A New Face Of Jihad Vows Attacks On U.S.

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
March 16, 2007
By Souad Mekhennet and Michael Moss
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Deep in a violent and lawless slum just north of this coastal city, 12 men whose faces were shrouded by scarves drilled with Kalashnikovs.
In unison, they lunged in one direction, turned and lunged in another. “Allah-u akbar,” the men shouted in praise to God as they fired their machine guns into a wall.
The men belong to a new militant Islamic organization called Fatah al Islam, whose leader, a fugitive Palestinian named Shakir al-Abssi, has set up operations in a refugee camp here where he trains fighters and spreads the ideology of Al Qaeda.
He has solid terrorist credentials. A former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia who was killed last summer, Mr. Abssi was sentenced to death in absentia along with Mr. Zarqawi in the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan, Laurence Foley. Just four months after arriving here from Syria, Mr. Abssi has a militia that intelligence officials estimate at 150 men and an arsenal of explosives, rockets and even an antiaircraft gun.
During a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Abssi displayed his makeshift training facility and his strident message that America needed to be punished for its presence in the Islamic world. “The only way to achieve our rights is by force,” he said. “This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened, they will know that they should leave.”
Mr. Abssi’s organization is the image of what intelligence officials have warned is the re-emergence of Al Qaeda. Shattered after 2001, the organization founded by Osama bin Laden is now reforming as an alliance of small groups around the world that share a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but have developed their own independent terror capabilities, these officials have said. If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has acknowledged directing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a string of other terror plots, represents the previous generation of Qaeda leaders, Mr. Abssi and others like him represent the new.
American and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say he is viewed as a dangerous militant who can assemble small teams of operatives with acute military skill.
“Guys like Abssi have the capability on the ground that Al Qaeda has lost and is looking to tap into,” said an American intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Mr. Abssi has shown himself to be a canny operator. Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government. The camp also gives him ready access to a pool of recruits, young Palestinians whose militant vision has evolved from the struggle against Israel to a larger Islamic cause.
Intelligence officials here say that he has also exploited another source of manpower: they estimate he has 50 militants from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fresh from fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.
The officials say they fear that he is seeking to establish himself as a terror leader on the order of Mr. Zarqawi. “He is trying to fill a void and do so in a high-profile manner that will attract the attention of supporters,” the American intelligence official said.
Mr. Abssi has recently taken on a communications adviser, Abu al-Hassan, 24, a journalism student who dropped out of college to join Fatah al Islam. His current project: a newsmagazine aimed at attracting recruits.
The arc of Mr. Abssi’s life shows the allure of Al Qaeda for Arab militants. Born in Palestine, from which he and family were evicted by the Israelis, Mr. Abssi, 51, said he stopped studying medicine to fly planes for Yasir Arafat. He then staged attacks on Israel from his own base in Syria. After he was imprisoned in Syria for three years on terrorism charges, he said he broadened his targets to include Americans in Jordan.
The Times arranged to speak with Mr. Abssi through a series of intermediaries, who helped set up meetings in his headquarters at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. Mr. Abssi, a soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, was interviewed in a bare room inside a small cinderblock building on the edge of a field where training was under way. About 80 men were in the compound, performing various tasks, including one who manned an antiaircraft gun. As Mr. Abssi spoke, two aides took notes, while a third fiddled with a submachine gun. A bazooka leaned against the wall behind him.
In a 90-minute interview, his first with Western reporters, Mr. Abssi said he shared Al Qaeda’s fundamentalist interpretation and endorsed the creation of a global Islamic nation. He said killing American soldiers in Iraq was no longer enough to convince the American public that its government should abandon what many Muslims view as a war against Islam.
“We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn’t it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?” Mr. Abssi said. “It is our right to hit them in their homes the same as they hit us in our homes.
“We are not afraid of being named terrorists,” he added. “But I want to ask, is someone who detonates one kilogram a terrorist while someone who detonates tons in Arab and Islamic cities not a terrorist?”
When asked, Mr. Abssi refused to say what his targets might be.
[This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities and were charging them with the February bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Mr. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.]
Fertile Soil for Militants
Inside the Palestinian camp, Mr. Abssi seems to be building his operation with little interference.
Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, says the government does not have authority to enter a Palestinian camp — even though Mr. Abssi is now wanted in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria on terrorism charges.
To enter the camps, he said, “We would need an agreement from other Arab countries.” He said that instead the government was tightening its cordon around the camp to make it harder for Mr. Abssi or his men to slip in and out.
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have long been fertile ground for militancy, particularly focused on the fight against Israel. But militants in those camps now have a broader vision. In Ain el Hilwe camp, an hour’s drive south of Beirut, another radical Sunni group, Asbat al Ansar, has been sending fighters to Iraq since the start of the war, its leaders acknowledged in interviews.
“The U.S. is oppressing a lot of people,” the group’s deputy commander, who goes by the name of Abu Sharif, said in a room strewn with Kalashnikovs. “They are killing a lot of innocents, but one day they are getting paid back.” A leading sheik in the camp, Jamal Hatad, has a television studio that broadcasts 12 hours a day with shows ranging from viewer call-ins to video of Mr. bin Laden’s statements and parents proudly displaying photographs of their martyred children.
“I was happy,” Hamad Mustaf Ayasin, 70, recalled in hearing last fall that his 35-year-old son, Ahmed, had died in Iraq fighting American troops near the Syrian border. “The U.S. is against Muslims all over the world.”
On the streets of the camp, one young man after another said dying in Iraq was no longer their only dream.
“If I had the chance to do any kind of operation against anyone who is against Islam, inside or outside of the United States, I would do the operation,” said Mohamed, an 18-year-old student, who declined to give his last name.
Hussein Hamdan, 19, who keeps a poster of Osama bin Laden in the bedroom he shares with two sisters, is a street tough attuned to religious fundamentalism. He dropped out of school at age 10, spent 18 months in jail on assault charges, and in March — “just to make a statement,” he said — took a razor and repeatedly slashed both his forearms. “I want to become a mujahedeen and go to jihad in any country where there are Jews or Americans to fight against them,” he said.
Lebanon has increasingly become a source of terror suspects. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Lebanon, as did six men charged with planting bombs on German trains last summer. Two other Lebanese men and a Palestinian were among those accused last spring of plotting to blow up the PATH train tunnels beneath the Hudson River.
The Killing of Innocents
Mr. Abssi said he derived much of his spiritual guidance from Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Bukhari, a ninth-century Islamic scholar. A recent study by the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., listed Mr. Bukhari among the 20 Islamic scholars who had greater influence today among militant Arabs than Mr. bin Laden.
“Originally, the killing of innocents and children was forbidden,” Mr. Abssi said. “However, there are situations in which the killing of such is permissible. One of these exceptions is those that kill our women and children.”
“Osama bin Laden does make the fatwas,” Mr. Abssi said, using the Arabic word for Islamic legal pronouncements. “Should his fatwas follow the Sunnah,” or Islamic law, he said, “we will carry them out.”
His closest known association with Mr. Zarqawi involved the killing of Mr. Foley. In previously undisclosed court records obtained by The Times, Jordanian officials say that Mr. Abssi helped organize the assassination, working closely with Mr. Zarqawi.
A senior administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Foley was leaving his home in Amman on Oct. 28, 2002, when he was shot at close range by a man who had hidden in his garage. Seven bullets from a 7-millimeter pistol struck his neck, face, chest and stomach, the Jordanian government said in court papers.
Eleven men were charged in the case, and two men have been hanged, including the gunman, Salem Sa’ad Salem bin Saweed. According to the court records, Mr. Saweed met Mr. Abssi five years earlier in Syria, where they became friends and “arranged military operations against American and Jewish interests in Jordan.” Mr. Zarqawi provided the $10,000, along with $32,000 more for additional attacks, the court papers say. But in meeting Mr. Saweed, Mr. Zarqawi told him to work through Mr. Abssi, who helped the gunman with money, logistics and training in weapons and explosives.
Mr. Saweed and an accomplice in Jordan chose Mr. Foley as a target by watching his neighborhood for cars bearing diplomatic plates.
A Valid Target
In the interview with The Times, Mr. Abssi acknowledged working with Mr. Zarqawi. He said he played no part in Mr. Foley’s death, but considered him a valid target. “I don’t know what Foley’s role was but I can say that any person that comes to our region with a military, security or political aim, then he is a legitimate target,” he said.
[Mr. Foley’s widow, Virginia Foley, said Wednesday that she thought her husband’s killers had either been killed or jailed. “I’m appalled and surprised that there is still somebody out there,” she said, when told of Mr. Abssi’s current activities.]
The American intelligence official said the prosecution of Mr. Foley’s killers was under the control of the Jordanians.
At the time of Mr. Foley’s death, Mr. Abssi had been in jail for two months, having been arrested on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria. He ultimately served three years in prison, says Mounir Ali, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.
Mr. Ali denied recent reports in Lebanon that Syria sent Mr. Abssi to that country to stir trouble there. “This accusation is baseless,” Mr. Ali said. “After he was set free he restarted his terrorist activities by training elements in favor of Al Qaeda.”
He said Syria sought his arrest in late January, but discovered Mr. Abssi had “disappeared, and no one knew where he went.”
Late last November, Mr. Abssi moved into the Palestinian camp here, seized three compounds held by a secular group, Fatah al Intifada, raised his group’s black flag, and issued a declaration saying he was bringing religion to the Palestinian cause. Mr. Abssi reappeared on Jordan’s radar in January when police had a three-hour battle with two suspected terrorists in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, killing one of the men. Authorities say they learned that Mr. Abssi had sent the men. A short while later, Lebanese authorities picked up two Saudi Arabian men leaving Mr. Abssi’s camp, and learned both men had fought in Iraq. Two more men were found leaving the camp in February, General Rifi said.
General Rifi said officials were trying to learn as much as possible about Mr. Abssi’s operation from sources and surveillance, but it was clear that their information was limited. In questioning people, security officials are showing a photograph of Mr. Abssi that is 30 years old, though it displays his most distinctive feature — two moles, one on each side of his nose.
The apparent inability to apprehend Mr. Abssi provokes fury in the men who are hunting him. A security official in one of the countries where he is wanted scowled when asked why Mr. Abssi was operating freely: “I can go lots of places to grab people, but I can’t grab him.”
In the interview with The Times, Mr. Abssi said he had been largely warmly received in the Palestinian camp, and that he was optimistic about his cause. “One of the reasons for choosing this camp is our belief that the people here are close to God as they feel the same suffering as our brothers in Palestine,” he said.
“Today’s youth, when they see what is happening in Palestine and Iraq, it enthuses them to join the way of the right and jihad,” he said. “These people have now started to adopt the right path.”
Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, and Margot Williams from New York.