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Omar Bakri: My Life on the Run | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Omar Bakri (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Omar Bakri (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Omar Bakri (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The controversial Syrian-born preacher Omar Bakri was arrested by the Lebanese authorities in the early hours of Sunday, after going into hiding last month following a crackdown on sectarian violence in the city of Tripoli.

He was arrested in the town of Aley, southwest of Beirut. At a press conference in the capital, Lebanese Interior Minister Nihad Mashnouq said Bakri “has contributed in every aspect in supporting terrorism.”

Bakri became a notorious figure in the UK for his leadership of the fundamentalist organizations Al-Muhajiroun and Al-Ghurabaa—both of which were banned under anti-terrorist legislation—and his public support for Al-Qaeda and similar jihadist groups. While visiting Lebanon, he was denied permission to return to the UK and settled in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

He was previously tried and convicted of terrorism in Lebanon in 2010, but was released after witnesses recanted their testimony.

When violence erupted in Tripoli thanks to the spillover of fighting in neighboring Syria, he found himself once more on the radar of the authorities, and fled after a number of raids by the security forces targeted the homes of those accused of stoking sectarian tensions.

During his time in hiding, he gave an exclusive interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, describing his life on the run, and explaining why his high profile in the media made him fearful to venture outside his hiding place.

He said: “I spend the day in isolation in a tiny furnished apartment, praying, worshiping and reading the Qur’an and books, and following the news. At sunset I retreat to a tiny, windowless room.”

He added: “I do not leave the place I am hiding in for anywhere else at all for fear of people recognizing me, because my face is familiar to most people due to my constant media appearances.”

Bakri also offered his thoughts on the crisis in Syria, where fighting between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government and various rebel groups has led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people over three years, according to activists.

In particular, the preacher singled out the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah for its decision to offer battlefield assistance to Assad’s forces in western Syria.

“The massacres the Bashar Al-Assad government has committed against the Syrian people since the start of the revolution were no secret to anyone, even to his closest allies such as Russia, China and Iran, and most particularly Hassan Nasrallah and [his organization] Hezbollah, Iran’s army in Lebanon and the region,” Bakri said.

“Nasrallah will be punished by God for all he has done against Islam and Sunni Muslims,” he added, and said the Shi’ite leader should “stop accusing his Sunni opponents of being takfirists and terrorists.”

Bakri also spoke on the subject of the divisions that have plagued the rebels battling to bring down Assad’s government, particularly those between rival jihadist groups that have been battling for control of the province of Raqqa despite their similar ideologies.

He said that the ongoing clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front were “a fact of life, and it is not unprecedented in human history or the history of Islam.”

On the topic of his future plans, and whether he would attempt to return to the UK, Bakri said the pressure he faced in Lebanon was more severe than that he had experienced in London.

“I left Britain and renounced the British nationality of my own will because the extent to which my Da’wah [preaching] activities were frank and daring became annoying to everybody, particularly to the so-called moderate current,” he added.

He also said that the pressure he faced in London had been mostly at the hands of the British media, while in Lebanon he said he was oppressed by the security forces, with the backing of the judiciary and the country’s political leaders.

“I very much miss the legal margin of freedom of expression [in Britain] given even to those who hold opinions like me that run against the country’s laws,” he added, and accused Saudi Arabia of refusing him a visa the make the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages.