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Exclusive - Fugitives from Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon Fail to Form Extremist Brigade in Syria

Exclusive - Fugitives from Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon Fail to Form Extremist Brigade in Syria

Monday, 18 March, 2019 - 10:15
A member of the joint Palestinian security force stands in front of a bullet-riddled wall inside the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)
Beirut - Nazeer Rida
Palestinian and Lebanese fugitives, who had quit the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh in southern Lebanon for Syria’s northern Idlib province, failed in forming their own extremist brigade in the war-torn country. This failure forced some of them to return to Lebanon and back to the refugee camp where they are keeping a low profile.

This return is seen as the final chapter of a complicated file that first started taking shape 12 years ago and many hoped would have ended with their travel to Syria in 2018. These extremists have long been a thorn in the side of Lebanese security forces and Palestinians in Ain el-Hilweh. Their return has effectively dashed years of efforts to rid the country of their threat, even though calm has been prevailing in the camp since the last flare-up in 2018.

Preparations to rid the camp of the extremists started in 2017 as Lebanon eliminated the threat of ISIS and al-Nusra Front terrorists from its eastern border with Syria. Attention then shifted to Ain el-Hilweh where discussions focused on a possible settlement similar to the one proposed to ISIS and al-Nusra that saw its members head deep into Syria’s north or east.

Lebanese authorities, however, rejected such a deal. This coincided with the fugitives’ release of videos that showed their presence in Syria. Questions were raised over how they had slipped under the security forces’ radar, amid speculation that authorities had deliberately turned a blind eye to their movement in order to end the tensions between factions and extremists in Ain el-Hilweh. The tensions had escalated into armed clashes in 2017 and 2018. Last year’s fighting spelled the end of extremist presence in the camp by Lebanese and Palestinian elements alike.

Soon after, news of these extremists’ presence in Syria began to emerge. Reports said that they had headed to Idlib to form a military brigade. It included fugitive Bilal Badr and some ten Palestinians from Ain el-Hilweh, as well as Palestinians from Jordan and Syria.

Sources monitoring their movement in Idlib told Asharq Al-Awsat that the brigade was “doomed to fail” due to a low number of recruits. Moreover, one of its most prominent members, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Khazaal, known as Abou Mohammed al-Falastini, was killed in battles in northern Syria. He had founded the brigade after meeting with Nusra Front “emir” Abou Malek al-Talleh and several other Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members in Idlib.

None of the original members of the brigade, expect Lebanese Shadi al-Mawlawi, remained in Syria. The returnees include Palestinians Haitham al-Shaabi, known as Abu Mosaab al-Maqdesi, and Badr. The details of how they returned to Lebanon are unknown. Their return had created uproar, even though remain inactive.

Badr, particularly, achieved a security feat, said the sources, because there are no photographs of him, so he cannot be identified. This allows him to come and ago as he pleases undetected.

Deputy commander of Palestinian national security Munir al-Maqdah did not deny that the Palestinians had returned to the camp.

“We do not know how they slip in and out,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, stressing however, that they were no longer a threat after the blows dealt to them during past security operations.

“The situation in the camp is stable. There have been no tensions or fighting for over a year,” he added. “The residents are at ease because the extremists’ major plot on Lebanon’s eastern border has been thwarted.”

He credited this defeat to the preemptive operations carried out by the Lebanese security forces and Palestinian measures, in coordination with the Lebanese state, in containing their movement and nullifying their threat.

Ain el-Hilweh residents said that prior to 2016, fugitives wanted by the Lebanese state totaled some 150. Some have left the camp, while others were arrested by Lebanese security forces and Palestinian factions. The very few remaining extremists in the camp do not pose a threat.

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