BEIRUT, Lebanon: The suspected al-Qaida-linked militant group Fatah Islam has quickly emerged as the latest security threat to Lebanon.
Though it only surfaced last fall, its has already proved it can wreak havoc on Lebanon. On Sunday, its members engaged in fierce battles with Lebanese troops that killed at least 22 soldiers and 17 militants and wounded dozens.
Lebanese security officials said Fatah Islam has up to 100 members who come from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as local sympathizers who belong to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam. Its base is a northern Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp but it has quietly expanded to Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic fundamentalists.
The group's leader has been identified as fugitive Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian in his early 50s who in media interviews has vilified America and admitted he supports the ideology of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Al-Absi, who is believed to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, was sentenced to death in absentia in 2004 by a Jordanian military court for his involvement in a plot that lead to the assassination of a U.S. diplomat there, officials have said. Al-Qaida in Iraq and its former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were blamed for the killing.
Around the time of the diplomat's death in Jordan, al-Absi was jailed in Syria on charges of planning terrorist attacks inside that country, according to Lebanese officials. He was released in the fall and reportedly headed to Lebanon where he set up base in the camp, Nahr el-Bared.
Authorities say the first known attack by Fatah Islam members was the Feb. 13 bombings of commuter buses outside Beirut that killed three people. In March, authorities arrested several members who they claim confessed to carrying out the attack and identified the detained group's ringleader as a Syrian, Mustafa Sayour.
On Sunday, Fatah Islam's spokesman in Nahr el-Bared, Abu Salim, would not say if the group was linked to al-Qaida but claimed its aim was to liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and protect Sunnis.
He told a local TV station: "We are a Jihadi movement, and we have hoisted the banner of Islam" — language often used by militant groups associated with al-Qaida.
But Lebanon's national police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi denied Fatah Islam's alleged al-Qaida links, saying it was a Syrian-bred group.
"Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al-Qaida. This is imitation al-Qaida, a 'Made in Syria' one," he told The Associated Press Sunday.
Lebanese security officials said Fatah Islam split last year from the Syria-based Fatah Uprising, itself a 1980s splinter of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah. But they say the alleged split from Fatah Uprising was only a cover and that they are part of the Syrian intelligence security.
Unconfirmed Lebanese security reports also have alleged that members of Fatah Islam were sent by Damascus to destabilize Lebanon following Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.
Syrian authorities deny any link to Fatah Islam. Syria's interior minister has accused it of being affiliated with al-Qaida, saying it was planning terrorist attacks inside Syria.