A roadside checkpoint is as close as the Lebanese army can get to the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, the scene of the latest violence in Lebanon. Under the terms of a 38-year old Arab agreement, the government troops may not enter any of the country’s 12 such camps.
On the inside, it’s the militia that lay down the law. They continue to carry weapons despite a UN resolution made in 2004 that forbids Lebanese militia from being armed. One of the groups is Fatah al-Islam, which split from the pro-Syrian Fatah al-Intifada last November. It has an estimated 200 troops in training at Nahr al-Bared.
The Lebanese Army has had Fatah al-Islam in its sights since February, when three people died in bomb attacks on two buses in a Christian area north of Beirut. Authorities say members of Fatah al-Islam have claimed responsibility. The attacks came on the eve of the anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister. Lebanon has accused Syria of involvement with his murder.
For many top intelligence analysts like Claude Moniquet of the European Strategic Intelligance and Security Centre, Syria is pulling the strings of the group: ^“It’s in northern Lebanon, near Tripoli, in an area with a strong Syrian influence. Syria has long had contacts there with this sort of organisation, which could lead us to think that it’s using Fatah al-Islam to destabilise Lebanon.”
This link is denied by both Syria and the militia’s leader, Shaker al-Abssi. Sentenced to death in Jordan for the killing of an American diplomat, Abssi was imprisoned in Syria but released last year before going to Lebanon. His two objectives are to establish Sharia law in refugee camps and fight Israel. He admits his group shares its ideology with al-Qaeda, but denies any organisational co-operation.
But it remains unlikely Fatah al-Islam can reach its goals alone, says Moniquet: “The destabilisation of Lebanon is extremely possible. But this organisation can only do that effectively if it finds allies. Whether Hezbollah is ready to embark on a new campaign like the one last summer, that is far from sure.”