Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism was always considered a frightening myth that many in Lebanon refused to acknowledge despite all warnings that indicated otherwise.
However, the myth became a reality with the confrontation between the militant Fatah al-Islam group and the Lebanese army currently taking place at Nahr al Bared and Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
The clash at the camp is the bloodiest internal conflict in Lebanon since the civil war ended 17 years ago, and poses a long term threat to Lebanon’s internal security.
Fatah al Islam is not the forerunner of violent extremism in Lebanon. The 1990s saw a similar phenomena that was born and based in Palestinian refugee camps, with the emergence of groups like Osbat al-Ansar; (who are accused of murdering Sheik Nazar al Halabi, the chairman of the Islamic Societies, in late August 1995.) and Jund al Sham, which formed in May 2004 and supports the Islamic caliphate concept, and are one of the many active Islamic militant groups in the Palestinian Ain al Hilweh refugee camp located in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon.
These “militant” movements were not the earliest Salafi presence in Lebanon.
The consensus amongst researchers asserts that the Salafi presence emerged in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, when Sheikh Salim al Shahhal launched a movement he named “Muhammad’s youths”.
The movement adopted the Salafist ideology and its followers pledged allegiance to Sheikh Salim, calling him the “Emir of the group”. The group later changed its name to “Jamaa-Muslims” and saw its influence spread in Akar, Maniya, Danniya and other northern districts.
The group’s activities besides traditional preaching included both educational and charity work. However, what helped spread the Salafi ideology among the Sunnis in Tripoli was the fact that its members made religious education their priority. The Salafi groups’ leaders also took a moderate position towards the government that was confined to advice and guidance and the calling for reform and change for the well-being of the country, away from the coups and power struggles.
In 1976 al Jamaa Muslim expanded its activities to include a military division called the “Islamic Army”, although it military role remained limited. In the 1980s, the role of the Salafi current in Lebanon grew along with its activities and members. Its popularity quickly expanded beyond Tripoli benefiting from the spread of the Islamic tawheed movement, led by its former Emir the late sheikh Said Shaaban.
Some sources state that the tawheed movement rose from the ashes of three smaller factions the “popular resistance,” the “Arab Lebanon movement” and “Jund Allah.”
Since its creation, the group has declared its rejection of “disparate and defeatist positions.” Between 1983 and 1984 it recruited an “army” of youths eager to carry arms, and then turned Tripoli into an Islamic emirate, banning all modern expressions that contradicted Islam, which led to the closing of nightclubs and public swimming pools, amongst other things.
Sheikh Shaban’s strong presence stemmed from his close relations with the Iranians at the pinnacle of the Islamic revolution and from the financial and military support he received from the Palestine Liberation Organization and the late President Yasser Arafat.
However, as a by-product of the brutal civil war Emarat al Tawheed’s influence declined in the autumn of 1985 and it became geographically confined to the house of its founder, who died in 1998.
Its presence was limited to some educational and social institutions and was soon split into the supreme council led by sheikh Bilal Shaban, who inherited the movement from his father, and the council of trustees led by Sheikh Hashim Minqara.
However, the Islamic Jamaa was able to distinguish itself as a key Islamic movement. Researchers consider it one of the most dynamic Islamic movements to take place within the Lebanese political spectrum.
Its rise was not purely a Tripolitan affair. Northern Beirut also cooperated. In 1964 then Minister of Interior the late Kamal Jumblat approved it as a political society. Its key founders were the Islamic preacher Fathi Yakan, Sheikh Faisal al Mawalwi and Dr. Zuhair al Ubaidi. During its early stages, Tripoli was the center of its political activity, but it soon expanded into other parts of Lebanon namely Beirut, Sidon and Bikaa.
The group’s presence was heavily felt during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon of 1982. It took part in the resistance through a military organization called the “Mujahideen,” which soon ceased to exist.
With the decline of al Tawheed’s role, it succeeded in assimilating the Islamist arena of Tripoli. It took part in the 1992 legislative elections and its candidates Fathi Yakan and Asad Harmush in the north and Zuhair al Ubaidi in Beirut made it to the parliament.
Because of the many cultures, denominations and parties that exist in Lebanon, the “Jamaa” did not embrace the notion of an “Islamic republic” in Lebanon, knowing that it would likely be rejected.
It has been careful to remain neutral on issues involving the incumbent government and the opposition. On many issue the group sees eye to eye with the Future movement, but reject the group’s overall ideology. Concerning Hezbollah the “Jamaa” believes in the Shiite group should disarm under the condition that they are bound by the political and military decisions of the state of Lebanon.
The group’s overall structure has evolved, which some regarded as purely a survival method. This resulted in the dismissal of co-founder Fathi Yakan, who went on to establish the Islamic action front.
Currently the Islamic action front and both divisions of al Tawheed movement are labeled pro-Syrian.
Tripoli’s attraction of these Salafi movements is due to the city’s conservative nature in spite of its diversity. Dr. Abdul Ghani Imad, professor of sociology and Islamic affairs told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Tripoli’s share of Salafi movements can be traced to its nature and identity. It had been promoted by those who went to Saudi Arabia for study and became attached to the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to the conservative nature of the city, which is generally dominated by the Islamic sentiment even before the rise of Salafism (sheikh Muhammad Rasheed Rida of Tripoli was the mentor of Hassan al Banna), the Salafi Wahhabi culture began to gain popularity because it did not complicate matters and proposed ideas that were close to the people, like the return to the Salafi approach and simplification. It also did not have an overtly political agenda that could have dictated political affiliations. It had no particular chief or place. Every society had its own sheikh and the Salafist ideology is not confined anyone.”
Imad stressed that “Salafism is not the same whether in Lebanon or elsewhere.” However, the moderate Salafism that Lebanon saw begin in the capital of its northern province soon hid behind its militant offspring, which this time was embraced by the Palestinian refugee camps.
Dr. Ahmad Musuly, professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University in Beirut, told Asharq Al Awsat: “Some of these movements act violently and some accept the present situation. Salafis in Lebanon were receptive to peace and could settle for Islamic values and thought. The switch to violence was associated with the rise of al Qaeda. Militant takfiri groups emerged that embraced al Qaeda’s thinking and called for the elimination of everything that contradicted their ideology and the establishment of an Islamic state by force. These groups were based in the Palestinian refugee camps where authority is absent.” He pointed out that “The thing in common between the Salafi groups is the same thinking—a return to the pious ancestors’ course, rejection of the schools of thought and adhering to basic texts.”
“The militant Salafism that began in 1980s took the simple nature of Islam and added the notion of militancy from the Qutbi current (after Sayyid Qutb). The combining of Qutbism and Wahhabism took place in Afghanistan through Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, where the walaa and baraa equation met with Sayyid Qutb’s theory of divine governance that denounced contemporary society as infidels. The takfiri Qutbi current utilized the physical potentials of the scholastic Salafism and turned toward militancy,” added Dr. Abdul Ghani Imad.
Returning to the Salafis of Tripoli, Dr. Abdul Ghani said that “not all Salafis in Tripoli are militants. There are Salafis who belong to several political movements and currents. There are those who suffered from the conflict with the Syrian regime and therefore have became close to the March 14 Movement, particularly the Future Movement that represents the Sunnites in Lebanon, especially as the Salafi ideology provides for the obedience of a ruler as it brings one closer to God, hence obedience to Lebanese Mufti sheikh Muhammad Rasheed Qabbani and Future Movement’s chairman MP Saad al Hariri.”
In accordance with these shifts, the moderate Salafi movement that deliberately searched for a role in the Lebanese political structure did not remain alone in the arena. At the pinnacle of the Lebanese civil war and after the expulsion of the PLO and its armed struggle from Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion, the characteristics of the Palestinian composition in the refugee camps began to change in line with the growing Syrian anti-Yasser Arafat influence. In that atmosphere, Usbet al Nour was formed under the leadership of Sheikh Hisham al Shuraidi, who denounced the other Palestinian factions as infidels. He was assassinated in 1991 and Usbet al Nour held Fatah’s security arm accountable for the act.
Following the assassination of al Shraidi, Ahmad Abdul Karim al Saadi, also known as Abu Muhjin, assumed the post of Amir, which also came with a change in the groups name from “Al Nour” to “al Ansar.”
Al Saadi a controversial personality was convicted in absentia by Lebanese authorities over the assassination of Sheikh Nazar al Halabi, the chairman of the Islamic Societies. Through the assassination, al Saadi guaranteed his “leadership” as amir of Usbet al Ansar. He once again gained notoriety when 60 of his militants fought back Lebanese security forces in 2000 in a clash in Danniya north of Tripoli over the bombings of a number of churches in northern Lebanon. The clashes killed 11 troops and 34 militants. Later a Lebanese court tried 27 Usbet al Nour members and sentenced a number of them to death.
Usbet al Ansar did not remain isolated from the political fabric of the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp for long. It contributed a representative to the camp’s security committee which was formed after a meeting of Palestinian forces and factions, which resulted in the handing over of militant Badi Hamada who had sought shelter there after killing members of the Lebanese army and was later tried and executed.
Experts on Salafi movements believe that the militant activities in Lebanon were put aside in favor of training militants to fight in the insurgency in Iraq.
Speaking on condition of anonymity a Muslim cleric told Asharq Al-Awsat that,” Unfortunately, there were parties that took advantage of Shariaa-abiding Sunni Lebanese youths and lured them into militancy following the example of their Shiite brothers. Like Hezbollah, they do not consider themselves terrorist but rather armed resistance.”
“What further contributed to the exploitation of these youths is al Qaeda’s ambitions for expansion in the Levant and the convergence of its interests with some regional powers. This accounts for Ayman al Zawahiri’s growing interest in the situation in Lebanon and Palestine and call for attacking the UNIFIL troops because they are according to him members of the a crusaders against Islam,” he added.
According to the cleric, an example of this political exploitation is the penetration of the Lebanese arena by Fatah al Islam, which was established against a clear intelligence background. This does not mean, however, that the group does not include hardline Islamists who are not associated with any intelligence agency or that it did not attract Islamists for various reasons.
This view supports the circumstances that led to the rise of the group and its former ties with Fatah al Intifada, which in turn is linked to the Syrian regime, and of Abu Khalid al Umla’s and Shakir al Abssi’s appearance that predated the group. The findings of the investigation into the bombing of the mountainous town of Ain Alaq raise questions about the role of the group.
Fatah al Islam became known to the world on November 26, 2006.
It declared that it “disbelieves in idols and will apply the Islamic Shariaa law for God’s word to prevail.” Security intelligence estimates its members at 300 fully armed and trained militants including women.
Lebanese intelligence have also received information on the group’s plan to assassinate 36 Lebanese figures, moreover the group is made of multiple Arab nationalities and are not just predominately Palestinian.
The Group’s leader Shakir al Abssi is a Palestinian Jordanian wanted by Jordanian authorities in connection with the assassination of an American diplomat Lawrence Folly in Amman.
In 2002 Al Abssi was jailed in Syria for over 2 years and a Jordanian military court sentenced eight people to death, including al Abssi and Abu Musab al Zarqawi in absentia.
There are reports on cooperation between Fatah al Islam and Jund al Sham and an ongoing relationship between both of them and Syrian intelligence. Observer are concerned about the interpretation of such coordination in light of the present situation, which would mean that the green light was given to these groups to carry out its regional-packed plan that includes attacking and forcing the UNIFIL troops into withdrawal from Lebanon, which will lead to the collapse of resolution 1701 and the leading of Lebanon into a dark tunnel.