By Erling Lorentzen Sogge, PhD candidate at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).
In Ain al-Hilweh, Islamist militants are working alongside the PLO and pro-Syrian factions to prevent allies of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra from dragging the camp into war.
May 12, heavy celebratory gunfire broke out in Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh, in southern Lebanon, after the Islamic State (IS) reported that two of its affiliates, both young men from the camp, had been “martyred” in Iraq. They will likely not be the last. Although the governing forces in the camp—the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and pro-Syrian factions that operate their own patchwork of political institutions and security forces—have repeatedly insisted that the camps of Lebanon will not be affected by the ongoing regional turmoil, the Syrian crisis is disrupting power balances and driving frustration within Ain al-Hilweh.
In February and March, the Lebanese press reported in two separate instances that groups of youths had successfully gotten themselves smuggled out of Ain al-Hilweh to join the Islamic State in Raqqa. Although there were likely fewer than thirty individuals, these reports appear to have given credence to the rumors that IS, a group with no official presence in Lebanon, has formed a cell in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. In addition, U.S. authorities have designated Ain al-Hilweh resident Usama al-Shihabi a global terrorist with links to Jabhat al-Nusra.
Though it is difficult to prove official ties between these local self-styled “emirs,” with their small and often fragmented military entourages, and the larger jihadi groups in Syria, these actors undoubtedly feel encouraged by the regional climate. Al-Shihabi and his contemporaries typically brag of their dialogue with the “the jihadi leadership in Syria,”1 while their frequent armed run-ins with Fatah’s military wings only seem to have gotten bolder since the “jihadization” of the Syrian uprising. In August 2015, 3000 inhabitants reportedly fled the camp when Fatah and Islamist militants clashed in its streets for nearly six days.
Residents of Ain al-Hilweh fear that these recurring clashes might drag the camp into an armed standoff with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This scenario is all too familiar for Palestinians in Lebanon: in 2007, the northernmost refugee camp in the country, Nahr al-Bared, was completely destroyed in a battle between the military and the jihadi group Fatah al-Islam. To avoid a repetition of these events, Palestinian stakeholders have turned to some of the older jihadi militias of Ain al-Hilweh for help.
One of them is the Salafi-jihadi movement Usbat al-Ansar, one of many local Islamist militias that gained prominence in the camp in the years following the Lebanese civil war. The group acquired an international reputation by conducting violent turf wars against Fatah, and by sending fighters to Iraq to fight against U.S.-led coalition forces from 2005 to 2011.2 However, heavy surveillance by state authorities and constant armed confrontations with the PLO began to take their toll on the movement’s leadership. In the early 2000s, Usbat al-Ansar adopted a more pragmatic approach toward the “near enemy:” in order to avoid a confrontation with the LAF, the group at one point turned in a wanted jihadi militant that it had been sheltering. The move prompted some of its more radical elements to defect and join rival Salafi militias instead, such as Jund al-Sham and later Fatah al-Islam.
Unable to maintain its reputation as the most relevant Salafi-jihadi group in Lebanon, and following rounds of intense brokering with Hamas and LAF representatives, Usbat al-Ansar gradually abandoned its violent behavior and substituted its firebrand rhetoric for a more populist approach. In 2008, its spokesman Abu Sharif Aqal turned many heads when he declared that Sharia forbade violence against the Lebanese state, urging Islamists in the camp to turn their attention to Palestine instead.
The outbreak of the Syrian crisis has further underlined the divide between the camp’s Islamist militants. Along with the Islamic Moujahid Movement and Ansar Allah, Usbat al-Ansar represents a segment of the camp’s older jihadi groups that have nurtured relationships with both Palestinian and Lebanese authorities. In line with this policy, these groups also have committed to maintaining neutrality regarding the Syrian war. In fact, in its bid to build relations with all parties of the Lebanese political spectrum, Usbat al-Ansar has since 2013 sought to bolster its diplomatic ties with the Shia parties Amal and Hezbollah, both allies of the Syrian regime.
Since July 2014, the three aforementioned jihadi groups have also played an integral part in a new Palestinian Joint Security Force in Ain al-Hilweh. The project, which includes seventeen armed factions ranging from communists to Islamists, builds on a tacit agreement between the PLO and the Lebanese military that the camp’s security problems should be handled by internal actors rather than external armed forces—a lesson learned from the experience of Nahr al-Bared. With the understanding that an intrusion by the LAF could throw the camp into war, Usbat al-Ansar and their allies have increasingly taken on the role of power brokers, often attempting to manage disputes with the more volatile Salafi militants aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra or IS.
“We leave the responsibility [of negotiation] with the moderate Islamic forces,” explained Abu Iyad Ramiz Mustafa, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PLFP–GC) in Lebanon. “We rely on these [groups] to communicate the idea that violence and threats will lead to the destruction of the camp. The Islamists speak a common language. They listen to one another.”3
This type of brokering has indeed yielded positive results, most recently on March 13, when the leaders of Fatah and Usama al-Shihabi’s affiliates announced in a highly publicized event that the parties had signed a peace agreement in the aftermath of August’s clashes. But while reconciliation talks and the pressure exerted by more experienced Islamist groups might relieve the camp of some tension, the smaller extremist organizations are typically internally divided and too structurally weak to survive a de-radicalization process, making it hard to find lasting solutions with them. Besides, these dialogues will hardly change the larger socio-political context of the camp.
After violence broke out in 2012 in Yarmouk, a Palestinian district of Damascus, Ain al-Hilweh took in at least 11,000 displaced Palestinians and Syrian nationals, which otherwise hosts 65,000 inhabitants on less than one square kilometer.4 Not only have the newcomers strained the budgets and capacity of the relief agencies that strive to offer basic services to the camp dwellers, but according to local social workers, the latest waves of refugees have likely also added to the pool of recruits for clandestine militia groups.5 The extremist networks of Ain al-Hilweh specialize in reaching out to disenfranchised and angry youth who often have as little faith in the camp’s traditional authorities as they have in their own chances to build a future in their host state—especially as Palestinians in Lebanon cannot apply for citizenship or own property, and legal work is hard to come by. New refugees with no social network or funds to obtain visas are particularly inclined to turn to these actors. For these reasons, it is doubtful that even a jihadi-brokered peace can bring stability to the camp in the long run.
1. Interview with Osama al-Shihabi in Ain al-Hilweh, February 24, 2016.
2. Members of Usbat al-Ansar dispute the U.S. assessment and say they were in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.
3. Interview with Abu Iyad Ramiz Mustafa at the group’s headquarters in Beirut, November 24, 2016.
4. Information gathered from UNRWA’s headquarters in Beirut.
5. Interviews with a number of NGOs based in and nearby Ain al-Hilweh.