ISIL elements flee Ain al-Hilweh, switch allegiance to Fatah al-Sham

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Lebanese army soldiers at the entrance of Ain al-Hilweh's al-Tawari neighbourhood near Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon. [Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese army soldiers at the entrance of Ain al-Hilweh's al-Tawari neighbourhood near Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon. [Al-Mashareq]

In the aftermath of the arrest of "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) operative Imad Yassine in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, Yassine's followers are pledging allegiance to Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly known as al-Nusra Front (ANF), local media and security analysts reported.

The Lebanese army entered the camp on September 22nd to arrest Yassine, who had reportedly received orders from ISIL foreign operations chief Abu Khaled al-Iraqi, and was planning to stage major bombings in Lebanon.

ISIL fleeing camp

According to Lebanese local media reports, security reports from Ain al-Hilweh indicated that after Yassine’s arrest, members of his group and allies rushed to "abandon their homes amid a collapse in the ranks of those who had pledged allegiance to ISIL in the camp and followed Yassine".

"Military sources likened the scene to a similar situation that took place in the north-eastern border town of Arsal when the Lebanese army pummeled ISIL militants in the area with heavy shelling, air and land operations that forced the militants to switch allegiance to ANF," Annahar newspaper reported September 27th.

Al-Markazia Central News Agency also confirmed the report.

"After the Army’s Intelligence Directorate arrested ISIL’s mastermind in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp Imad Yassine, takfiri groups in the camp moved away from al-Tawari neighbourhood [where Yassine was arrested] and the Lebanese Army checkpoint, seeking refuge in more distant neighbourhoods for fear of arrest," it reported.

The agency said the terrorists "are resorting to wearing disguises to conceal their true identities, while some are suffering from nervous breakdowns".

Money swaying jihadists

Yassine's arrest prompted a number of elements to flee the camp at night and join Fatah al-Sham Front and other terrorist groups, as his followers "are unwelcome in the camp", said military strategy analyst Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb, a retired Lebanese military officer.

"Those [elements] are a commodity that can be bought and sold by extremist Islamist groups and organisations who put out the money," he told Al-Mashareq. "Currently, the closest group [to them] is Fatah al-Sham/ANF, as it appears that they are headed to fight alongside it in Syria."

They are "fleeing with forged identity cards and disguises with the help of smuggling networks that are set up for this purpose", he said.

As the army tightens its grip on the Ain al-Hilweh camp, Malaeb predicted more of Yassine's followers will attempt to flee.

"It has become very clear from the co-ordination established between Lebanese security forces and Palestinian factions [in the camp] that the presence of extremist Islamists in Ain al-Hilweh is creating unease, and consequently, it is in the interest of the Palestinians to hand over those [elements] who seek refuge in it," he said.

Extremists have taken refuge in a camp in al-Tawari neighbourhood, which consists of four buildings only frequented by extremists and wanted fugitives, Malaeb said.

"Extremism is growing in this [neighbourhood], while the main Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp is not in any way an incubating environment for those terrorists, who today find themselves exposed in the wake of the arrest of Imad Yassine," he said.

Loss of protection

Every time a major figure in ISIL is arrested in Lebanon, the elements affiliated with him scatter and flee, said retired Lebanese army officer Brig. Gen. Hisham Jaber, head of the Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies.

"After Yassine’s arrest, his supporters sensed that they were no longer protected and have become anxious, and this drives them to flee and join other groups that provide them with protection," he told Al-Mashareq.

Jaber cautioned against expecting all extremist elements fleeing the camp to join Fatah al-Sham Front because "someone will take over for Imad Yassine after his arrest."

ISIL elements in the camp lost their protective cover with the arrest of Yassine, political analyst George Shaheen told Al-Mashareq.

In addition, Palestinian leadership in the camp made it clear that they will co-operate with Lebanese security agencies to maintain security, including turning over any known terrorists, he said.

All these factors drive Yassine’s followers to flee, he said.

As for their destination, Shaheen said, "They do not care what their destination is, be it another location with ISIL or with Fatah al-Sham, for they are not doctrinal and look for anyone who will pay them."

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