On 29 June 2009, the Jordanian journalist Murad Batal al-Shishani published an article in al-Hayat titled “Salafi–Jihadism: A New Face in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria’s Palestinian Camps.” The article talks about the new generation of “neo-Zarqawis” and the increasing radicalization of Palestinian refugees. This radicalisation, he argues, stems from the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the deterioration of the PLO and its control over the refugee camps, the political ramifications of the Fatah-Hamas conflict, and rising poverty and unemployment. Al-Shishani states that attacks such as the 2008 incident in Jordan where Thaer al-Wahidi, a refugee from the al-Baq’ah refugee camp, assaulted a Lebanese classical music troupe, are emblematic of this phenomenon.
Al-Shishani argues that the Salafi-jihadi ideology in the refugee camps has come in three phases. The first was the establishment of the ideology in the mid-1980s. The establishment of ‘Usbat al-Ansar in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon was typical of this phase. According to al-Shishani, this period witnessed the beginning of nationalist groups using Islamic slogans and the establishment of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Al-Shishani writes that the second phase was when the Salafi-jihadis started playing a larger role in sheltering and training non-Palestinian Salafi-jihadis. Al-Shishani cited the 2003 bombing of the McDonalds in Lebanon by the Yemeni Muammar al-Awami as an example of this development.
According to al-Shishani, the third phase is when the Salafi-jihadi ideology becomes the primary ideology for Palestinian youth in the camps. This phase is occurring now, as individuals and small groups are increasingly taking up the ideology. Al-Shishani states that the members of this new generation “are described as ‘neo-Zarqawis,’” and are the legacy of the Levantine Salafi-jihadi current that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started in his Afghan training camp in 2000. They believe the route to Israel is through Iraq. Al-Shishani maintains that this trend is regional, centering on Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and it rejects the Salafi-jihadism of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (more on the al-Maqdisi dispute here and here).
In describing the Salafi-jihadi situation in Jordan, al-Shishani states that the refugee camp in Irbid has become a transit point for foreign fighters headed to Iraq and this is important because commentators normally associate Salafi-jihadism in Jordan with the cities of Zarqa, Salt, and Maan in addition to Palestinians not living in camps and East Jordanians. According to al-Shishani, Irbid is where the leader of al-Wahidi’s cell, Shakir ‘Umar al-Khatib, recruited al-Wahidi and called on Palestinians to join “the fighters in Iraq and Lebanon.”
For Lebanon, al-Shishani agrees with Omayma Abdel-Latif, a research associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, that Lebanon is “fertile ground” for radical Salafi organizations. The lack of official Lebanese control over the camps, due to a previous agreement between Palestinian factions and the Lebanese government, compounds this threat.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of information, al-Shishani does not provide many details of the situation in Syria except to say that there have been clashes between militants in the Yarmuk refugee camp and the Syrian government.
The study of Salafi-jihadism in the Levant often takes a backseat to that of Iraq and AfPak, and to that of Hamas and Hezbollah, but, as al-Shishani indicates, the ideology does have a persistent and dangerous following in the region. If the modicum of stability that Iraq currently enjoys holds after the US withdrawal, the next logical endpoint for the neo-Zarqawis would be the Palestinian Territories, where they could act as spoilers to any possible peace initiatives.