x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Courier case highlights co-operation

Syria helps in the arrest of an alleged mastermind planning an extremist base in a Lebanese camp.

Members of the Islamist group Fatah al Islam on patrol in north Lebanon earlier this year.
Members of the Islamist group Fatah al Islam on patrol in north Lebanon earlier this year.

BEIRUT // The tip came from a European intelligence service and was quickly confirmed by Syrian officials. A Syrian of Palestinian descent travelling with Greek documents planned to enter Lebanon with a cache of fake travel papers and money to help rebuild a network of Islamic extremists based around one of Lebanon's most notorious refugee camps. The tip led to his arrest, and his interrogation revealed a network of more than 17 people who were yesterday indicted in a military court in Beirut on charges of international terrorism. Only two of the 10 suspects arrested on Tuesday are known to be Lebanese, with the rest holding passports from Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Authorities have not released any information on the seven charged yesterday.

Intercepted by the Lebanese authorities at Beirut's international airport just over three weeks ago, according to Lebanese security sources and members of Lebanon's Sunni Islamist community, the man quickly revealed his role as a key logistics officer for Fatah al Islam, the jihadist group that seized the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon in 2006, sparking a three-month siege that left the camp in ruins and the members of the group killed, captured or scattered throughout Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community.

Fatah al Islam is also suspected in a series of attacks on the Lebanese Army, United Nations peacekeepers and on Lebanon's large Christian community over the past three years. Lebanese authorities say the arrests disrupted a series of planned attacks on both the Lebanese Army and the UN, as well as potential attacks outside of Lebanon. "As a result of intensive investigation by the Lebanese army intelligence directorate in following up on radical terrorist networks, the directorate was able to arrest 10 persons of one of these networks, belonging to different Arab nationalities," a Lebanese military statement said on Tuesday. Seven more suspects were arrested and charged yesterday. The charges they face carry terms of life in prison.

The courier, according to officials who interrogated him, admitted attempting to enter Lebanon to bring fake travel documents and money to help Fatah al Islam's remnants reconstitute themselves in the southern refugee camp of Ain al Hilweh, Lebanon's least stable camp, known to be a home to several armed Islamic groups with ideological ties to al Qa'eda. Ain al Hilweh was a closed camp even before the fighting, and the Lebanese Army checks the identities of anyone attempting to enter or leave its confines. With several leaders of Fatah al Islam in hiding as fugitives, fake identity documents would allow the group a freedom of movement that they have not had since early 2007.

A source within Lebanon's Islamist community, who asked not to be identified discussing terrorism-related issues, said the arrested courier had been tracked by European and Syrian intelligence for several weeks before he attempted to enter Lebanon. A military intelligence source added that the man's travels and behaviour had been considered suspicious and that he had entered half a dozen Arab countries in the past few months, apparently to develop contacts for the radical group and to gather money, fake documents and other logistical help for the Lebanon-based cell.

Three accused leaders of Fatah al Islam remain at large and Lebanese security sources say the courier had false documents for the three men, in the hopes that new identities would allow the men greater freedom of movement. "Abu Mohammed" Awad is a Palestinian refugee from northern Lebanon thought to have been named the head of Fatah al Islam after the disappearance of Shaker Absi in the wake of the Nahr al Bared siege. He and his top aides are suspected to be inside Ain el Hilweh, but neither the Lebanese military or Palestinian factions responsible for security in the camp, which has more than 70,000 residents, have confirmed their presence in the camp. Once the cell was operational, Lebanese military authorities said in a series of interviews with The National, the men planned to use Ain al Hilweh as a staging ground to observe United Nations peacekeepers, the Lebanese Army and Lebanese officials for attacks.

Several of the men were already working undercover as manual labourers in Beirut maintaining the large billboards that run the length of Beirut's airport access road, which allowed them to monitor military and UN movements. Other cell members allegedly sought employment in primarily Christian East Beirut as part of their cover, according to Lebanese intelligence sources not authorised to talk to the media on the record.

A source in Ain al Hilweh said that some of the 17 arrested are likely to be released, including the son of Mr Awad, due to a lack of evidence. mprothero@thenational.ae