print
memri
June 26, 2013 No.
988

Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Al-Asir Launches Armed Struggle Against 'Shi'ite' Lebanese Army

Introduction

Last week, there was a significant development in the sectarian struggle in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and in the activity by the extreme Salafi groups in the country. Ahmad Al-Asir, the Salafi sheikh from Sidon, together with his armed supporters, launched an armed struggle against the Lebanese army – which he branded a "Shi'ite" and an "Iranian" army – and called on the Sunnis within the army to desert immediately and join him in his fight.[1]

This development is another stage in the sectarian conflict in Lebanon between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, the latter led by Hizbullah, which escalated earlier this month after Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria,[2] and after the Syrian insurgents in Al-Qusayr were defeated by the army of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Hizbullah. The reason for the tension that led to the armed struggle is the fact that numerous Salafis in Lebanon believe that the Lebanese army is operating against the Sunnis, with some viewing the army, and especially its military intelligence apparatus, as an additional Hizbullah and Shi'ite arm in Lebanon.

The struggle between the Lebanese army and some Salafi elements is not a totally new phenomenon. Over the past year, and in light of the fact that each of these Lebanese sides has been involved in the fighting in Syria, some of the Salafi elements within Lebanon have begun to accuse the Lebanese army and the security apparatuses of a pro-Hizbullah bias – with some even calling them "apostates." In recent months, there have been clashes between the Lebanese army and Salafi elements in the country, and the leader of the Salafi stream has even threatened, on more than one occasion, to issue a fatwa calling for jihad against the army.

As mentioned, last week this struggle escalated further, into an armed struggle.

Violent Armed Clashes Between The Salafis And The Military

The tension between Lebanese Salafis and the military has in recent weeks been reflected in a number of armed clashes between the two sides in various parts of the country. Most of these clashes erupted when the army attempted to stop Sunni-Shi'ite confrontations, in a number of areas of Lebanon, that were sparked by the war in Syria, and especially by the battle of Al-Qusayr. For example, on May 19, 2013, after the events in Al-Qusayr triggered a new round of armed clashes between 'Alawites and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli, the army reported gunfire on its positions in the city.[3] Sectarian conflict also broke out in the northern Beqa' Valley, in northeastern Lebanon, between the Sunni border town of 'Arsal and the nearby Shi'ite city of Al-Luba. On May 20, this conflict developed into a violent clash between 'Arsal Sunnis and the army, when the former attempted to block the Beirut-Damascus road.[4]

The relationship between the Salafis and the army continued to deteriorate, and the tension between the Salafis and the army came to a head on June 23, when clashes erupted in Sidon between the army and prominent Salafi sheikh from Sidon Ahmad Al-Asir.[5] Al-Asir's men used firearms, mortars, and sniper fire against the army, and at the same time, and with the help of local activists from Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya (the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood), they also tried to block the coastal road and clashed with soldiers who came to disperse them. Extremist Salafi groups from the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of 'Ain Al-Hilweh joined the fray on the side of the Salafis, firing mortars on army checkpoints at the entrance to the camp.[6]

The fighting ended after a day or so, as the army took control of Al-Asir's military compound in the city of Sidon and arrested several of his fighters; Al-Asir himself fled with some of his men to an unknown location. Eighteen army soldiers were killed and some 100 wounded in the clashes,[7] and Al-Asir's side suffered casualties as well, though the numbers is not known. At Al-Asir's mosque, the army discovered large quantities of weapons, ammunition, and military equipement, as well as flags of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the largest Salafi-jihadi group fighting in Syria.[8] The Sidon clashes also triggered conflicts, albeit not armed ones, between the army and Salafis in other parts of the country – in Tripoli, the Beqa', and Beirut.[9]

This conflict represents an escalation, in that it involved direct, organized, and planned action by a Lebanese Salafi group against the army, and also with regard to the extent of the fighting. Moreover, according to media affiliated with the various sides in Lebanon, other Lebanese forces joined the fight, transforming it into a comprehensive struggle with sectarian overtones. The Al-Mustaqbal daily reported, citing sources in Sidon, that Hizbullah fighters had participated in the hostilities alongside the army,[10] while Al-Asir similarly claimed on his Twitter account that Hizbullah fighters and the 'Amal movement were fighting alongside the army. Conversely, Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah and to the Hizbullah-owned Alahednews.com.lb, claimed that supporters of the Al-Mustaqbal faction had taken part in the fighting against the army in Sidon and Beirut as well as on the coastal road.[11]


Image on Hizbullah website: Al-Asir and Al-Mustaqbal are one and the same (alahednews.com.lb, June 23, 2013)

The Present Conflict – An Escalation Of Preexisting Tension Between The Salafis And The Military

These recent confrontations between the army and Salafis, especially Al-Asir and his followers, represent an escalation of preexisting tension between the two sides. In recent months, Salafi elements have been accusing the army of pursuing a partisan policy, i.e. of supporting Hizbullah in Lebanon and allowing it to assist the Syrian regime while thwarting Sunnis who wish to help the Syrian rebels. Matters reached such a state that some Salafis and their supporters called for mass refusal of military induction. Anti-army demonstrations took place, and the army was bitterly accused of acting against the Sunnis and following the directives of Hizbullah and the Syrian and Iranian regimes. The tension came to a head when the founder of the Salafi stream in Lebanon, Sheikh Da'i Al-Islam Al-Shahhal, threatened to issue fatwas calling for jihad against anyone harming the Sunnis – including the army.

This preexisting tension was reflected in a number of clashes and incidents over the last year, for example:

  1. On May 20, 2012, Ahmad 'Abd Al-Wahed, a prominent Salafi sheikh in northern Lebanon, and his companion Sheikh Khaled Merheb, who were en route to a demonstration against the Syrian regime, were killed at a military checkpoint in the northern province of 'Akkar by gunfire from Lebanese soldiers. An MP of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, Khaled Al-Dhaher, who represents the northern region, said in response to the incident: "We do not want to see the military or any military vehicles at the checkpoints in our [region]." He added that the officer who gave the order to fire is "close to Michel 'Aoun's [party] and to Hizbullah," and called on the young men of 'Akkar not to join the army.[12] MP Hadi Habish, from the same faction, told the Lebanese military to "take an unbiased stance towards all sides."[13]

  2. In early February 2013, a military intelligence squad killed 'Arsal resident Khaled Ahmad Hamid, a known supporter of the Syrian rebels who, according to the army, was suspected of involvement in terrorism. Several hours later, dozens of his fellow townsmen retaliated by killing two officers from the squad that had been involved in the incident, and wounding others. The army, for its part, cordoned off the town until the suspected culprits were captured or turned in.[14] Two weeks later, Sheikh Da'i Al-Islam Al-Shahhal, founder of the Salafi stream in Lebanon, came to the town and made veiled threats against the army, warning it not to dishonor the residents.[15] Sheikh Al-Asir voiced similar threats, saying that "any military operation against 'Arsal will be seen as a military operation against the Sunni sect as a whole."[16] On a later occasion, he claimed that the military intelligence apparatus had operated in 'Arsal on orders from Hizbullah, in order to keep the Sunni town, which supports the Syrian rebels, from assisting them in their battles against Hizbullah and the Syrian army.[17] On February 8, the daily Al-Akhbar reported on a sign that had been put up in Tripoli, presumably directed at the army, which said: "We will no longer remain silent over permitting the blood of the Sunnis. We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for your sake, Oh lions of 'Arsal."[18]

  3. On March 12, 2013, Sheikh 'Assem Al-'Arifi, a follower of Al-Asir, breached the barricade that the army had placed around Al-Asir's mosque in Sidon and entered the mosque, with the help of Al-Asir and his men. Claiming that the army was planning to storm the mosque, Al-Asir urged his followers in the city to come to its defense, and urged his followers elsewhere to take to the streets in protest. He also warned the army that there could be an all-out intifada against it if its plan was actualized.[19] Salafis in Tripoli, Beirut, 'Akkar and the Beqa' did indeed take to the streets and block roads, and Sheikh Al-Shahhal of Tripoli threatened to declare jihad against the army.[20] On March 14, 2013, Al-Akhbar reported, citing security sources, that Sheikhs Rafi'i and Al-Shahhal had contacted then-Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati and warned him against harming Al-Asir, and that the latter had instructed Lebanese armed forces commander Jean Kahwaji not to storm the mosque and to remove some of the security precautions around it.[21]

It should be noted, however, that quite a few Salafis in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country prefer to avoid confrontations with the army. On March 13, 2013, the daily Al-Safir reported that Salafi sheikhs in Tripoli had met with commanders of Salafi armed groups in the city, and that one of the decisions made at the meeting was to refrain from clashing with the army and the security apparatuses for any reason whatsoever.[22]

Al-Asir: The Lebanese Army Is Shi'ite

Among Lebanon's Salafi sheikhs, Al-Asir is the most prominent in his defiance of the Lebanese military. This is part of his ongoing campaign against Shi'ite elements in the country, especially Hizbullah, and against their policy inside and outside Lebanon. Like many Salafis and Islamists in Lebanon, Al-Asir regards the Lebanese army as a sectarian force that defends the Shi'ites and targets the Sunnis.

Al-Asir's criticism of Hizbullah and the Lebanese army is expressed on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, where he frequently slams Hizbullah and what he sees as the partisan policies of the army. As part of this, he has more than once called not to cooperate with the armed forces, and, following the February 2013 events in 'Arsal, he even called the Lebanese security apparatuses "infidels."[23] This week, on June 23, during his latest round of clashes with the military, he released a video in which he stated: "We are being attacked by the Lebanese army, which is [really] a sectarian [Shi'ite] Iranian army, and by the 'shabiha' of Hassan Nasrallah and of [Lebanese Parliament Speaker and head of the Shi'ite Amal Party] Nabih Beri." Al-Asir called upon his supporters throughout Lebanon to come to his aid in the fight against the army, and also urged all soldiers, both Sunni and non-Sunni, to defect from the army immediately.[24]

In a June 23, 2013 tweet, he wrote: "The Lebanese army, in cooperation with the army of Hizbullah-Al-Lat [a derogatory term for Hizbullah][25] and the Amal movement, is shelling [my] Bilal Mosque." In another tweet, he wrote: "The mission of the national army is to defend the people and the freedoms and honor of the citizens on an equal basis, not to abet the crimes of one group against other groups."[26]


Al-Asir's tweets

Prior to this, statements in a similar vein were made by other Salafi elements in Lebanon. Following the March 2013 events in Sidon, Sheikh Al-Shahhal, founder of the Salafi stream in the country, wondered: "Is the army following orders from Iran and the Syrian regime? And is it the Sunni sect that is the [intended] target and victim [of its operations]?" He warned: "If the situation continues [as it is], I will issue fatwas [calling for] jihad against those harming the Sunni sect."[27] Subsequently, and apparently under pressure from the Tripolitan Institute of Muslim Religious Scholars, he retracted the latter statement.[28] Following the recent Sidon clashes, he said that the army's campaign against Al-Asir "was not just against [this sheikh] and his followers, but has become a battle against every Sunni in Lebanon."[29]

It should be noted that Al-Asir also has the support of Salafi MPs within the Al-Mustaqbal faction. Thus, following the March 2013 clashes, Al-Mustaqbal MP Mu'in Al-Merhebi said that the army was conspiring with Hizbullah against Al-Asir.[30]

So far, it appears that the Salafis' and Islamists' confrontation with the army is mainly an extension of the sectarian struggle between Shi'ites and Sunnis in the country. However, over time, it may become a campaign against the Lebanese state and its institutions, after the manner of Salafi-jihadi groups that consider the modern Arab regimes illegitimate and aspire to replace them with an Islamic caliphate.

The Military Declares All-Out War On Al-Asir, Stresses It Is Not Fighting The Sunnis

After previous clashes with Salafi elements in Lebanon but prior to the March 2013 clash with Al-Asir, the army did not take harsh action against the Salafis. It merely issued laconic standard announcements calling for calm and threatening firm action against anyone who disrupted the peace, relying on clerics, politicians and others to mediate between it and them. However, in light of the much more violent nature of the recent clash with Al-Asir in Sidon, the army and the authorities responded very firmly, presumably reflecting a decision to put an end to the armed Al-Asir phenomenon once and for all. In fact, according to Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and various government officials met June 24 with armed forces commander Jean Kahwaji and other top brass, and decided that the military must "put an end to this deviant phenomenon created by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Asir in Sidon."[31] Indeed, the army's determined action resulted in a takeover of Al-Asir's compound within a single day.

At the same time, the army made sure to stress that it is not sectarian and that its action against Al-Asir had been motivated by security necessity, not by sectarian hostility. Its order of the day to its troops following its action stated: "The army has attacked no sect [i.e. the Sunnis]... It does not stand alongside only one sector [in society]. Its reaction was against an armed group that had attacked it."[32] The previous day, June 23, the army issued an announcement stating that the operation in Sidon had gone "better than expected," and that the army had been "attacked deliberately and in cold blood [by people who wished] to make Sidon explode, as it did during the 1975 [civil war]. "[33]

The army has also taken legal measures against Al-Asir, and the government representative at the military court issued arrest warrants against him and 123 of his followers.[34]

In addition to these military, legal, and media measures, this time the army took the unusual step of addressing the political and religious leaders of Sidon, and urging them to stop making ambiguous statements about Al-Asir and to "state publicly and explicitly whether they support the Lebanese army trying to defend the city and its people... or the instigators of civil war and the killers of [Lebanese] soldiers."[35] This appeal by the army is presumably directed at the Al-Mustaqbal stream, which is considered the leader of the Sunni sect in Lebanon, and which is represented in Sidon mainly by the Al-Hariri family.

Al-Mustaqbal: Lebanon Must Not Be Harmed; Hizbullah Is Responsible For Clashes Between Salafis And Army

This clash between the military and the Salafis has placed the Sunni Al-Mustaqbal stream in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, this stream agrees with Al-Asir's accusations against Hizbullah, its political rival in the country, and benefits from the Sunni (mainly Salafi) struggle against the Shi'ites and Hizbullah. On the other hand, it fears the growing power of the Salafi stream, which challenges the very foundations of the state and could also draw Sunni supporters away from Al-Mustaqbal.

The Al-Mustaqbal stream is also apprehensive about a sectarian Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon and was therefore taken aback by Al-Asir's actions. Moreover, it is faced with a fundamental dilemma – for years it has attacked Hizbullah for having its own independent arsenal and for using it against the Lebanese public, claiming that this infringed on the state's sovereignty and the Army's authority, and transformed Hizbullah into a "state within a state." Therefore, under the current circumstances, in which Al-Asir has weapons and uses them to target the Lebanese army and other Lebanese bodies, Al-Mustaqbal finds itself obligated to condemn that very same behavior, even when it comes from a Sunni element.

Former Lebanese prime minister Sa'd Al-Hariri seems to be trying to hold on to both ends of the stick. In a June 24 statement, he said that nobody should violate the law and take up arms against the military, and called Al-Asir's actions "a mistake." At the same time, he blamed Hizbullah for this mistake, saying that it had "provoked the residents of the capital of the south [i.e. Sidon] by establishing security bases in its neighborhoods."[36]

Al-Akhbar: Hizbullah Will Mobilize To Assist The Army And Is Preparing For War On The Salafis

Hizbullah, for its part, blamed Al-Mustaqbal for the Al-Asir phenomenon and for his armed clashes with the army. An article on the Hizbullah-owned Alahednews.com.lb accused Al-Mustaqbal of politically supporting Al-Asir and thereby harming the state and its institutions, although it presumes to be a "national" movement.[37]

Two recent articles in Al-Akhbar, which is identified with Hizbullah, were devoted to the joint struggle of Hizbullah and the army against these Salafi groups. A June 24 article by Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the daily's board of directors, stated: "All indications are that the March 14 Forces find it difficult to adopt a serious stance on the army's behalf. These forces planned and still intend to visit the city of 'Arsal in the northern Beqa' to show solidarity with its residents. However, [this visit is really intended] to support the remnants of the armed Sunnis there, and to incite the residents of the [Sunni] city to clash with its [Shi'ite] periphery.

"This poses a question for the public and for those aligned with the March 14 Forces about the true nature of this group. If prominent forces [in Lebanon, i.e. the March 8 Forces] feel that [the Salafis are waging a campaign] of isolation and attrition against the army, with the help of [various] forces both within and outside the government [i.e. Al-Mustaqbal and others], there is an element [i.e. Hizbullah] that will look for ways to support this force [i.e. the army]... Everybody should realize this, in particular the Al-Mustaqbal stream that is nearing the point of suicide."[38]

In his column in the paper two days previously, Nasser Sharara stated that Hizbullah is preparing to fight Salafi groups throughout the country, and that it has the ability to win the struggle with them, even if this involves significant losses. He also advised the Salafis to remember the outcome of the battle in Al-Qusayr, in which Hizbullah had managed to defeat its enemies very quickly.[39]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Lebanon has not seen significant armed clashes between Lebanese groups and the army since the end of the country's civil war. The only significant event throughout this period was the army's May 2007 campaign against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fath Al-Islam organization in the Nahar Al-Bared refugee camp in the north of the country. However, this group was Palestinian, not Lebanese.

[2] For more on Nasrallah's declaration, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 975, Following Nasrallah's Statements On Syria Fighting, Calls Emerge For Sunnis To Wage Jihad Against Hizbullah, Shi'ites, June 6, 2013, and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5331, Anger In Arab World Following Nasrallah's Admission That Hizbullah Is Involved In Syria Fighting, June 10, 2013.

[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 20, 2013.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 21, 2013

[5] On Al-Asir's struggle against Hizbullah see see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 24, 2013.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 25, 2013.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 25, 2013.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 24, 2013

[10] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 25, 2013.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 23, 2013.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 21, 2012. It should be noted that the incident also sparked angry reactions from non-Salafi and non-Sunni figures in Lebanon.

[13] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 21, 2012.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 2, 2013.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 2013.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 6, 2013.

[17] Al- Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 22, 2013.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 8, 2013.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 13, 2013

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 13, 2013.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 14, 2013.

[22] Al-Safir (Lebanon), March 13, 2013.

[23] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 26, 2013.

[25] This is a play on words that substitutes the goddess Lat for the Allah in Hizbullah. Lat was one of the three goddesses worshipped by the Arabs in pre-Islamic times.

[26] Twitter.com/ahmad_alaseer, June 23, 2013.

[27] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), March 2, 2013.

[28] Al-Safir (Lebanon), March 5, 2013.

[29] Islammemo.cc, June 23, 2013.

[30] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2013.

[31] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 25, 2013.

[32] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 25, 2013.

[33] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 24, 2013.

[34] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 25, 2013.

[35] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 24, 2013.

[36] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 24, 2013.

[37] Alahednews.com.lb, June 23, 2013.

[38] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 24, 2013.

[39] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 22, 2013.