Thursday, 13 November 2008

Islamists in the mist

The Financial Times is attempting to get a grip on the murky world of Islamists, Syria and Lebanon:

Syrian television last week broadcast what it said were the confessions of members of the Lebanon-based Fatah al-Islam faction, admitting responsibility for a bomb attack in Damascus in September that killed 17. The Lebanese authorities yesterday said they had arrested five of the militants on suspicion of involvement "in terrorist acts".

The controversy arises from televised claims by the militants that they had been financed by Lebanon's anti-Syrian Future movement. The movement, led by Saad Hariri, son of murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, is Lebanon's main Sunni political party.

The Future movement has denied the allegation. Ahmad Fatfat, a former cabinet minister, called it "a fabrication by the Syrian security services that can only prove their own involvement with Fatah al-Islam".

Damascus has repeatedly accused Salafi groups of involvement in violence in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has sent about 10,000 troops to the border in what Syria says is an attempt to contain them.

Apart from their apparently limited number, much of what is known about the Salafists is a matter of dispute. The movement is splintered and divides into openly anti- and pro-Syrian factions. Members vary in their ideological affiliation with al-Qaeda and have different financial backers with wildly diverging agendas.

The sharpest division seems to run between groups for whom anti-US and general anti-western motives trump local politics, and those for whom antiSyrian, anti-Shia, antiHizbollah and anti-Iranian sentiments dominate - to the extent that they co-operate with the US-backed mainstream Sunni Future movement.

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