State Department designates head of Al Nusrah Front branch in Lebanon
The US State Department today announced the designation of Usamah Amin al Shihabi, who has "recently been appointed head of Syria-based al Nusrah Front's Palestinian wing in Lebanon."
Al Shihabi is also described as being an "associate" of Fatah al Islam (FAI), "a Lebanese-based militant group formed in 2006, whose ultimate goal is the institution of Islamist sharia law in the Palestinian refugee camps and the destruction of Israel." The State Department explains that al Shihabi "at times has played a key leadership role in the organization."
The ties between Fatah al Islam and the Al Nusrah Front, which is one of al Qaeda's official branches inside Syria, are unsurprising. Members of Fatah al Islam, which is linked to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, have been killed while fighting in Iraq and Syria. Some of Fatah al Islam's earliest leaders are known to have been close to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased head of al Qaeda in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Fatah al Islam emir killed while waging jihad in Syria.]
Allegedly trained terror cell that plotted against Americans in Jordan
Leaked State Department cables provide additional details concerning Usamah Amin al Shihabi's career. One, dated Oct. 5, 2006, noted that al Shihabi had been accused by Jordanian authorities of training a group of men who "plotted to attack American citizens, nightclubs, liquor shops, and hotels in Amman and Aqaba."
The plot was foiled, however, after four members of the cell were arrested in September 2005.
In September 2006, the four arrested members, al Shihabi, and one other plotter were sentenced to "between 10 and 15 years [of] hard labor" after being convicted of planning the terror attack. Al Shihabi and the other plotter were tried in absentia, as they were "believed to be in Lebanon" at the time.
The State Department cable explains that, according to the Jordanian court papers, the "cell's members received weapons training in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon." The training was conducted by al Shihabi and one of his accomplices.
According to the Jordanian government, the cable reads: [T]he defendants sought to spray cyanide on the doorknobs of nightclubs to poison customers, but could not buy the chemical without a license." They "switched plans to conduct their attacks using machine-guns, according to the indictment."
The al Shihabi-trained cell called itself the "Khattab Brigade." According to another leaked State Department cable, dated Dec. 8, 2005, the cell "planned to attack Americans who frequented the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, and the Intercontinental Hotel in Aqaba."
Al Qaeda reportedly revamped organization in Lebanon
Al Shihabi's appointment as head of the Al Nusrah Front's Palestinian branch was reported earlier this year. The move was seen as part of al Qaeda's push to unify control over its operations at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon.
An account by Mohammad Harfoush, a Lebanese journalist who writes for the Kuwaiti Al-Anbaa newspaper, noted that al Shihabi's appointment, as well as other personnel moves, came after al Qaeda decided to restructure its organization in Lebanon "following instructions from Ayman al Zawahiri."
It is not clear what specific reports led to this reporting. Harfoush cited accounts "in Beirut from local and Western media" as the source for this claim. In any event, Harfoush's account accurately noted al Shihabi's appointment.