Usbat Al-Ansar’s Jamal Khattab: A Loose Cloak Called Al-Qaeda
By: Nasser Charara
Published Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Usbat al-Ansar is one of the major Islamist groups in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. In an interview with Al-Akhbar, the group’s leader denies accusations of Islamist involvement in assassination plots and talks of his role in ending the Salafi Saida sit-in.
Ain al-Helweh, Lebanon - There is no air conditioning in the office occupied by Jamal Khattab in the Taamir district, just meters from the entrance to Ain al-Helweh refugee camp. “It would be unfitting to put an air conditioner in my office when people cannot sleep from the heat and power-cuts,” he explains.
Khattab knows that the media these days is interested in the story of the return of the four cadres – members of fundamentalist groups based in the camp – who went to fight in Syria four months ago.
“By way of correction, the number who went were not four [Usama al-Shehabi, Muhammam al-Arfi, Ziad Abu-Naaj and a fourth individual nicknamed ‘Khardaq’], but six. Two of them returned to the camp a couple of months ago, and the other four recently. When the first two came back they told me: ‘It’s pointless there. We sat in an opposition base, and all we did was wait for when the Syrian army would shell our location.’ So they came back.”
Khattab maintains that the men did not go to Syria on behalf of specific jihadi organizations known to have a presence in Ain al-Helweh.
“The name ‘al-Qaeda’ has become a loose cloak these days,” he says. “The six young men went on their own initiative. Their presence in Ain al-Helweh is limited. They do not represent a condition or a phenomenon.”
He also says that “there is no such thing as ‘Jund al-Sham’ here.” He explains: “Originally, the members of this organization left their Islamist groups and were brought together by Abu-Yousef Sharqiyeh, and he gave them that name. He issued a statement announcing he was against everybody. The Israelis exploited this statement and assassinated (Hezbollah official) Ghaleb Alawi in 2003. The party realized the assassination was the work of the Mossad. We persuaded Abu-Yousef Sharqiyeh at the time to dissolve the organization, and that is what happened.”
Yet such groups are accused of planning to assassinate Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Is Khattab aware of the names provided to Lebanon of individuals said to be linked to al-Qaeda and plotting assassinations?
“I’ll let you into a secret,” he replies. “Tawfiq Taha is the only real name on the list, and he is in Ain al-Helweh. I raised the issue with Taha and he denied it completely. In any case, Taha does not get involved even in conflicts that occur within the camp. We know that Lebanon is exposed in security terms. There could be a Zionist plan to carry out assassinations and pin them on Palestinians under an Islamist label. But I doubt that any Islamist group in the camp would try to assassinate Berri.”
But what about the fatwa attributed to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring Lebanon to be an arena of jihad rather than merely a support-base? “I doubt that,” say Khattab. “Dr. Zawahiri’s record shows he has not taken any action in Lebanon. I don’t think they will do anything in Lebanon now.”
Mediating with Assir
Khattab turns to the situation outside the camp, and the role he and others played in mediating with the salafi preacher Ahmad al-Assir and ending the month-long sit-in he led in Saida.
“We know Assir well,” he says. “We tried from the outset to intervene to end his sit-in, but political forces in Saida advised us to keep away, so our involvement would not arouse sensitivities in Saida or elsewhere. But when we felt things were reaching a crisis-point, we decided to take the initiative. I sent representatives from myself personally and from Usbat al-Ansar, but we did not succeed. Sheikh Assir told us: ‘Everyone is asking me to end the sit-in, but nobody has asked me about my demands. Nobody knows that there are recurrent attacks on the mosque,'” he says.
“Then [Assir] spoke of the need for the resistance’s weapons to be handed over to the army. We replied to him: ‘We are part of this complex problem, which resulted from the occupation and from the state not having the capacity to fight. We say it would be better for everyone if Palestinian and their weapons are brought under control, but it is these weapons which deter the enemy from launching any attack,'” he recalls.
Khattab adds that his group opted to intervene again on the Thursday before the sit-in was finally lifted, when the situation began escalating in Saida. “I went with Usbat al-Ansar official Sheikh Abu-Sharif Aqel, we met with Assir, and we agreed on the terms that could be achieved. The rest of the story is known.”
But what did Assir get out of it? “He has taken away popular support from all the political forces in Saida, especially the Future Movement,” replies Khattab. He notes that after he mediated with Assir, local Future Movement MP Bahia al-Hariri, who had opposed the sit-in, contacted him to be put in the picture. “We asked [Assir] his opinion, and he replied that he would prefer that no party which stood against him should participate in resolving the problem of the sit-in.”
Assir’s funding, according to Khattab, comes from “around 150 businessmen from big Saida families. Rich people, including from the Alayli, Sharif and even Hariri families. They are the ones who provide him with money.”
Khattab, like many others, draws distinctions between the different Salafi groups active in Lebanon.
He cites the example of Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, who was involved in efforts to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages held by armed opposition groups in Syria. “He went to Turkey and spoke to the kidnappers. He tried to persuade them to release the abductees, but did not succeed,” he says.
“He is an important man, more important than the preacher Muhammad Srour. He plays a mediating role to prevent things from getting worse in Tripoli. It is true that he has had a military wing for a while, since Tripoli became militarized, but he is at the center of mediation which the interior minister is currently engaged in between Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawis of Jabal Mohsen.”
Khattab says his group’s ties with Hamas are “in better than good shape today.” As for Hezbollah, he says “good relations with the party do not prevent us from urging it to change its position on Syria. Regimes don’t last. We are not saying the party should fight the regime, but its support for it is interpreted as a sectarian stance. We are in agreement with the party on the need to confront sectarian strife, but we must also act to close the doors through which it seeps.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.