Leader of Lebanon's al-Qaeda cell pledges to strike America again
DEEP in a violent and lawless slum just north of the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli, 12 men whose faces were shrouded by scarves drilled with Kalashnikovs.
In unison, they lunged in one direction, turned and lunged in another. "Allah-u akbar," the men shouted in praise to God as they fired their machine guns into a wall.
The men belong to a new militant Islamic organisation called Fatah al Islam. Its leader, fugitive Palestinian Shakir al-Abssi, has set up operations in a refugee camp where he trains fighters and spreads the ideology of al-Qaeda.
He has solid terrorist credentials. A former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed last summer, Abssi was sentenced to death in absentia along with al-Zarqawi over the 2002 assassination of a US diplomat in Jordan, Laurence Foley.
Just four months after arriving in Lebanon from Syria, Abssi has a militia that intelligence officials estimate at 150 men and an arsenal of explosives, rockets and even an anti-aircraft gun.
During a recent interview, Abssi displayed his makeshift training facility and his strident message that America needed to be punished for its presence in the Islamic world.
"The only way to achieve our rights is by force," he said. "This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened they will know that they should leave."
Abssi's organisation is the image of what intelligence officials have warned is the re-emergence of al-Qaeda. Shattered after 2001, the organisation founded by Osama bin Laden is now reforming as an alliance of small groups around the world that share a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but have developed their own independent terror capabilities, these officials have said. If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has acknowledged directing the September 11 attacks and a string of other terror plots, represents the previous generation of al-Qaeda leaders, Abssi and others like him represent the new generation.
US and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say Abssi is viewed as a dangerous militant who can assemble small teams of operatives with acute military skill. "Guys like Abssi have the capability on the ground that al-Qaeda has lost and is looking to tap into," a US intelligence source said.
Abssi has shown himself to be a canny operator. Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government. The camp also gives him ready access to a pool of recruits, young Palestinians whose militant vision has evolved from the struggle against Israel to a larger Islamic cause.
Intelligence officials in Beirut says he has also exploited another source of manpower - it estimates that he has 50 militants from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fresh from fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.
Officials say they fear he is seeking to establish himself as a terror leader on the scale of al-Zarqawi. "He is trying to fill a void and in a high-profile manner that will attract the attention of supporters," the US intelligence source said.
The arc of Abssi's life shows the allure of al-Qaeda for Arab militants. Born in Palestine, from where he and his family were evicted by the Israelis, Abssi, 51, said he stopped studying medicine to fly planes for Yasser Arafat. He then staged attacks on Israel from his own base in Syria. After he was imprisoned in Syria for three years on terrorism charges, he said he broadened his targets to include Americans in Jordan.
An interview with Abssi was arranged through a series of intermediaries, who helped set up meetings in his headquarters at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. Abssi, a soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, was interviewed in a bare room inside a small cinderblock building on the edge of a field. About 80 men were in the compound, performing various tasks, including one who manned an anti-aircraft gun. As Abssi spoke, two aides took notes while a third fiddled with a sub-machine gun. A bazooka leaned against the wall behind him.
In a 90-minute interview, his first with Western reporters, Abssi said he shared al-Qaeda's fundamentalist interpretation and endorsed the creation of a global Islamic nation. He said killing US soldiers in Iraq was no longer enough to convince the American public that its government should abandon what many Muslims view as a war against Islam.
"We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn't it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?" Abssi said. "It is our right to hit them in their homes as they hit us in our homes.
"We are not afraid of being named terrorists," he added. "But I want to ask: is someone who detonates one kilogram a terrorist while someone who detonates tons in Arab and Islamic cities not a terrorist?"
When asked, Abssi refused to say what his targets might be.
This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities, and were charging them with last month's bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.
Inside the Palestinian camp, Abssi seems to be building his operation with little interference. Major General Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, said the government does not have authority to enter a Palestinian camp - even though Abssi is now wanted in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria on terrorism charges.
To enter the camps, Rifi said, "we would need an agreement from other Arab countries". He said that instead the government was tightening its cordon around the camp to make it harder for Abssi or his men to slip in and out.
Rifi said officials were trying to learn as much as possible about Abssi's operation from sources and surveillance, but it was clear that their information was limited.
In his newspaper interview, Abssi said he had been largely warmly received in the Palestinian camp, and that he was optimistic about his cause.
"One of the reasons for choosing this camp is our belief the people here are close to God as they feel the same suffering as our brothers in Palestine," he said.
"Today's youth, when they see what is happening in Palestine and Iraq, it enthuses them to join the way of the right and jihad. They have now started to adopt the right path."
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