Shhh! “Talk about extreme, militant Islamists and the atrocities that they have perpetrated globally might undercut the positive achievements that we Catholics have attained in our inter-religious dialogue with devout Muslims and possibly generate suspicion and even fear of people who practice piously the religion of Islam.” — Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, February 8, 2013
Foreign jihadists are recruiting among Lebanon’s Palestinian camps and plan to start targeting Lebanese Christians with suicide bombings, according to a former top PLO official.
Al-Qaeda-affiliate jihadists are redoubling their recruitment in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and are likely to try to further fan sectarian tensions in the country by targeting Lebanese Christians in a suicide bombing campaign that until now has focused on Shia Muslims, warns a top Palestinian official.
Mahmoud Abdul-Hamid Issa, the former top security official for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, says the camps are at “boiling point”, including Ain el-Hilweh, a refugee camp an hour south of Beirut and the largest for Palestinian families that fled to Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israel war.
Known as el-Lino, the 44-year-old Issa says Ain el-Hilweh, which contains 17 armed Palestinian and Islamist factions, is inching towards full-blown fighting. He has been urging the PLO leadership to take a stronger line in the dozen Palestinian camps in Lebanon and uproot jihadists, warning that inaction will risk Lebanese army intervention and a major crisis in relations between Palestinians and the Lebanese. More than 200,000 Palestinians live in the camps and a further 200,000 are spread out across Lebanon.
The Palestinians themselves administer the camps, which have played significant roles in the history and politics of violence in Lebanon, having been used in the past by extremist groups. What plays out in the camps can often aggravate ideological and sectarian splits in Lebanon—and, in turn, rifts among the Lebanese can roil the settlements.
“The situation is very tense and very dangerous,” Issa says, speaking over coffee in his spotless office furnished with black leather chairs on a side street in the teeming camp. The only wall decoration was a large photograph of Yasser Arafat, no stranger to turmoil in Lebanon.
Leather-clad, AK-47-wielding gunmen protect Issa’s small compound and pedestrians are scrutinized as they walk in adjacent pot-holed lanes. In December, Issa was wounded in an assassination attempt in Ain el-Hilweh by jihadists that left one of his bodyguards dead. The bomber, who died in the attack, was an Egyptian. The assassination attempt took place at the funeral of Mohammad al-Saadi, a PLO official who was shot dead along with two companions days earlier outside the camp.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Issa, a father of five young children, including a newborn, says the tensions in Ain el-Hilweh won’t stay under control for long, despite mediation efforts between the camp’s armed factions, and between the PLO and rival Hamas, and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant Shia movement. “All the leaders are worried and we are trying to contain fallout from the jihadists’ bombing campaign,” he says.
According to Issa, jihadists “manipulate cleverly the schism between Sunnis and Shia in their recruitment.”
“There are between to 200 to 300 fighters now in Ain el-Hilweh, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese but there are a few Iraqis and Yemenis among them,” he says. Most of them live in one quadrant in the camp, which is close to the southern seaport of Sidon, although there is a pocket of jihadists elsewhere in an area mostly dominated by Fatah, the most powerful faction within the PLO.
The jihadists are members of a variety of groups—including homegrown ones such as Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham—but all are increasingly “coming under the sway” of the Lebanese wing of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, he says. He names the most important jihadist commander in the camp as Tawfiq Taha, a 52-year-old who is wanted by Lebanese authorities in connection with several bombings including attacks in 2007 and 2008 on UN peacekeepers. Taha owns a house that backs on to Issa’s compound, although he reportedly now lives elsewhere in Ain el-Hilweh.
“I have good information they will start turning their attention to Lebanese Christians and start bombing their districts,” Issa says….