- An ISIS leader in Lebanon has been identified as an obscure restaurant owner
- Abu Khatab's plots prompted Western embassies to issue travel warnings
- Located in a Palestinain camp, he is out of reach of Lebanese army
- The army has now tightened security at entrance to the camp
The mysterious leader of a Daesh (ISIS) cell identified Friday was until now an obscure young restaurateur in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp with connections to some of Lebanon’s most dangerous fugitives.
Fadi Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Abu Khatab, was named by the Army Friday as the leader of a Daesh terror cell planning an attack in the country. The statement announced that 19 people connected to Ahmad’s cell had been arrested, but that he was hiding out in south Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh.
Ahmad’s plot prompted numerous Western embassies to issue travel warnings of a heightened terror threat last week.
Sources in the camp told The Daily Star that Ahmad, whose full name is Fadi Ibrahim Ahmad Ali-Ahmad, was born in Egypt in 1991 and has been in Ain al-Hilweh for around two years.
After arriving in the camp, the young man opened a foul (a bean dish) restaurant and later married a Palestinian woman who is the daughter of a bodyguard to a high-profile Islamic movement official in Ain al-Hilweh. She was identified only by her initials M.Aa.M.
The pair are believed to be living in the camp-enclosed area of Tamir Ain al-Hilweh, a neighborhood that straddles the border of the camp.
Tamir Ain al-Hilweh is the area where suspected Daesh emir Imad Yassin was arrested by the Army in a surprise raid in September 2016. Although Yassin was in the part of the neighborhood considered outside Ain al-Hilweh, the move took the camp by surprise due to the operation’s proximity.
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Palestinian camps are considered off-limits to the Lebanese Army and fall under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian factions.
Sources added that Ahmad entered the camp over two years ago with notorious fugitive Shadi Mawlawi, wanted for planning several attacks against the Army in north Lebanon’s Tripoli. He was a member of his group at the time and Mawlawi is still believed to be inside Ain al-Hilweh to evade arrest by the Lebanese authorities.
He was accused of sparking recent clashes in the camp that coincided with the border offensive by the Army against Daesh.
Over the weekend, the camp has been abuzz with news of Ahmad’s newly gained notoriety. However, many residents expressed concern at the development, given the recent security instability in the camp.
The camp has long been a haven for wanted fugitives and illegal hard-line groups. The joint Palestinian security force does not have full jurisdiction over the entire area and regularly engages in clashes with the fugitives and hard-line groups.
Although Lebanese authorities continue to request the handover of wanted suspects, there remain an estimated 40 suspects sought for involvement in the 2013 Abra clashes in nearby Sidon – including pop-star-turned-Salafist Fadel Shaker – and those wanted for involvement in the Tripoli clashes such as Mawlawi. Then there are a number of high-profile militant leaders such as Bilal Badr, who was behind extensive clashes in the camp in both April and August this year.
Some residents have suggested that the best solution to the instability would be for the Army to enter the camp and round up the high-profile suspects. The last time the Army carried out a major operation in a Palestinian camp was the 2007 Nahr al-Bared battle.
A total of 168 soldiers, over 220 militants and more than 20 civilians died in the 15 weeks of fighting.
Residents of Ain al-Hilweh are still rebuilding their lives after clashes that took place in August. The announcement of Ahmad’s whereabouts led to concerns of further instability if the Lebanese authorities demand his arrest but the joint force is unable to apprehend him.
Over the last week, the Army has tightened security around the entrances of Ain al-Hilweh. However, security sources denied recent media reports that the Army had been reinforcing its positions.
Instead, a source said units from Sidon that had been redeployed to the country’s northeast for the now completed “Fajr al-Joroud” operation had simply returned to their previous positions.
Since last week, the Army has been searching cars entering and exiting Ain al-Hilweh and checking drivers’ paperwork, leading to long traffic jams. “We have been waiting to leave the camp for around 50 minutes, but what can we do?” Ibrahim Hlayahel who was waiting in traffic to leave the camp, told The Daily Star Sunday. “We’re paying the price for the inaction of the Palestinian factions who are letting the terrorists stay in the camp. “Let them hand over all those who are wanted by the Lebanese state and be done with this nightmare.”
Samira Chehadeh, who was waiting to visit her sister in Sidon Sunday, said that the Army was just doing its job.
“The land is [Lebanon’s] and we are guests, but I ask how long [we will be burdened] with this torment. Let all terrorists leave the camp and let us live in peace,” she said.
Before the Army’s statement Friday regarding Ahmad and the 19 arrests, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut warned its citizens in Lebanon about a security threat.
The French, British and Canadian embassies all followed suit.
French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher said Sunday that the security warning was credible and the arrests proved this.
“The security of the French community is our responsibility and we coordinate this with Paris,” Foucher told reporters at his residence in Beirut. “When other embassies issue [safety] warnings to their citizens with such clarity, we have the option of either [disregarding] it or issuing a statement similar to it,” the ambassador added.
Foucher said the French authorities had provided intelligence they had to the Lebanese security forces to assist the investigations.
He also voiced his utmost trust in the capabilities of the Lebanese security apparatuses.
“We have faith in their ability to thwart anything that could be a threat to this country,” he said. – Additional reporting by James Haines-Young and Ghinwa Obeid
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