Salafi Cell in the Lebanese Army: Separating Fact from Fiction

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The picture remains murky as to the actual makeup of this network and its goals, just like Taha himself, the low-key al-Qaeda operative, who resides in Ain el-Helweh camp. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

The search for the man accused of planning an attack against the Lebanese military has led to a siege of the Ain el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, but there are still more questions than answers about the case.

Tawfiq Taha, commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades – al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Lebanon and Syria – has been implicated in being involved with an alleged Islamist terrorist network recently uncovered within the Lebanese army.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ denial of the matter was followed by the surprise decision by the investigating judge to release the detained military personnel, only for the military court of cassation to overturn the decision.

The picture remains murky as to the actual makeup of this network and its goals, just like Taha himself, the low-key al-Qaeda operative, who resides in Ain el-Helweh camp.

Some are comparing him to the former leader of Fatah al-Islam, Abdel Rahman Awad, while others say that the man who also goes by “Abu Mohammad” is smarter than Awad was.

Those who know Taha talk about the rare humility that distinguishes him from his peers. He travels by moped among the neighborhoods of Ain el-Helweh, where he has lived for more than a decade. He does not carry a gun, he prays in the mosques, and has a single aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

His name has resurfaced with the announcement by the Lebanese army that he is the head organizer of the Salafi network that enlisted two of its members to carry out terrorist attacks.

His name has been linked to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the most secretive Islamist organization in Ain el-Helweh. With that, Taha has become the most wanted man in the camp.

Born in 1962, Taha studied theology and was mentored by Jamal Khattab, the leader of the Islamist movement, al-Haraka al-Islamiya al-Mujahida. Most residents of Ain el-Helweh know Taha. One praises his “high morals,” and another says that “he’s the only person that has no enemies.”

One of the sheikhs of the camp says that Taha began his life selling food and household items. He joined the ranks of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and participated in combat operations in Southern Lebanon before joining al-Haraka 2007.

His followers talk about the moment of transformation he experienced in 2007 at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where Lebanese security forces squared off with Fatah al-Islam. Since then, he has been removed from official party work in order to pursue his “personal” affairs.

He has two homes, one in the Saffouri neighborhood behind the home of the Fatah police chief in the camp Mahmoud Abdul Hamid Issa a.k.a. “el-Lino,” and the other is in the Menshiya neighborhood.

Some who know him speak of his illustrious past. His name has been associated with more than one act that has been labeled terrorist by Lebanese authorities.

Taha does not carry a gun, he prays in the mosques, and has a single aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate.He was allegedly involved in an attack with an explosive device placed on the Qasmiyeh bridge on 13 July 2007, which targeted a Tanzanian regiment of UNIFIL (UN Interim Forces in Lebanon) in the south, wounding a soldier. Since that time, 27 warrants have been issued for his arrest.

He has also been accused of participating in the 2008 bombing of two buses carrying troops in the neighborhoods of al-Tal and Bahsas in Tripoli, in addition to the claim he organized attacks against UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon and others against Lebanese military posts.

Lebanese security officials say that Taha is the number one al-Qaeda operative in Ain el-Helweh.

He began to establish terrorist cells and modernized his methods of communication with groups loyal to him outside the camps. As a result he became more reliant on the Internet than on cell phones, according to security forces involved in tracking him.

As for his hideout, officials in several factions say that he is always moving between the neighborhoods of the camp without any significant security measures. However, they say that he has rarely been seen of late.

The most serious accusation against Taha is that he heads the Salafi network suspected of preparing for terrorist operations against the Lebanese army.

Not much is certain, however, since more than one security officer questions the information that was leaked regarding this network. They say there may be some exaggeration in the matter and the link may not be plausible.

Tawfiq Taha in Ain el-Helweh camp. (Photo: Exclusive - Al-Akhbar)

According to the skeptics, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades would adopt members of the army cell on the basis that their policy is to brag about their accomplishments. They would then use this case of “infiltrating” the Lebanese army, which they see as an “infidel” institution, to bolster their credentials.

On the other hand, Al-Akhbar learned that – according to security forces accounts citing those close to Taha – he confessed in a private meeting that he was in communication with members of the Salafi cell.

It is said that he claimed responsibility for the infiltration of the Lebanese army, but at the same time denied that he asked them to carry out an attack, as some have said.

While this rampant speculation was taking place, the investigative military judge Najat Abu Shaqra announced a decision to release the detained soldiers: student officer Suhayb Ghassan al-Qass and soldier Abdel Qader Abdel Rahman Numan.

However, the government commissioner of the military court of cassation judge Saqr Saqr rushed to appeal the decision. According to leaks, Abu Shaqra ruled that there was insufficient evidence to continue holding the two accused men.

Nonetheless, the court of cassation headed by judge Elise Shabatini annulled Abu Shaqra’s decision.

The case involves the two defendants, in addition to Mustafa Khaled al-Azu, Raid Khaled Taleb, Amjad Abdullah al-Rafii, and Alaa Ali Kanaan. They were arrested for forming a terrorist group planning to commit crimes against people and property, undermining the legitimacy of the state, training to carry out terrorist acts, recruiting for this goal, and giving out information about military institutions.


Conspiracy in the Camp?

The Ain el-Helweh refuge camp has been restless and there is talk of a conspiracy enveloping the camp. Demonstrations criticizing the army have taken place, as soldiers have intensified security measures around the perimeter.

Camp residents have burned tires to block the streets and have pelted soldiers with stones while there has also been some intermittent gunfire. The security services talk of attempts to smuggle the wanted man, Tawfiq Taha, out of the camp.

Amidst the ongoing confusion, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have released a statement bearing their signature, entitled: “A response to the fabrications by the directorate of intelligence.”

The banned organization has washed its hands of any relationship with the alleged Salafi army cell, demanding the release of their innocent brothers.

In the statement, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades supported their claims by saying that targeting the army is not among their strategies and that their priority is fighting Israel.

Despite this declaration of innocence, the statement called upon Sunnis to leave Lebanese military institutions out of religious duty.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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