A Jihadist Victim in a Lebanese Murder Mystery

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Ali Hashisho / Reuters

Lebanese Islamist militant Abou-Ramiz Sahmarani gestures during a protest in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp on this February 2, 2006. The Senior Jund al-Sham commander was found killed in the camp near the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon on December 25, 2010.

Ghandi "Abu Ramez" Sahmarani led a little known Qaeda-inspired group in the shadows of this squalid Palestinian refugee camp. But he'll be remembered here less for his uneventful life of jihad than for the mystery of his violent death two weeks ago.

Killings are not uncommon in Ain al-Hilweh — some are politically inspired, others a byproduct of feuds that fester in the poverty and despair of permanent refugee life. Usually, however, the victims meet their end in an explosion or a hail of gunfire. Not Sahmarani. The 46-year-old was abducted, tortured for several hours, hanged and shot, then wrapped in a blanket, stuffed into a sack and dumped in a small car park near the camp's vegetable market.

The unusual nature of his killing sparked feverish speculation within the camp over the identity and motives of the perpetrators. Palestinian officials, wary of the tit-for-tat escalation that usually follows acts of violence here, sought to play down the significance of Sahmarani's death.

"The information that we have is that it was the result of a personal feud and very small. It had nothing to do with security or politics," said Mounir Moqdah, a veteran Palestinian commander in Ain al-Hilweh.

One rumor suggested that Sahmarani had seduced or raped the wives of some of his jihadist comrades, and was killed in revenge. But many in Ain al-Hilweh are skeptical of that explanation.

"When people commit revenge here, they shoot the person and have done with it. They don't kidnap and torture them first," said Abu Mustafa, the owner of a sandwich shop.

The camp's branch of the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is another suspect, especially as the group has a long history of clashes with jihadist elements in Ain al-Hilweh. Again, however, Fatah is not knowing for kidnapping and torturing those it has decided to eliminate.

"The death of Sahmarani has left a mystery," said leading local Fatah official, Mahmoud Issa, popularly known as 'Lino'. "We have some information but we are digging more."

There are few discreet places in the cramped camp, whose cinder block homes pack some 70,000 people into an area less than a square mile, where someone could be detained, tortured and killed without anyone noticing. That's why some believe Sahmarani may have been removed from the camp and tortured to extract information. He was wanted by the Lebanese authorities for launching attacks on government troops manning the outskirts of Ain al-Hilweh in 2007, and was accused of plotting attacks on U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon. His organization, Jund ash-Sham, was rumored locally to have been bankrolled in 2007 by Bahiyah Hariri, a legislator representing the neighboring town of Sidon. Hariri is the sister of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister assassinated six years ago and aunt of the current premier, Saad Hariri. She has denied funding Jund ash-Sham, and Sahmarani was once quoted as saying that he would never accept money from secular sources. Still, some suspect Sahmarani was tortured in a hunt for information that could be used against the Hariri family.

Although he lived in a Palestinian refugee camp, Sahmarani was Lebanese, having grown up in the slums of the mostly Sunni city of Tripoli. During the 1980s, he fought in Lebanon's civil war as part of the Islamic Tawheed Movement, an Islamist group that controlled much of Tripoli at the time. He later boasted that in battles against Syrian troops, he had earned the moniker "Abu Ramez the Ferocious", but fled a Syrian crackdown around 1988 and sought shelter in Ain al-Hilweh — like all of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, it lies outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state. In the camp, he fell in with a motley collection of jihadists, some of whom had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And he became the leader of a new group, Jund ash-Sham, in 2004.

His wild and unkempt appearance made Sahmarani a familiar figure in the quarter of the camp controlled by the jihadists, and was prone to colorful hyperbole. But while some of his comrades traveled to Iraq starting in 2003 to seek martyrdom fighting coalition forces, Sahmarani preferred his cloistered fiefdom in Ain al-Hilweh. In 2007, he led an attack against Lebanese troops on a checkpoint outside the camp, sparking day-long clashes that left two soldiers and two militants dead. After that, a larger Islamist group placed him under virtual house arrest to restore calm to the camp. The following year, Fatah gunmen killed some of his colleagues and turned others over to Lebanese military intelligence. Fearing for his life, Sahmarani rarely left home after that.

On the day he disappeared, he received a telephone call from someone asking to meet. Sources in the camp say that Sahmarani's wife knows the identity of the caller, but is refusing to speak. The coroner who examined his body after it was discovered the following day said he had been badly beaten, burnt with lit cigarettes, hanged by a wire and shot in the head.

Sahmarani was hurriedly buried in Dawra, his ancestral family home in north Lebanon, in a brief ceremony at which Lebanese intelligence agents outnumbered mourners.

"The sheikh said prayers over the grave and they were gone. The family didn't even talk to anyone in the village," said Abdullah Massih, Dawra's deputy mayor. Even the grave has been placed off-limits to visitors by the security authorities.

So small is Ain al-Hilweh that someone must know something about the jihadist's death. But they also know better than to talk. Survival in Ain al-Hilweh and places like it often depends on knowing when to avert eyes and remain silent. And that means nobody's expecting any imminent solution to the mystery of the grisly end of "Abu Ramez the Ferocious".