War is over, but no letup in the battle

Special to The Times

The young man had been through a miserable few years. He had been rejected by the army and failed to finish his studies. Security officials kept summoning him for talks.

At 25, he left his parents' home in the city, telling them he wanted to be a shepherd. They heard nothing more from him until newspapers reported that he was wanted in Germany for involvement in a plot to bomb a pair of trains.

But here was Saddam Hajdib in a sleepy mountain town above the olive groves along the rocky Mediterranean coast, outside a tiny bank branch nestled amid shops selling knickknacks and cheap rugs.

According to police, he and two accomplices put stockings over their heads and burst in. A surveillance tape shows two of them wielding handguns. One of them is seen carefully taking money out of the safe.

Within hours, security officials had cornered the three at an apartment complex in nearby Tripoli, Hajdib's hometown. Lebanese security officials say Hajdib and 10 others were killed in a four-hour gun battle.

But the fighting was far from over. The robbery sparked a 3 1/2 -month war that led to the demise of an Al Qaeda franchise seeking to turn a weak state into a new base of operations, as other Al Qaeda-related organizations have in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Pakistan.

Operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp, the militants planned attacks to further destabilize the country, and to target United Nations forces keeping the peace along the Israeli border, Lebanese officials said.

But in this case, the state fought back -- with tremendous casualties. The battle at the Nahr el Bared refugee camp left hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians dead and more than 40,000 people homeless.

Months after last summer's fighting, Lebanon remains beset by assassinations and mired in political deadlock. Authorities believe Al Qaeda is continuing to try to make inroads. On Dec. 18, authorities charged 31 Lebanese, Syrians and a Saudi with plotting to attack a church and other religious sites. Officials continue to investigate whether Al Qaeda may have been responsible for the Dec. 12 assassination of Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, the military commander who oversaw the summer war.

The leader of the group, a charismatic former fighter pilot named Shaker Abssi, managed to escape.

"This was only the beginning," said an audio recording posted Jan. 7 on an Internet site frequently used by Islamic militants. The recording was attributed to Abssi, but not verified.

"By God, you will not live safely," it said. "The mill of war has started to grind . . . between the infidels and the believers."

Even so, officials said the war effort was worth it.

"The country would have been in great chaos and the price we would have paid would have been much higher," said Ashraf Rifi, chief of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces.

Trouble stirs

The militants were few at first, arriving at the camp as members of a long-established Palestinian group called Fatah al Intifada.

They were among many political groups within the community of 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Lebanon since the 1948 founding of Israel.

In November 2006, the group dropped its Palestinian nationalist agenda and proclaimed itself Fatah al Islam, or Islamic Victory, and declared it had embraced Islam.

The militants offered use of their Internet connection to lure youngsters to their offices. They got into gunfights with other Palestinian political groups. They began attracting like-minded Lebanese and others from the wider Muslim world to the camp.

The militants fed off the malaise of the camp, as well as the radicalization of Sunni Arab youths after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Security officials said more than a few of those who arrived were veterans of the Iraq insurgency.

As a youth, Hajdib was a talented soccer player. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had grown a bushy beard and was spending time with Islamic radicals in the camp. He was accused by German authorities of being in on a plot by his brother and another Lebanese radical to set off suitcase bombs on two trains departing from Cologne in 2006.

To Lebanon's Western-backed government, the group was a tool used by Syria to sow chaos in the country. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has asserted that it had direct links to senior Syrian intelligence officers, although no Lebanese officials involved in the investigation could confirm that. Fatah al Islam was led by Abssi, a Palestinian who flew MIGs for the Libyan air force and was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for involvement in the 2002 killing of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Jordanian officials accused Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, of financing that attack.

Arriving in Lebanon in 2005, Abssi met Shihab Qadour, also known as Abu Hureira, a Lebanese Islamist who had spent several years in a Syrian prison before settling in a refugee camp that became a base for sending insurgents to Iraq, Palestinian officials say. Abu Hureira became Abssi's deputy.

Money poured in after the group declared its Islamic militancy, much of it coming from Saudi Arabia through local banks, Lebanese officials said. One Saudi religious group offered Abssi $500,000, said Awab Ibrahim Masri, a lawyer representing five Palestinians who he says were falsely accused of being Islamic militants.

Wire transfers paid for houses, groceries and fighters' salaries of $100 to $300 a month. An investigation by Lebanese officials turned up references to a list of prominent Lebanese to be assassinated, with the name of Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, leader of the country's Maronite Christians, at the top, said an intelligence official. Rifi, the chief of internal security, and a broad spectrum of politicians also were on the list, a judiciary official said.

The militants' goal, the court official said, "was to bring Lebanon to chaos. In the investigations they spoke about it openly. 'Chaos is a very ideal situation for us. We can't grow where there's order.' "

Abssi's group took over an old military base on the outskirts of Nahr el Bared and began conducting training exercises.

"They were saying that they had plans to create Islamic zones within the camp and in the north," said Mohammed Fayad, a Palestinian leader in the mainstream Fatah movement.

A pair of Saudi clerics provided religious guidance, said Ramzi Kurayem, a Palestinian social worker and scholar who is studying Islamist movements.

The group began organizing cells and safe houses throughout the country, security officials said. They sent e-mails and posted messages on websites to recruit fighters and cash, said Masri, the defense attorney.

But Fatah al Islam's luck began to run out in the spring of 2007.

When Hajdib and his crew arrived at the Bank Med branch in May, they came to collect the group's allowance of $125,000, an amount they regularly picked up, the intelligence official said. But for some reason, the money wasn't there.

"They were getting funds from Saudi wired through banks in Lebanon with links to Saudis," said the intelligence official. Bank Med officials denied that it was serving as a conduit for wire transfers to the group. It said it was the victim of a bank robbery.

Interior Security Forces commandos surrounded the Ruby Rose apartment building in Tripoli and pummeled it with heavy-caliber machine guns. Militants retaliated with attacks that killed 27 Lebanese soldiers. Some were beheaded, said the judiciary official.

"Killing all these soldiers suddenly without warning is unforgivable," the army officer said. "We demanded their surrender."

'To war!'

Residents in Nahr el Bared woke up May 20 to the sounds of heavy shelling. An explosion shook the home of Munir Saeed, 60, a teacher. He noticed that Fatah al Islam fighters next door were running and firing weapons.

"We heard them cry out, 'To war! To war! To fight! Jihad! Jihad!' "

An official with the Palestinian militant group Hamas said Abssi told him that his fighters in Tripoli had been killed and he'd responded by attacking the army.

The badly bruised army surrounded the camp. Security officials said the group in turn activated sleeper cells throughout the country.

Some officials alleged that they were involved in several attacks against U.N. forces in the south, including a car bomb attack June 24 that killed three Spanish and three Colombian peacekeepers. They also set off bombs in a mall in a Christian district of Beirut, a downtown restaurant and a Sunni neighborhood. One person was killed in the bombings.

At the camp, the shelling trapped nearly 40,000 civilians.

During a temporary cease-fire three days into the fighting, Saeed, a father of six, led his family out of the camp. They took only the clothes they were wearing. On the way out he saw the body of a fellow teacher on the street. "He was killed for nothing," Saeed said.

As the other Palestinian groups left the camp, Fatah al Islam scavenged their weapons and canned food. One of the fighters, a Saudi medical student, attended to his comrades' wounds.

The tightly packed warrens of streets made for an ideal battlefield for guerrillas.

U.S. officials sped emergency aid to the Lebanese army, part of an increase in military assistance that has grown to more than $320 million last year from $50 million in 2005.

The army moved cautiously and improvised. It dropped 1,000-pound bombs from helicopters. Fatah al Islam fighters asked authorities to allow their wives and children to leave the camp, and the army agreed.

The militants tried to escape the camp Sept. 1. They used mattresses to quiet their steps but were thwarted, and the next day Lebanese soldiers took over the camp and declared victory.

"Nahr Bared was a real success for the Lebanese armed forces," a Western diplomat said. "There was some question about whether they had the will to deal with the terrorist threat without splitting. It was the first time the Lebanese army acted on behalf of all Lebanese."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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