AMMAN â€” Shaker Youssef Absi, the Palestinian who heads a shadowy militant group blamed for this weekâ€™s violence in Lebanon, is not a terrorist but a nationalist who seeks an end to Israelâ€™s occupation of Palestinian lands, his family says.
But Jordanian officials insist he is an Al Qaeda-linked militant, once closely allied with the slain Al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Mussab Zarqawi. Absi was sentenced to death in absentia here along with Zarqawi for their roles in the 2002 slaying of a US aid worker and was implicated in other planned terror plots in Jordan.
â€œHeâ€™s not a terrorist, but a man with a cause,â€ saidÂ Absiâ€™s younger brother, Abdul-RazzaqÂ Absi â€” an Amman bone surgeon.
â€œHe wanted to see an end to Israelâ€™s occupation of Palestinian lands,â€ the brother told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
â€œHe always used to tell me, â€˜My only concern in life is Palestine and its liberation from the Israeli occupiersâ€™,â€Â he added.
Â Absi is believed to have recruited about 100 fighters, including militants from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab countries. He and his group took up residence in the Nahr Bared camp late last year and has vowed to fight a life or death battle against Lebanese forces.
The State Security Court said he linked up with Zarqawi a few years ago. Both mapped out terror plans against Americans, Israelis and other targets in the Middle East, according to court documents made available to the AP.
One was the October 2002 assassination of the aid worker, who was gunned down by two Absi associates outside his Amman home.
While Zarqawi provided the financing to the Jordanian cell, Absi â€” who is also known as Abu Youssef â€” sent the money through intermediaries and arranged to train militants in Syria on weapons and explosives, the court documents said.
His brother, Abdul-Razzaq, and his 78-year-old uncle, Abu Saleh, insist they know of no past connection between their relative and Zarqawi, now dead.
â€œI doubt that. He has a different way of thinking. Heâ€™s not a takfiri,â€ the brother said, referring to the extremist Sunni doctrine that regards nonmilitant Muslims as infidels. Both refused to say when they had last spoken toÂ Absi, but they appeared to have been in close contact with him, mentioning recent details such as the location of his children â€” along with him in the Nahr Bared refugee camp.
Officials say Absiâ€™s focus on targets in Jordan remained recent.Â In a separate incident,Â police engaged in a gunbattle in January this year with two militants in the northern city of Irbid, killing one and arresting another. The arrested militant later confessed that Absi had sent the pair to carry out terror attacks in Jordan, said aÂ security official, who closely monitors Absiâ€™s movements.
Because of all that, Absi has been high onÂ most-wanted list.
But intelligence exchanges with several regional countries, including Syria, never succeeded in nabbing the fugitive, who is believed to have taken refuge in Syria or been in Syrian jails for several years before last fall.
Syria has said Fateh Islam people were in its jails, then released â€” but that it tried to rearrest them once it realised they were still engaged in militancy.
Absi was born in 1955 to a poor Palestinian family in Ein Sultan, a village near the West Bank town of Jericho.
When Absi was 12, he and some of his family fled to Jordan after Israelâ€™s seizure of the West Bank.
They lived in Ammanâ€™s Wihdat refugee camp for five years, until Absi graduated with distinction from a UN-run school for refugees, according to his uncle.
Absi joined the Fateh movement under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the age of 18 â€” the same year he fled Jordan for Tunisia
In 1973,Â Fateh accorded Absi a scholarship to study pre-medicine in Tunis, but he dropped out of college a year later.
From Tunisia, he travelled on to Libya, where he studied and graduated in 1977 from a military air force academy, becoming a professional air force pilot. Afterward, he attended aviation courses in several east European nations, including East Germany and the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union.
In the meantime, he met a Palestinian girl in a refugee camp in Lebanon and married her in the early 1980s, months before the 1982 Israeli invasion of south Lebanon to drive Arafatâ€™s forces out.
Absi has six girls and a boy, who live with their father in the Nahr Bared camp outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Abdul-Razzaq said he knows his brother as a â€œvery honest and a very sincere man who doesnâ€™t know how to lie… Heâ€™s a decent man, a good man with a very kind heart…. People liked him.â€ â€œHow could a man like that be a terrorist?â€ he asked.
â€œThis is nonsense. They accuse any Arab with a cause of being a terrorist.â€