New Lebanon threat

Published May 21, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The shadowy militant group Fatah Islam, whose leader has been linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, has quickly emerged as the latest security threat to Lebanon.

Though it only surfaced last fall, its has already proved it can wreak havoc on the country. On Sunday, its members engaged in fierce battles with Lebanese troops that killed at least 22 soldiers and 17 militants and wounded dozens.

The group's leader has been identified as fugitive Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian in his early 50s who has vilified America in media interviews and admitted he supports the ideology of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He is believed to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Absi was sentenced to death in absentia in 2004 by a Jordanian military court for his involvement in a plot that led to the assassination of a U.S. diplomat there, officials have said. Al-Qaida in Iraq and its former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were blamed for the killing.

Around the time of the diplomat's death in Jordan, Absi was jailed in Syria on charges of planning terrorist attacks inside that country, according to Lebanese officials. He was released in the fall and reportedly headed to Lebanon where he set up base in a refugee camp, Nahr el-Bared.

Lebanese security officials said Fatah Islam has up to 100 members who come from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as local sympathizers who belong to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam.

Authorities say the first known attack by Fatah Islam members was the Feb. 13 bombings of commuter buses outside Beirut that killed three people.

Lebanon's national police commander, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, denied Fatah Islam's al-Qaida links, saying it was a Syrian-bred group.

"Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al-Qaida. This is imitation al-Qaida, a 'Made in Syria' one, " he told the Associated Press.

A number of major Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from Fatah Islam.