Al-Nusra Front: Seeking a Lebanese Base in Ain al-Hilweh
The presence of the notorious al-Nusra Front is no longer exclusive to Syria. In the southern Lebanese city of Saida, a group of Islamist factions based out of the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp are unifying in the hope of forming a Lebanese version of the Front.
The proposed coalition will include: the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham, and some former members of Usbat al-Ansar, and the Islamic Jihad Movement.
Ain al-Hilweh security officials confirmed that armament and the fortification of security points in the Taware neighborhood continue at an escalating rate. The Islamists are in control of “50 percent of the camp area, while all the other factions control the remaining 50 percent.”
Lately, supporters of the front have been conducting military training in the Basatin area of the camp in broad daylight and without the customary masks.
The anticipated formation will include Islamists who split from Usbat al-Ansar and the Islamic Jihad Movement. These factions objected to their groups’ “moderation” and accused them of apostasy.
A meeting of the planned unified front was held a few days ago with several known Islamist activists in attendance: Haytham and Mohammed al-Saadi, Bilal Badr, Tawfic Taha, Usama al-Shehabi, and Majed al-Majed, as well as a Saudi national and two Syrians. The goal of the meeting was to set a suitable time for the front’s launch. They issued an internal statement to its members confirming the “apostasy” ruling.
Usbat al-Ansar and the Islamic Jihad Movement continue to face problems, as several members of both Islamist groups defected to join the anticipated new faction. However, a prominent Islamist official in the camp maintained that the above is merely “speculation.”
Nevertheless, the last few months have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of Islamist leaders born from the Syrian crisis. Young men are now leading groups of even younger men. They hail from completely different ideological and political backgrounds, but seek to join what could be viewed as the remnants of Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham. Their star player is Bilal Badr, who has been mentioned in the media lately for his “activities” related to avenging eight camp residents killed in Syria, including the nephew of sheikh Jamal Suleiman, and several who were injured, including Badr’s “deputy” Mohammed al-Afandi.
Badr and his assistant, Nidal Abdul-Rahman, decided to remove the pro-Syrian factions from the Ain al-Hilweh camp, attacking the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) and al-Saiqa with machineguns. They removed pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and asked the occupants to leave the premises. Badr supporters attacked a Fatah checkpoint, disarmed its guard, and refused to hand him to the Palestinian National Security force.
According to Palestinian security sources, several neighborhoods of the camp are now under the control of Badr and his colleagues, namely the neighborhood of Tiri where he lives. The Taware neighborhood is no longer controlled by National Security or the Lebanese army and has been transformed into a den of Salafi groups following the influx of weapons and fighters from Syria.
Attempts to contact Badr were unsuccessful. He is difficult to track down. The only intermediary to reach him is one of his relatives, an official in the Popular Committees and the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), who described Badr as a “21 year old who has yet to grow a beard.”
This relative adds that Badr himself was a member of the PLF and that “the name Bilal was after one of the martyrs of the Lebanese Resistance Brigades [Amal].” He refused to let us contact Badr because “he wakes up late in the day and stays awake all night.”
Does he stay awake for military training or security courses? “No. He is at home like anyone else.” So, is everything that is said about him lies and rumors? The relative retained some mystery, admitting that “bold Bilal” belongs to the Islamist current, but is not involved in military activities. As for a future meeting, the relative relayed Badr’s greetings along with a promise to be interviewed “at the right time.”
An informed Palestinian source told Al-Akhbar that claims against Badr are exaggerated, despite him being “a tool to carry out operations inside the camp in the last months.” Although Badr leads a group of more than 20 young men, he takes his orders from the godfather Taha and the mastermind Shehabi, who move freely around the camp. There are five or six other groups similar to Badr’s that are linked to Shehabi, Taha, Haitham, and Mohammed al-Shaabi.
Once announced, this new unified front will be an extension of al-Nusra in Syria. Lebanese territories will become “the land of salvation” for its “jihadis” who will be trained in Ain al-Hilweh to fight in Syria. Of course, the front will not be limited to Ain al-Hilweh. Other sources indicate that there is interest in creating another branch in the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp in Dahiyeh, or Beirut’s southern suburbs. Palestinian sources indicate that the reason for the Burj al-Barajneh headquarters is its proximity to the airport road.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.