Ain al-Hilweh: al-Qaeda’s Foothold in Lebanon

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 22

On the evening of September 27th, residents from Majdel Anjar, a Lebanese village 35 miles East of Beirut close to the Lebanese-Syrian border, stormed the local office of the Lebanese General Security Service (al-Amn al-Aam) and for couple of hours blocked the Beirut-Damascus highway demanding the resignation of the Lebanese Interior Minister, Elias El Murr. [1]

The trigger for this unrest was the death of Ismael Mohammed El Khatib, a 35-year-old man from this Eastern Lebanese village, while in police custody. According to the official communiqué of the Lebanese Police, El Khatib died from heart failure. His family and relatives, however, are adamant he died from torture. [2]

El Khatib was one of nearly a dozen people arrested by the Lebanese police after a tip-off from the Italian intelligence service regarding a possible attack on the Italian embassy. He was also allegedly recruiting young Lebanese men to fight the Americans in Iraq. [3]

After a meeting with the Italian and German Ambassadors, the Lebanese Interior Minister announced on the 22nd of September the arrest of a further 10 members of a suspected al-Qaeda network in Lebanon. [4] This group, composed primarily of Lebanese citizens and a Palestinian woman, allegedly developed plans to attack government buildings, police stations, and Western embassies. According to the Lebanese Interior Minister, this network was composed of two groups. The first group was headed by Ahmad Salim Mikati and the second by El Khatib, who died five days later. Al-Mikati is currently in police custody.

A day later, the Lebanese Attorney General, Adnan Addoum, announced the arrest of two new members of this al-Qaeda network. He also claimed that the Lebanese authorities are investigating possible links between this network and the wanted Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. According to Addoum, Lebanese authorities are also investigating reports that members of this al-Qaeda network were involved in operations against the Italian army in the Iraqi town of al-Nasiriya. [5]

Three weeks after these arrests the military court in Beirut sentenced Maher al-Saadi, a 27-year-old Palestinian, to life in absentia for his alleged role in the plot to assassinate the United States ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, in early 2003. [6] Al-Saadi is believed to be hiding in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh on the outskirts of Sidon – a Costal Lebanese town South of Beirut.

Although these latest developments might be a clear indication of an al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon, the cynicism displayed by Lebanese journalists and analysts for these latest reports, especially as they coincided with a highly publicized Syrian redeployment inside the country, is a simple reminder that appearances can be treacherously deceptive in Lebanon. The question of whether al-Qaeda is operating in Lebanon can not be addressed without an examination of a range of inter-regional and extra-regional relationships, in particular the Lebanese-Palestinian and Syrian-American relationships.

Al-Qaeda in Lebanon?

American officials have occasionally claimed that al-Qaeda maintains ties with Hezbollah. Indeed the final report of the 9/11 Commission in the United States stated that al-Qaeda had ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have rebuffed such claims arguing that Hezbollah is a conventional political organization with 12 representatives in the Lebanese parliament. Moreover Hezbollah officials vehemently deny the existence of any ties to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. In this context, the Lebanese analyst, Haytham Mouzahem, argues that al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are “foes rather than friends” because of “religious and historical divisions” and very different “political priorities, strategies and agendas.” [7]

Nonetheless Lebanese officials, journalists and analysts do not rebuff the claim that al-Qaeda is operating inside Lebanon. But, instead of implicating Hezbollah, they point their fingers towards Palestinian refugee camps, and in particular Ain al-Hilweh.

Ain al-Hilweh is known as the capital of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It was opened in 1948 for the refugees escaping from North Galilee on the site of a former British World War Two army camp. Today seventy thousand refugees live in the camp on a 1.5 square kilometer piece of land. [8]

The Ain al-Hilweh camp has four entries and all of these are blocked by checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army. There are no fixed phone lines and residents steal electricity from the nearby neighborhoods of Sidon. The camp also lacks basic sanitation and clean water. The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) are responsible for providing basic housing, medication and education whereas security is in the hands of the different Palestinian militias. Most important of all the Lebanese authorities have no presence inside the camp. The Lebanese media calls Ain al-Hilweh the “island of un-law” because of the lack of security and concentration of outlaws and the fact that the Lebanese state does exercise sovereignty over the camp.

The 1990s witnessed the mushrooming of new Islamic organizations professing allegiance to the Salafi form of Islam. These organizations are Osbat al-Ansar (League of the Partisans), Osbat al-Nour (League of Light) and Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Greater Syria). [9] It was the presence of these new organizations that has put Ain al-Hilweh in the spotlight especially since September 11th, when the American administration decided to freeze the assets of Osbat al-Ansar because of its alleged connections to al-Qaeda. Osbat al-Ansar, the biggest of these three organizations, is headed by Ahmad Abdel Karim al-Saadi (Abu Mohjen) whose cousin, Maher, was sentenced in absentia for plotting to assassinate the American ambassador to Lebanon. Abu Mohjen, who has also been sentenced in absentia, is believed to be hiding inside the camp. Abu Mohjen’s organization caught the attention of the Lebanese public when its members assassinated the head of al-Ahbash – an Islamist movement known to have close connections with the Syrian regime – in January 1995.

Members of Osbat al-Ansar shot and killed four judges in Sidon in 1999 and escaped back to Ain al-Hilweh and continue to remain at large. On the New Year eve of 2000, a group of 200 Islamist militants, launched an attack on the Lebanese Army in al-Dinniyeh, a mountainous area north-east of Beirut. The leader of this group, Bassam Kanj, was known to be an acquaintance of Osama Bin Laden. Kanj died in the battle, but 10-20 militants succeeded in fleeing the battle and soon found shelter in Ain al-Hilweh. One of these militants was Ahmad Mikati, who was arrested on the 21st of September by the Lebanese authorities and is believed to be an acquaintance of al-Zarqawi. At the same time, an Islamist militant who is believed to belong to the same group tried to launch a rocket grenade attack on the Russian Embassy in Beirut to protest against the Russian military campaign in Chechnya. In November 2002, Bonnie Weatherall, an American Baptist at the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, was gunned down outside the clinic she helped run in Sidon. Weatherall was the first American to be killed in Lebanon in more than a decade and the Lebanese authorities were quick to blame militants based in Ain al-Hilweh for this killing. [10]

Since the war in Afghanistan in 2001, many unconfirmed reports have alleged that Lebanon became a transit point and haven for fleeing al-Qaeda members. What is clear beyond dispute is that a few Islamist militants with ideological allegiance to al-Qaeda operate in Ain al-Hilweh, outside the reach of the Lebanese government. Many of these militants found their way to Iraq recently and joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, where they were allegedly involved in suicide operations against the American military. [11]

The central question is why the Lebanese government and the Syrian regime have permitted Ain al-Hilweh to be transformed into an island of lawlessness and tolerated the presence of al-Qaeda supporters. The most convincing explanation is that the Syrian and Lebanese regimes want to link the issue of the Palestinian refugee camps to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. In other words, they treat it as a bargaining chip for a possible future settlement with Israel. In the meantime, al-Qaeda will continue to maintain a foothold in Ain al-Hilweh.


1. An-Nahar, 28/09/2004.

2. An-Nahar, 29/09/2004.

3. As-Safir, 23/09/2004.

4. Ibid.

5. As-Safir, 24/09/2004.

6. Al-Mustaqbal, 20/10/2004.

7. Haytham Mouzahem, “Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda: Friends or foes?” The Daily Star, 20/08/2004.

8. Al-Hayat, 19/10/2004.

9. Al-Wasat, 9/08/2004.

10. An-Nahar, 22/11/2004.

11. An-Nahar, 21/09/2004.