Syria, Lebanon abuzz over report about militant’s arrest

Times Staff Writer

An intriguing item about the mysterious leader of a ferocious militant group floated around the Lebanese and Syrian media over the weekend.

According to a report in the Arab-language Syrian newspaper Al Liwaa, the leader of the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Fatah al Islam was captured two months ago in Syria.

The report says that Shaker Abbsi, a former Libyan air force pilot turned Islamist, was caught in the poor Meliha district of south Damascus and hauled off to prison.

Abbsi, 53, who is of Palestinian descent, has led a storied life. He piloted MIGs for the Libyan air force in a war against Chad and on a trip to Latin America in the early 1980s, he helped Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinistas.

But as the years went by, he drifted toward Islamist groups and beliefs. Jordanian officials accused him of playing a role in the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. Syria imprisoned him the same year, accusing him of plotting against the Damascus government, but released him in 2005.


He popped up in Lebanon as leader of Fatah al Islam, a group of well-armed Islamic insurgents who fought the Lebanese army for months last year in a battle around the seaside Nahr el Bared refugee camp that left more than 400 civilians, soldiers and militants dead.

Abbsi vanished after the battle. He issued statements this year vowing to take revenge against the Lebanese army, which has been the apparent target of two bombing attacks in the last two months.

But according to Al Liwaa’s report Saturday, Abbsi was captured when Syrian intelligence operatives carried out a “major house raid” two months ago in Damascus, the capital. The item was quickly picked up by media and websites in Lebanon and Syria.

The report says Abbsi’s loyalists were planning to carry out a suicide bombing at a Damascus soccer stadium during a game a month ago to avenge him, but were thwarted by Syrian security.

The website of the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar reported last month that Syrian authorities had told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they had arrested Abbsi.