updated 5/20/2007 6:21:06 PM ET 2007-05-20T22:21:06

The shadowy militant group Fatah Islam, whose leader has been linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, 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 the country. On Sunday, its members engaged in fierce battles with Lebanese troops that killed at least 22 soldiers and 17 militants and wounded dozens.

The group’s leader has been identified as fugitive Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian in his early 50s who has vilified America in media interviews and admitted he supports the ideology of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He is believed to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Al-Absi 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.

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.

The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV station reported that among the militants killed Sunday were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries.

The group’s base is the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon, one of the scenes of Sunday’s clashes. But it has quietly expanded to the adjacent port of Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic fundamentalists.

Group uses al-Qaida language
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 whether the group was linked to al-Qaida but claimed its aim was to liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites, and to protect Sunnis.

“We are a Jihadi movement, and we have hoisted the banner of Islam,” he told a local TV station — language often used by militant groups associated with al-Qaida.

But Lebanon’s national police commander, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, denied Fatah Islam’s 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.

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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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