fighting in Lebanon hold to a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, which stands strongly at odds with Syria's secular, pan-Arab ideology. "These groups hate Syria," a top Syrian intelligence source told me in an exclusive interview. "We are a secular country."
Yet Syrian officials still have some explaining to do.
Understanding this complex story requires a flashback to 1983, when Syria backed a rebellion within the Palestine Liberation Organization against Yasser Arafat. Two leaders of Fatah, the main group within the PLO, broke with Arafat and formed a rival organization, Fatah al Intifada. Arafat ultimately triumphed and Fatah al Intifada has little popular support today. It has a modest headquarters in Damascus and until recently had an armed presence in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon. (For nearly 40 years, the Lebanese government has agreed not to send its police and army into the camps; Palestinians are responsible for their own security, and different groups control different camps.)
But by 2006 Syrian intelligence officials had begun to suspect Fatah al Intifada might have become a jihadist group. They had been extensively recruiting Saudi, Jordanian and other non-Palestinians to their ranks. Officials learned that meetings and leaflets in Lebanese refugee camps were calling for an independent Islamic state in northern Lebanon and Syria.
Two key events furthered the suspicions. Syrian authorities stopped at least one convoy of small arms being transported from the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq, through Syria, on its way to Lebanon. Non-Palestinians were also using Fatah al Intifada ID cards to smuggle weapons into Lebanon. Under a long-standing agreement between the two countries, according to a second Syrian intelligence source, "people with Fatah al Intifada ID cards can easily cross the border and carry weapons for use in the Lebanese refugee camps."
In December 2006, Syrian authorities arrested Fatah al Intifada co-founder Abu Khalid Omla, whom they had sheltered for years in Damascus. The second intelligence source told me Omla had squirreled away $20 million in Damascus real estate and foreign bank accounts. Fatah al Intifada formally expelled Omla in December 2006, just a few weeks after a jihadist website announced that a new group, Fatah al Islam, had split off from Fatah al Intifada; Omla had been secretly backing Fatah al Islam, according to Syrian intelligence sources. Soon, Fatah al Islam fighters took over Fatah al Intifada's military role in the Nahr al Bared camp.
Another of the splinter group's leaders was a former air force pilot trained in Libya, Shaker al Abssi. He had been a leader of Fatah al Intifada. In 2001 he fled Jordan for Syria, where he was arrested, though it's not clear on what charges. Then in 2002, jihadists assassinated U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Abssi was tried and convicted in absentia in Jordan for plotting the murder. Yet Palestinian leaders in Syria managed to secure his release from prison, and in 2004 he was allowed to move back to Lebanon—where, it seems, he began organizing jihadists.
"We didn't know they were takfiri [jihadists]," a top Fatah al Intifada leader who lives in Damascus told me. "They told us they were training these guys to fight Israel. Suddenly, we found out they were being trained to fight Shiites in Lebanon."
Syrian officials blamed Lebanese conservatives and the United States for the rise of the Lebanese jihadists. Fatah al Intifada and other Syrian sources told me that Fatah al Islam's funds came from the powerful Lebanese Hariri family, which aimed to create a Sunni counterbalance to the Shia-based Hezbollah. Syrian intelligence sources say the U.S. and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan also financed Fatah al Islam, though they produced no proof of these allegations despite repeated requests.
Their analysis does echo the accounts of the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, who has reported that according to U.S. intelligence sources, the Bush administration, Prince Bandar, and Lebanese member of Parliament Saad Hariri were trying to develop a Sunni alternative to Shiite-dominated Hezbollah. Writing before the current fighting began, Hersh named Fatah al Islam as one of those groups.
Lebanese newspaper accounts also confirmed that the Hariri family had paid money to Jund al Sham, another Jihadist group, which is fighting in a Palestinian camp in southern Lebanon.
Washington has a long history of supporting Sunni fundamentalists for reasons of political expediency, from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to fundamentalist Mujahideen factions in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. In Lebanon, it appears, the U.S. began to sour on the jihadists earlier this year, realizing that they were neither reliable nor capable of becoming much of a force against Hezbollah. Unnamed U.S. intelligence sources were a key source for a New York Times article about Fatah al Islam and similar groups in March. The article suggested that these groups were part of a new generation of al Qaeda fundamentalists with no ties to the U.S.
The current fighting appears to have begun when Fatah al Islam demanded a raise from Hariri's minions, along with a permanent base in the Nahr al-Bared camp. Hariri's men, according to a Syrian intelligence official, cut off the group's funds in retaliation. According to one account, Fatah al Islam militants went to get their pay at a Hariri-owned bank and were refused, whereupon they robbed the bank.
Freelance journalist and Lebanon expert Franklin Lamb managed to sneak into the Nahr al Bared refugee camp during the first few days of the fighting; he reports on the alleged Hariri financing and the bank robbery here.
After the bank robbery, Hariri-aligned security forces killed some Fatah al Islam members, Fatah al Islam fighters attacked unsuspecting Lebanese army soldiers—and the war was on. The fighting escalated beyond the plans of anyone involved, a stark reminder that those who hope to use Sunni fundamentalists as a counter-weight to Hezbollah and Iran risk the weight swinging back to hit them.
Reese Erlich's article on Kurdish guerrillas appeared in the March-April issue of Mother Jones. His new book, "The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis," comes out in October.
© 2007 Mother Jones