The success of the Lebanese Army Intelligence in killing Fatah al-Islam leader Abdel-Rahman Awad indicates that this group, years after it was believed to be preparing to become al-Qaeda's representative in Lebanon and Syria, is now just a marginal organisation struggling to survive.
Awad and his deputy, Abu Bakr Ghazi Mubarak, were killed in an army ambush in the Bekaa town of Chtoura on August 14th. Media reports said they were on their way to Iraq via Syria to meet with the leadership of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq. Their mission was to secure aid for Fatah al-Islam militants based in Lebanon, specifically in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, the capital of the South Lebanon governorate.
Lebanese Army Intelligence reportedly knew in advance that Awad was planning a move from Ain al-Hilweh to Iraq. He had dispatched one of his sons to scout a clandestine passage to Iraq through Syria.
With Awad's killing, Fatah al-Islam lost their second emir in less than three years. In 2008, the group claimed its founder Shaker al-Abssi, was either killed or captured by Syrian security forces after he fled Lebanon. Al-Abssi led violent confrontations against Lebanese Security Forces in the north during the summer of 2007. The confrontations culminated in a fierce battle that killed hundreds of people and completely destroyed the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp. The refugee camp was the stronghold of this Islamist organisation, an offshoot of the Palestinian group Fatah al-Intifada, which in turn split off from the Fatah movement in the 1980s.
Fatah al-Islam surfaced in Lebanon after the war in Iraq began. Its sudden appearance raised speculation and allegations about its role and the entities that it served. Its establishment came amidst a wave of assassinations that targeted Lebanese politicians and journalists opposed to Syrian policy in Lebanon.
Despite these speculations about the alleged relationship between some leaders of Fatah al-Islam and Syria -- many of the members of this Islamist organisation operate from Syrian territory -- Syria was quick to take a tougher stance against the activities of this group following the Nahr al-Bared clashes, breaking up the organisation’s cells within its territory and detaining or killing its members.
Although the dismantling of Fatah al-Islam cells in Syria was swift and there were no bloody confrontations akin to what transpired in Lebanon, the Nahr al-Bared clashes showed that this group has significant military capability that can pose a serious security threat if allowed to continue to recruit more elements and train them in a fortified camp outside the authority of the Lebanese Government.
Fatah al-Islam fighters demonstrated their ability to fight in the alleyways of the heavily fortified Nahr al-Bared camp as well as a capacity to confront elite soldiers in the Lebanese army. The Lebanese army fought fiercely but suffered heavy losses as it did not have air cover allowing for destruction of targets in the camp, which was originally designed to withstand raids by Israeli warplanes.
Ultimately, the Lebanese army succeeded in entering Nahr al-Bared camp and wiping out the main body of Fatah al-Islam. It likewise succeeded in dismantling most cells associated with the group in majority Sunni areas of northern Lebanon, especially its capital, Tripoli.
Since late 2007 and early 2008, Lebanese media reports revealed many details about Fatah al-Islam which were obtained through interrogation of detainees suspected of links to the group. The detainees were caught during raids, especially in the north.
Perhaps the most important details highlighted the role of Arab-Islamist elements that were flowing to Lebanon—especially to the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp—where they underwent preparations to take part in the "jihad" against Americans in Iraq.
Many of these elements—including dozens of Saudis—entered Lebanese territory as a transit point before travelling to Iraq through Syrian territory.
But as the flow of these elements through Lebanon was occurring, the Americans succeeded in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, in a raid targeting his hideout in June 2006. This coincided with the beginning of the collapse of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the start of Syria's crackdown on "jihadists" crossing its territory into Iraq.
All of this appears to have contributed to compelling these "jihadists", who had sought to travel to from Lebanon to Iraq, to remain on Lebanese soil.
Whether or not there was truth to reports in Lebanese newspapers after the battles of Nahr el-Bared that Fatah al-Islam was seeking to declare an "Islamic emirate" linked to al-Qaeda in northern Lebanon in 2007, Lebanon’s military victory destroyed any such plans and dismantled the organisation's infrastructure.
Events that followed the end of fighting in Nahr al-Bared proved that some Fatah al-Islam cells were not completely eliminated. These cells succeeded in killing Lebanese soldiers when they blew up two buses travelling in the al-Bahsas and Tripoli in northern Lebanon in 2008.
Other cells attempted to carry out a bomb attack targeting the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, in southern Lebanon.
However, investigations into these bombings and attempted bombings showed that the organisation was confined within the al-Tawari neighbourhood in the Ain al-Hilweh camp ever since Abdul Rahman Awad succeeded al-Abssi. Currently, Fatah al-Islam is believed to have only dozens of individuals active in certain Ain al-Hilweh neighbourhoods along with a number of Arab Islamists—including Saudis, such as alleged al-Qaeda member Obeid al-Qafil—who sought refuge in the camp to evade security officials.
According to media reports, Awad’s assistant, Osama al-Shihabi, succeeded the dead emir as head of Fatah al-Islam, becoming the group’s third "emir" since 2007. If so, al-Shihabi is expected to "avenge" the killing of his predecessor Awad.
But al-Shihabi knows without a doubt that he inherited an organisation in danger of extinction, after the Lebanese army and Palestinian organisations—especially Fatah—succeeded in cutting off any real connection between Fatah al-Islam and the population outside the Ain al-Hilweh camp.