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Profile: Fatah al-Islam
Fatah al-Islam was a participant or observer in the following events:
Some of the weapons found aboard the ‘Karine A.’ [Source: Associated Press / BBC]Israeli commandos seize a freighter, the “Karine A” (or “Karin A”), in the Red Sea 300 miles off the coast of Israel, in an operation dubbed “Operation Noah’s Ark.” Eli Marum, an Israeli Navy operations chief, says the operation took less than eight minutes and did not require a single shot being fired. “The crew was fully surprised,” he says. “They did not anticipate that we would strike so far out into the Red Sea.” Israeli officials claim the freighter contains a large store of Iranian-supplied weapons—including Katyusha rockets capable of destroying tanks, mortars, grenades, Kalashnikov assault rifles, anti-tank missiles, high explosives, and two speedboats—for use by Palestinian fighters against Israeli targets. The Palestinian Authority is forbidden by treaty to own such weaponry. Israel also claims that the captain of the freighter, Omar Akawi, has direct ties to the Palestinian Authority and to its leader, Yasser Arafat. (According to Israeli sources, Akawi claims he is a member of Arafat’s organization Fatah.) Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer tells European Union (EU) authorities that the freighter “was purchased by the Palestinian Authority after September 11” and that “the whole operation was managed and funded by the Palestinian Authority in cooperation with Iran and other sources.” [BBC, 1/10/2002; Guardian, 1/21/2002; Jewish Virtual Library, 2009] “What Iran is trying to do is create another base, besides its base in Lebanon” to threaten Israel, says Major General Giora Eiland, the Israeli Army’s chief of planning. [New York Times, 1/12/2002]
Arafat's Denials - Initially, Arafat denies any connection whatsoever with the shipment, accusing Israel of fomenting a propaganda attack to thwart US-led efforts to implement a cease-fire agreement, and says Israel “fabricated” the whole affair. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian cabinet, calls the operation “an Israeli trap.” Later, Arafat continues to insist that he had no involvement in the affair, but admits that he cannot control “everyone” in the Palestinian Authority. American and Israeli intelligence officials note that the weaponry on board the “Karine A” is similar to that of a “wish list” allegedly drawn up by senior Palestinian officials under Arafat’s direction. [New York Times, 1/12/2002; Jewish Virtual Library, 2009]
Propaganda by Israel? - Some, such as Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker, believe that Israel is using the incident to persuade the EU to stop funding the Palestinian Authority. And, Whitaker notes, Israeli lawmakers and pundits such as former President Benjamin Netanyahu are using the incident to argue that the idea of Palestinian statehood be permanently scrapped. Whatever the truth of the matter, the attempts suffer setbacks when documents show that an Iraqi, Ali Mohamed Abbas, purchased the ship, and other records disprove the Israelis’ claims about the ship’s cargo, which Israel says it picked up in Yemen. It seems clear that the freighter was indeed carrying weapons, but little of Israel’s other claims—they were Iranian in origin and intended for Palestinian use against Israel—are borne out by ascertainable facts.
Hezbollah Connection? - American intelligence sources later speculate that the weapons may have been intended for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant organization with close ties to Iran, and not the Palestinians. Israel is initially resistant to the idea, but Israeli defense sources later tell Israeli reporters that it was “certainly possible that some of the arms were earmarked for Hizbullah,” though it is certain that most “were clearly bound for the Palestinian Authority.” Whitaker echoes skeptics’ disbelief about the Hezbollah claim, noting that there are easier and more secure methods of delivering arms to Lebanon than a risky sea voyage past Israeli patrol boats. [Guardian, 1/21/2002] Israel names reputed senior Hezbollah security officer Imad Mughniyeh as a key figure in the incident. Mughniyeh has not been heard from for years by Western intelligence, but is wanted by the FBI for his participation in kidnapping Americans in Beirut during the 1980s and the hijacking of a TWA passenger plane. The BBC reports, “Correspondents say the Israeli government has been going to great lengths to convince Washington that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is linked to Tehran and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, and hence to what it sees as international terrorism.” [BBC, 1/10/2002]
Iranian Connection Unlikely - And the Iranian connection is similarly hard to swallow. Though Israel insists that the arms prove a new and disturbing connection between Iran and Palestinian militants, Whitaker writes, “most non-Israeli observers of Iran ridicule the idea totally, for a variety of historical, political and religious reasons. It also conflicts with the foreign policies adopted by [Iranian] President [Mohamed] Khatami.” He goes on to add: “The trouble with Iran, though—as one Iranian exile remarked last week—is that it has two governments and 10,000 leaders. If you are going to pin blame, you have to determine which one is responsible.” Whitaker is referring to Iran’s religious and secular leaders, who are often at odds with one another, and to the propensity of Iranian leaders from both sides to conduct independent operations without “official” government sanction. [Guardian, 1/21/2002] The New York Times notes: “Iran’s government has dismissed the Israeli accusations. But Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have discretionary funds and access to weapons, and they often run operations independent of the elected government of… Khatami.” [New York Times, 1/12/2002] The “Karine A” incident helps prompt Bush officials to include Iran as a member of the so-called “axis of evil,” disrupting backchannel negotiations between Iranian and US officials (see January 29, 2002).
Entity Tags: Fatah al-Islam, Omar Akawi, Giora Eiland, Hezbollah, Eli Marum, Bush administration (43), Brian Whitaker, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Yasser Arafat, Hojjat ol-Eslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, Imad Mughniyeh, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ali Mohamed Abbas
Timeline Tags: US International Relations
Shakir al-Abssi, a 51-year-old Palestinian militant and former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leaves Syria and heads to the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refuge camp in Lebanon, where he establishes the new Sunni militant group Fatah al-Islam. Abssi’s departure coincides with a clamp-down in Syria against Islamic militant groups. By late March 2007, Abssi’s organization will boast a militia force of 150 fighters, roughly 50 of whom are Saudi Arabians or nationals from other Arab countries who have fought in the insurgency in Iraq. [Scotsman, 3/25/2007; Reuters, 3/25/2007]
Representatives of the Lebanese government reportedly approach the newly-formed Sunni extremist group Fatah al-Islam (see November 2006) and offer it weapons and cash to fight against Hezbollah. Lebanon is said to be flush with cash as a result of a new US policy (see Late 2006) aimed at undercutting the growing influence of Iran and Shiite militant groups in the region. [New Yorker, 3/5/2007]
Shakir al-Abssi, leader of the recently formed Fatah al-Islam, is interviewed by the Scotsman. The 90-minute interview is his first with Western reporters. He tells the Scotsman that vengeance needs to be taken against the US for its activities in the Islamic world. “The only way to achieve our rights is by force,” he says. “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.” According to Abssi, it is apparent that killing US soldiers in Iraq is not enough to undermine US public support for its government’s policies in the Islamic world. “We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn’t it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?” Abssi asks. “It is our right to hit them in their homes as they hit us in our homes. We are not afraid of being named terrorists. 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?” He says that US policies have created a pool of ready recruits for his organization. “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. They have now started to adopt the right path,” he says. The Scotsman says that Abssi is permitted to operate freely within the camp despite his known ties to Islamic militant groups like al-Qaeda. The article explains that “because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government.” [Scotsman, 3/25/2007] Lebanese forces are banned from entering Palestinian camps under an Arab agreement that signed in 1969. [Reuters, 3/25/2007] According to a recent articles by reporter Seymour Hersh and the Daily Telegraph, both the US and Saudi Arabia have begun providing the Lebanese government with financial support which is reportedly being funneled to Sunni groups, including Fatah al-Islam, as part of an effort to counterbalance the rising influence of Shiite Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Iran (see Late 2006, Before December 25, 2006, and Late 2006 or Early 2007). However, Abssi denies that his group is receiving funds from Sunni Muslim Lebanese politicians or wealthy Saudis. [Reuters, 3/25/2007]
US and Middle Eastern intelligence officials tell the Scotsman that the recent formation of Fatah al-Islam, headed by Palestinian militant Shakir al-Abssi, represents a reemergence of al-Qaeda. The officials say that Abssi is considered a dangerous militant capable of leading 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,” one US intelligence source tells the newspaper. [Scotsman, 3/25/2007]
A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who resides in the Nahr Al-Bard Palestinian refuge camp, tells Al Jazeera that “Fatah Al-Islam is not a legitimate Palestinian group. They are a foreign force. Whoever brought them here should take them out.” [Arutz Sheva, 3/25/2007] Shakir al-Abssi, leader of Fatah al-Islam, has denied that his group is supported by outsiders (see March 2007). However recent reports suggest that his group is benefiting from a US and Saudi policy (see Late 2006) to use Sunni groups as part of a proxy effort to undermine Shiite groups and Iranian influence in the region.
Former US President Jimmy Carter says that any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must include Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip. “Hamas has got to be involved before peace can be concluded,” Carter says. Israel, which like the US and many Western nations considers Hamas a terrorist organization, is in the midst of a military operation against Hamas. Carter says that previous presidents have been either unable or unwilling to oppose Israel’s supporters in the US, but he has high hopes for George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s new envoy to the Middle East (see January 22, 2009). “The fact is that very few of the presidents have been willing to confront Israel’s forces in the United States, politically speaking,” Carter says. “If you look at US Middle East envoys in the past, almost all of them have been closely associated with Israel, sometimes even working professionally for Israel. George Mitchell is a balanced and honest broker compared to the others.” He continues by noting that any possible reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the organization led by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, has been “objected to and obstructed by the US and Israel.” He hopes the Obama administration will work to bring Hamas and Fatah together. Abbas and Fatah control the West Bank, while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. President Obama has indicated he intends to institute new peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, but has reiterated previous international demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel, renounce violence, and recognize previous peace agreements before they can join in any future negotiations. [Al Jazeera, 1/29/2009; Al Jazeera, 1/29/2009]
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