BEIRUT — When Palestinian Authority security official Mohammed Saadi died late last month of wounds he’d sustained in a clash at Lebanon’s Ain el Hilweh refugee camp with a group of al Qaida-inspired jihadists who’ve long controlled a section of the camp, his friends, family and security colleagues immediately took his body to the camp cemetery for a traditional Muslim burial.
As they arrived, a 17-year-old Egyptian Islamist known locally as al Bayoumi detonated an old mortar round. The explosion killed al Bayoumi, wounded several top camp officials and narrowly missed a top Palestinian Authority security official, Mohammed al Issi, known colloquially as “al Lino.”
The attack left residents of Ain el Hilweh, as well as Lebanese authorities and security officials from the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, convinced that the long-running struggle for control of the Palestinian camp, about an hour south of Beirut in the coastal city of Sidon, has entered a new phase, one that threatens to grow more intense as Lebanon’s usually small jihadist community has been bolstered in terms of men, motivation and support from al Qaida-linked factions fighting in nearby Syria.
Violence among Ain el Hilweh’s more than 20 factions is hardly uncommon, but the incident came as the camp’s jihadist factions had come under scrutiny for links to the bombing of the Iranian Embassy last month. Lebanese security forces have identified the two suicide bombers thought to have carried out that attack as Mohen Abu Dahr, a young Sunni Muslim from Sidon, and Adnan Mohammed, a onetime camp resident with ties to extremist groups.
Lebanese army checkpoints came under attack twice Sunday from suicide bombers, killing a soldier and several assailants, at least one of whom was Palestinian. Lebanese officials strongly suspect that the attackers have connections to groups in the camp. Throughout the week, reports of armed men on farmland adjacent to the camp have led to several military operations.
The camp long has been an incubator for radicals. Its alumni include Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was the leader of al Qaida in Iraq until an American warplane fired a precision weapon that killed him in 2006.
“Ain el Hilweh has been the heart of the jihadist movements in the Levant since the emir Abu Musab lived there before the American invasion of Iraq,” said Abu Omar al Rahman, a Lebanese Islamist who went to Iraq in 2004 to fight alongside Zarqawi before being sent home over his lack of military training.
“Today Lebanon is very different,” Rahman said, explaining that he didn’t want his full name divulged for fear it would draw authorities’ attention to his jihadist past. “Back then, Hezbollah didn’t care if we went to fight the Americans in Iraq, and Lebanon was happy to see us leave. We were only arrested when we came back. Now any Muslim can be arrested by the army because of the situation in Syria.”
Rahman described Ain el Hilweh, with 70,000 people packed together in a square mile, as “far more important to the al Qaida project in the region” than Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, where Sunni militias aligned with Syria’s rebels regularly clash with Alawite gunmen who are sympathetic to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Tripoli,” Rahman said, “is an extension of the war in Syria.”
But the Ain el Hilweh camp is part of what he described as “the global Salafist jihadist mentality that is fighting for both God and a return of the caliphate, not for local concerns.”
That means that in addition to wanting Syria to be ruled by radical Sunni interpretations of Islam, the camp is a breeding ground for those who believe that Shiites “are apostates that need to be destroyed,” Rahman said.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah agrees, and its officials and security personnel have been quietly making the case that al Qaida-linked groups are using the long-standing tradition that Lebanese soldiers and police officers can’t enter the Palestinian refugee camps to make arrests in order to build a haven to conduct operations against Hezbollah in revenge for its open participation in fighting for the Syrian regime.
One Hezbollah official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter, ticked off the names of al Qaida-inspired and -linked groups that are thought to operate in the camp: Abdullah Azzam, Esbat al Ansar, Jund al Sham, Fatah al Islam, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
On Wednesday, the Syria-based Nusra Front announced that Usamah al Shihabi, a top leader of Fatah al Islam, was Nusra’s leader in Lebanon, confirming the fears of many that Lebanese jihadist groups were consolidating around Syrian militant organizations. The U.S. Treasury Department immediately designated Shihabi as a terrorist and said it would freeze any of his American assets.
Inside Ain el Hilweh itself, the Islamists control at least one section of the camp. Their growing presence concerns Hezbollah because of the camp’s location on the highway that links Beirut with the militant group’s traditional power center in southern Lebanon.
An explosion of violence at the camp could easily end up cutting off Lebanon’s coastal highway. The concern that the camp could be used to challenge Hezbollah appears real. Abdullah Azzam, for example, reportedly is led by two Saudis; earlier this month Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi intelligence of managing the group.
Fatah al Islam comprises the survivors of the 2007 Lebanese army siege of the Nahr Bared refugee camp, which was sparked when veterans of jihadi fighting in Iraq attacked Lebanese army checkpoints. Hundreds died in the three-month siege and more than 20,000 Palestinian refugees were forced from their homes, in some cases for years.
Jund al Sham and Esbat al Ansar – the traditional jihadist powers in the camp – are thought to have ties to al Qaida and to al Qaida in Iraq’s Zarqawi. The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are major anti-Assad fighting groups in Syria that trace their lineage to al Qaida in Iraq.
“All factions in the camp are working to prevent another Nahr Bared,” according to one of the camp’s power centers, Munir Maqda, who commands hundreds of men and often serves as an intermediary between the Palestinian authorities and Islamists.
“There’s always been a lot of Islamists in Ain el Hilweh,” according to Gen. Ibrahim Hatoum, who once served as the top Lebanese army intelligence official for the camp. He traces the instability in the camp to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision in the early 1980s to abandon its headquarters in Beirut after an Israeli invasion.
“After the PLO left in the 1980s, there was a power vacuum in all of the camps,” he explained. “The Syrians and Hezbollah took control of the Beirut camps. . . . Ain el Hilweh is where the jihadis, the same people who started al Qaida and today ISIS and Nusra, settled.”
Zarqawi remains a hero to many in the camp, and posters of camp residents who were killed fighting alongside him in Iraq still adorn walls. The main street through the Islamist-controlled section of the camp is named “Martyrs of Fallujah” after the Iraqi city where the United States fought one of its largest battles against al Qaida in Iraq.
Now Nusra Front flags fly in the camp, and some residents claim that Nusra’s mysterious commander, Abu Mohammed al Jawlani, or Golani, lived in the camp after he fled Iraq in 2007 and before he returned to his native Syria to lead the Nusra Front. His name implies that he’s from the Golan Heights.
Camp officials deny knowing that Jawlani ever lived in the camp, but Hatoum described the claim as “logical.”
Residents of the camp and the surrounding community say a recent influx of outsiders thought to be Syrian jihadists have aggravated tensions. A worker for an outside aid group ties their arrival to a battle in June between followers of Ahmed Assir, an al Qaida-inspired Sunni cleric, on one side and Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on the other.
“When Assir’s guys were defeated, a bunch of new faces arrived,” according to the worker, who asked not to be named because he works in the camp. “Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians from Syrian camps. They’re organizing.”
Assir remains a fugitive, with some unproven speculation that he’s taken refuge in the camp, which sits just a few hundred yards from his old mosque complex. But his critical ally, the former Arabic pop singer Fadl Shaker, who’s undergone a radical transformation since his playboy days as a performer, fled that battle and is openly leading a jihadist militia, according to residents.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.