Lebanese forces are still searching for Sheikh Ahmad Assir after raiding the Bilal ibn al-Rabah mosque where he served as preacher. The attack was launched on the morning of June 24, leading to the deaths of close to 30 of the cleric’s followers and nearly 100 wounded. The military death toll in the altercation is said to have reached 18 along with 128 wounded although the number on both sides is expected to be higher.
Clashes began early June when Hezbollah Shi’ite sympathizers began harassing family members and followers of the Sunni Imam. Assir responded by calling for all members of Hezbollah to vacate the majority Sunni city of Sidon, a call that led to even more violent confrontations between the two sides, both heavily armed. While the Lebanese army had been deployed at the outset of fighting, it was not until June 23, when a video was made public allegedly showing Lebanese soldiers beating a supporter of Assir whom they had detained, that conflict between Salafists and the army erupted.
Assir’s Sunni militia responded by attacking a military checkpoint killing 10 soldiers and wounding 35. Fighting has spread outside of the immediate area with skirmishes between Salafists and the army being reported in Tripoli and attacks on the military coming out of the Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh.
Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, 45, entered the world stage in mid-2012 after staging a protest calling for the disarming of the Hezbollah militia. By October of that year, several official and semi-official websites and other social media outlets had been created in order to disseminate his Friday sermons, televised interviews and press conferences and to present Assir as the new, more aggressive, and more authentic voice of Lebanese Sunnis, as opposed to the exiled former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Movement of the Future.
He joined the conflict, releasing videos of himself participating in battle
Earlier that year, popular attention was garnered when the “Amir of Romance,” Lebanese pop star Fadl Shakr, declared his allegiance to Assir and his movement. Assir’s rise to prominence and notoriety within the larger global Salafist trend has led to his receiving of an honorary ijaza from the senior Salafi scholar of Tetouan, Muhammad al-Amin Bukhabza, at the behest of his student Omar al-Haddouchi, one of the leaders of the so-called Salafi-Jihadis of Morocco.
It is important to note that Assir’s rhetoric contains none of the explicit takfir of Shi’ites that runs rampant among much of Salafi-Jihadi discourse. His early declarations called for Hezbollah to disarm, accusing their militia of representing a contravention of Lebanon’s national sovereignty and the authority of the Lebanese armed forces, an argument no one would expect to hear from a Jihadist. In November, he threatened to form his own militia for the sake of protecting Sunni interests after fighting occurred between supporters of the two opposing groups. Assir called upon Hassan Nasrallah to cooperate in maintaining security against Israeli aggression in South Lebanon by withdrawing Hezbollah control of Sunni areas so that Assir’s movement could take charge.
Most of the media produced by followers of the cleric will cite his name as Ahmad al-Assir al-Husayni, emphasizing the fact that he himself is a descendent of the third Imam of the Shi’a. His criticisms of Hezbollah as being an Iranian proxy with no true allegiance to the Lebanese state, intent on oppressing Sunnis in both Lebanon and Syria, and silencing any strong voice of opposition like that of Assir, aim to present an ironic image of a sinister sectarian Shi’ite crescent versus an embattled but heroic group led by a pious descendent of Husayn the Martyr.
The turning point in the conflict occurred in April 2013 when Assir decided to send troops from his militia into Syria to battle Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusayr. He even joined the conflict in person, releasing videos of himself participating in battle, thereby increasing his credibility as a true mujahid scholar. The current conflict in Lebanon must be seen in light of the events in Syria, particularly the strategic victory of Assad and Hezbollah forces in Qusayr.
While Assir’s decision to initiate armed conflict with the Lebanese military may seem to be a fatal tactical error and signal the end for his small but vocal movement, it falls squarely in line with the tactics of the larger global Jihadist movement. If Assir’s militia is able to ignite a larger confrontation between Hezbollah supporters and Lebanese Sunnis, and events in Tripoli and the Palestinian refugee camps may be a sign of this, then this could accomplish a goal that is much more strategically significant than Assir and his forces actually defeating Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. It has the potential to bog down Hezbollah and distract them away from the Syrian arena.
With protests erupting in several parts of the country in support of Assir, his martyrdom or capture are more important as catalysts for larger and more popular expressions of Sunni discontent than any victory or loss in armed confrontation. Syria is, at this point, the preeminent stage in the Global Jihad, and all other arenas of conflict have become subordinate to it. The fact that jihadists in Iraq were willing to give half of their funds to their Syrian offshoot is a testimony to this. Lebanon will continue to endure increased sectarian violence so long as the Syrian civil war remains a top priority in the minds of both Shi’i and Sunni militants.
A version of this article was originally published on SISMEC.
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