TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Deep in a violent and lawless slum just north of this coastal city, 12 men whose faces were shrouded by scarves drilled with Kalashnikovs.

In unison, they lunged in one direction, turned and lunged in another. “Allah-u akbar,” the men shouted in praise to God as they fired their machine guns into a wall.

The men belong to a new militant Islamic organization called Fatah al Islam, whose leader, a fugitive Palestinian named Shakir al-Abssi, has set up operations in a refugee camp here where trains fighters and spreads the ideology of al-Qaida.

He has solid terrorist credentials. A former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed last summer, Abssi was sentenced to death in absentia along with al-Zarqawi in the 2002 assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan, Laurence Foley.

Just four months after arriving here from Syria, Abssi has a militia that intelligence officials estimate at 150 men and an arsenal of explosives, rockets and even an anti-aircraft gun.

During a recent interview with The New York Times, Abssi displayed his makeshift training facility and his strident message that America needed to be punished for its presence in the Islamic world.

“The only way to achieve our rights is by force,” he said. “This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened, they will know that they should leave.”

Abssi’s organization is the image of what intelligence officials have warned is the re-emergence of al-Qaida. Shattered after 2001, the organization founded by Osama bin Laden is now reforming as an alliance of small groups around the world that share a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but have developed their own independent terror capabilities, these officials have said. If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has acknowledged directing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a string of other terror plots, represents the previous generation of Qaida leaders, Abssi and others like him represent the new.

U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say Abssi is viewed as a dangerous militant who can assemble small teams of operatives with acute military skill.

“Guys like Abssi have the capability on the ground that al-Qaida has lost and is looking to tap into,” said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Abssi has shown himself to be a canny operator. Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government. The camp also gives him ready access to a pool of recruits, young Palestinians whose militant vision has evolved from the struggle against Israel to a larger Islamic cause.

Intelligence officials here say that he has also exploited another source of manpower: They estimate he that has 50 militants from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fresh from fighting with the insurgency in Iraq.

The officials say they fear that he is seeking to establish himself as a terror leader on the order of al-Zarqawi. “He is trying to fill a void and do so in a high-profile manner that will attract the attention of supporters,” the U.S. intelligence official said.

Abssi has recently taken on a communications adviser, Abu al-Hassan, 24, a journalism student who dropped out of college to join Fatah al Islam. His current project: a newsmagazine aimed at attracting recruits.

The arc of Abssi’s life shows the allure of al-Qaida for Arab militants. Born in Palestine, from which he and family were evicted by the Israelis, Abssi, 51, said he stopped studying medicine to fly planes for Yasser Arafat. He then staged attacks on Israel from his own base in Syria. After he was imprisoned in Syria for three years on terrorism charges, he said he broadened his targets to include Americans in Jordan.

The Times arranged to speak with Abssi through a series of intermediaries, who helped set up meetings in his headquarters at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. Abssi, a soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, was interviewed in a bare room inside a small cinderblock building on the edge of a field where training was under way. About 80 men were in the compound, performing various tasks, including one who manned an anti-aircraft gun. As Abssi spoke, two aides took notes, while a third fiddled with a submachine gun. A bazooka leaned against the wall behind him.

In a 90-minute interview, his first with Western reporters, Abssi said he shared al-Qaida’s fundamentalist interpretation and endorses the creation of a global Islamic nation. He said killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq was no longer enough to convince the American public that its government should abandon what many Muslims view as a war against Islam.

“We have every legitimate right to do such acts, for isn’t it America that comes to our region and kills innocents and children?” Abssi said. “It is our right to hit them in their homes the same as they hit us in our homes.

“We are not afraid of being named terrorists,” he added. “But I want to ask, is someone who detonates one kilogram a terrorist while someone who detonates tons in Arab and Islamic cities not a terrorist?”

When asked, Abssi refused to say what his targets might be.

This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities and were charging them with last month’s bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.

Fertile soil for militants

Inside the Palestinian camp, Abssi seems to be building his operation with little interference.

Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, said the government does not have authority to enter a Palestinian camp – even though Abssi is now wanted in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria on terrorism charges.

To enter the camps, Rifi said, “We would need an agreement from other Arab countries.” He said that instead the government was tightening its cordon around the camp to make it harder for Abssi or his men to slip in and out.

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have long been fertile ground for militancy, particularly focused on the fight against Israel. But militants in those camps now have a broader vision. In Ain el Hilwe camp, an hour’s drive south of Beirut, another radical Sunni group, Asbat al Ansar, has been sending fighters to Iraq since the start of the war, its leaders acknowledged in interviews.

“The U.S. is oppressing a lot of people,” the group’s deputy commander, who goes by the name of Abu Sharif, said in a room strewn with Kalashnikovs. “They are killing a lot of innocents, but one day they are getting paid back.” A leading sheik in the camp, Jamal Hatad, has a television studio that broadcasts 12 hours a day with shows ranging from viewer call-ins to video of bin Laden’s statements and parents proudly displaying photographs of their martyred children.

“I was happy,” Hamad Mustaf Ayasin, 70, recalls in hearing last fall that his 35-year-old son, Ahmed, had died in Iraq fighting American troops near the Syrian border. “The U.S. is against Muslims all over the world.”

On the streets of the camp, one young man after another said dying in Iraq was no longer their only dream.

“If I had the chance to do any kind of operation against anyone who is against Islam, inside or outside of the United States, I would do the operation,” said Mohamed, an 18-year-old student, who declined to give his last name.

Hussein Hamdan, 19, who keeps a poster of Osama bin Laden in the bedroom he shares with two sisters, is a street tough attuned to religious fundamentalism. He dropped out of school at age 10, spent 18 months in jail on assault charges, and earlier this month — “just to make a statement,” he said — took a razor and repeatedly slashed both his forearms. “I want to become a mujahedeen and go to jihad in any country where there are Jews or Americans to fight against them,” he said.

Lebanon has increasingly become a source of terror suspects. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Lebanon, as did six men charged with planting bombs on German trains last summer. Two other Lebanese men and a Palestinian were among those accused last spring of plotting to blow up the PATH train tunnels beneath the Hudson River in New York.

Rifi said officials were trying to learn as much as possible about Abssi’s operation from sources and surveillance, but it was clear that their information was limited. In questioning people, security officials are showing a photograph of Abssi that is 30 years old, though it displays his most distinctive feature – two moles, one on each side of his nose.

The apparent inability to apprehend Abssi provokes fury in the men who are hunting him. A security official in one of the countries where he is wanted scowled when asked why Abssi was operating freely: “I can go lots of places to grab people, but I can’t grab him.”

In the interview with The Times, Abssi said he had been largely warmly received in the Palestinian camp, and that he was optimistic about his cause. “One of the reasons for choosing this camp is our belief that the people here are close to God as they feel the same suffering as our brothers in Palestine,” he said.

“Today’s youth, when they see what is happening in Palestine and Iraq, it enthuses them to join the way of the right and jihad,” he said. “These people have now started to adopt the right path.”

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