by Florian Flade
Palestinian refugee camps are the Lebanese equivalent of Pakistan´s Waziristan – lawless, autonomous areas ruled by various political and militant factions and their armed militias, breeding grounds for violent ideologies. Twelve of these camps exist since the 1960s, most of them harboring tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled Israeli military campaigns and settled in the Cedar Republic. Lebanon´s government does not regard the Palestinians as citizens, even though new generations have been born and raised in the camps on Lebanese soil. Lebanese security forces try everything they can to avoid going into the chaotic camps. Invading these areas has taken a high toll on the Lebanese army in the past.
The refugees themselves are still carrying the hope of one day returning to a Palestine State and therefore often copy the resistance and militant culture of the Palestinian territories. Fatah exists in these camps, recruiting young Palestinians in exile and indoctrinating them with a Palestinian nationalism and prior to his death also with the Arafat-cult. Although not that influential, Exile-Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were also established in the Palestinian camps, spreading a religious-driven jihadi form of resistance and martyrdom culture.
Much more dangerous than the well-known Palestinian factions who are competing to recruit the refugees for their cause are the smaller, much more radical groups gaining foothold in the camps of Nahr al-Bared, Ain al-Hilweh and others. Among them are Lebanese-born Salafi Jihadi groups such as “Esbat al-Nur” and “Fatah al-Islam” with an overall agenda of establishing a global Islamic State implementing Sharia not only in Palestine or Lebanon but across the Middle East. Influenced by al-Qaida and with a leadership of Jihadi veterans from the Iraq War, these groups are a major concern for the security of Lebanon.
One of the leaders of such a group was found dead yesterday in Ain al-Hilweh Refugee Camp near the Port City of Saida. Ghandi al-Sahmarani known as “Abu Ramiz al-Tababulsi”, was the leader of Jund al-Sham, a small Jihadi militant group fighting to create a Taliban-style state in the region of Sham (Greater Syria) – today´s Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The group´s leadership basically copied al-Qaida´s list of enemies – America, Israel, Jews, Christians – and added native enemies, the Lebanese government and security forces as well as nationalistic Palestinians and the Shiite Hizbollah which Jund al-Sham declared being “heretics” and enemies of the Sunni people.
Jund al-Sham leader Al-Sahmarani was found murdered in a garage in Ain al-Hilweh, handcuffed and blindfolded with signs of torture all over his dead body. The dead body was taken to Hamshari Hospital in nearby Sidon where doctor´s examined the militant leader was killed by a single shot through his mouth in the head. Investigators believe al-Sahmarani was murdered in a different area and then brought to Ain al-Hilweh a few hours before he was found.
Ghandi al-Sahmarani was born in Tripoli and joined Sunni militant groups in the North of Lebanon. After violent clashes in 1999 near the city of Dinniyah left 11 Lebanese soldiers and several fighters of the so-called Dinniyeh-Group dead, he fled to the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh (Population of 75,000) where the group established its headquarter. In 2004 Jund al-Sham was created under the leadership of former Abu Nidal-member Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Sharqiyeh (“Abu Youssef al-Sharqiyeh”) and immediately began a al-Qaida-inspired violent campaign to fight rival factions.
In July 2004 Jund al-Sham clashed with the Fatah militia in Ain al-Hilweh, leaving five people wounded. Back then Fatah military commander in southern Lebanon warned the Jihadi group: “We will chop off the hands of those who harm any Fatah member or civilian in the camp!”
Imad Yassin, the military head of Jund al-Sham, was a former member of Esbat al-Nur and merged his break-away faction into the new group, bringing in experience in sending Lebanese fighters to Iraq. By early 2005, Abu Youssef al-Sharqiyeh departed Jund al-Sham and the remaining group, consisting of only a few dozen members, was since then led by Ghandi al-Sahmarani (named “Al-Qaida leader of Lebanon” by the media).
Since 2004 Jund al-Sham clashed numerous times with Palestinian militias loyal to Fatah. Shehade Jawhar, one commander of the group was killed fighting Fatah members in July 2008, other Jihadis died last week when groups were engaged in bloody battle.
Furthermore Jund al-Sham claimed responsibility for assassinations and targeted killings such as the murder of Hizbollah official Ghaleb Awwali in southern Beirut in 2004. Then leader of the group al-Sharqiyeh denied involvement and told news agencies: “”This statement is a fabrication. We have nothing to do with this operation… and the first party to benefit from it is the Mossad Israeli intelligence agency.”
As Jund al-Sham has never been a major player in the political stage of the Palestinian refugee camps, mystery remains why Ghandi al-Sahmarani was murdered now. Because of the group´s hostilities to the much more powerful and popular Fatah, the Jihadi leader was banned from entering Ain al-Hilweh since 2008. Taking the dead body to the camp can only mean he either entered the area without permission of local Fatah security forces and was captured and killed, or he was murdered outside of Ain al-Hilweh and the body positioned inside the camp as a warning to remaining Jund al-Sham sympathizers.
Highly unlikely is the possibility of a Hizbollah assassination. The Shiite movement was not seriously threatened by a small Jihadi faction like Jund al-Sham and therefore would not really care about the faith of the al-Qaida-inspired Palestinian militia.