Beirut // Security officials yesterday hailed the killing of a wanted Islamist leader as an important step in ending the threat posed by militant jihadist groups in Lebanon. Abdul Rahman Awad, believed to be the top figure in Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, was killed on Saturday along with a deputy in a shoot-out with army intelligence officers near the Bekaa Valley town of Chtaura.
"We knew that they wanted to escape from [the Palestinian refugee camp] Ain el Helweh, and so when they went out, we were waiting for them on the road," said a senior army official. "When they saw us, they started shooting, and we shot back and killed them." Awad is believed to have assumed a prominent role in Fatah al-Islam in 2007, when the Lebanese army laid siege to the little-known group's stronghold in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el Bared, near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
The fighting at the camp began when militants from Fatah al-Islam overran nearby Army checkpoints, killing 22 soldiers, some while they slept. In the ensuing three months, more than 150 soldiers and dozens of civilians were killed, and most of Nahr el Bared was destroyed, as Lebanese troops routed Fatah al-Islam. Its surviving members were thought to have scattered throughout Lebanon or fled abroad.
Security officials believe Awad became prominent in the group during this time, after the disappearance of Shaker Abbsi, its founder. Mr Abbsi is rumoured to have fled to Syria. Some believe he is dead. While Awad's death was hailed in official quarters yesterday, there also was concern that it would prevent officials from learning more about the enigmatic group, which has been implicated in bombings in Tripoli and Damascus.
"A lot of secrets will be buried with al-Awad," the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat wrote yesterday. The official account of his death could not be independently confirmed. Experts in political Islam say that Awad, a Palestinian who was born in Lebanon, had travelled to Iraq in 2003 where he worked closely with the al Qa'eda mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He later returned to Lebanon and began co-ordinating activities with Mr Abbsi.
Fatah al-Islam is thought to have had only a few hundred active members, who were inspired by several strands of jihadist ideology and modelled themselves after groups such as al Qa'eda. "It is a very small group, with a combination of ideologies," said Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University in Beirut who is an expert on Lebanon's Palestinian community. "It is absolutely not a structured group."
Palestinian leaders in Lebanon have sought to distance themselves from Fatah al-Islam. Other Palestinian jihadist groups declined to ally themselves with Fatah al-Islam during the Nahr el Bared fighting, according to the International Crisis Group. "Members of groups such as Usbat al-Ansar and al-Haraka al-Islamiyya al-Mujahida were born in the camps and grew up there. Their residents knew them," Abu Khaled al Shemal, a Lebanon-based official from the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, a militant group that operates in Lebanon and Syria, told the International Crisis Group. "In contrast, most of Fatah al-Islam's members were foreigners."
In recent weeks, the leaders of Ain el Helweh had grown concerned about figures such as Awad and his associates, who were wanted by the Lebanese government, and had given them one month to vacate the area, according to Mr Hanafi. "There was consensus among the leaders that we don't want conflict in the camp, and that all of these wanted people should leave," he said. Another source, a former Islamist and expert on Lebanese jihadist movements, confirmed portions of this account yesterday, saying that few of the jihadist groups in Ain el Helweh were willing to protect Awad, whom he identified as the "military leader" of Fatah al-Islam.
"The other Palestinian factions are rejecting the influence of Fatah al-Islam because they don't want any problems with the army, and they don't want the situation of Nahr el Bared," the former Islamist said. But he disputed that Awad had been forced out of Ain el Helweh, saying that he understood that Awad was headed for Iraq, by way of Syria, in order to raise more funds for his organisation in Lebanon.