Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanese arrest raises questions

Last week’s arrest of a fugitive militia leader in Lebanon has raised questions about the operations of the country’s security forces, reports Hassan Al-Qishawi from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the Lebanese security forces arrested Ahmad Al-Assir on 16 August, the move was hailed as a superb piece of police work. Two years ago, Al-Assir led a Salafist militia that clashed with the Lebanese army in Sidon, killing 18 servicemen. He was sentenced to death in absentia along with 53 others in February 2014.

But the arrest has raised questions about police operations in Lebanon. Al-Assir, who was arrested at Beirut airport while travelling to Nigeria, was wearing a disguise and may have had cosmetic surgery. He also had a fake Palestinian passport.

If the Lebanese police can rise to such heights of efficiency in arresting Sunni militants, why do they repeatedly fail to catch Shiite criminals, some have asked. The Lebanese security forces are believed to have close ties with Hezbollah.

Al-Assir’s arrest, spectacular though it is, is unlikely to end Sunni militancy of the Salafist type in Lebanon. The Salafists are said to be exploiting general dismay at Hezbollah’s interference in Lebanon to stir up Sunni grievances in disadvantaged parts of Lebanese cities.

Since the conflict in Syria started over four years ago, the Salafists have also created pockets of Sunni resistance in various parts of the country. They often speak about countering the power of Hezbollah, but many suspect their true objective is to create mini-states, or emirates, of their own.

Another question is where Al-Assir was hiding for the past two years. According to the son of Abdel-Rahman Al-Shami, one of his associates, the Salafist commander was hiding either in the Ain Al-Helwa Camp in Sidon or in the older parts of the same city. With him during his time in hiding was Fadl Shaker, a Lebanese singer-turned-militant, according to the same source.

Two years ago, Al-Assir escaped in disguise from a religious seminary where he had been hiding in Abra, Sidon, after the Lebanese army surrounded it. Fadl Shaker escaped with him, but dozens of his supporters were apprehended.

To understand Al-Assir’s story fully, some basic information about his hometown, Sidon, is in order. Sidon, Lebanon’s third-largest city, has a predominantly Sunni population but is often referred to as the capital of the south, which is Shiite dominated.

Sidon is also home to the Ain Al-Helwa Camp, one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and thought to be home to extremists who are close to Al-Qaeda.

Hezbollah has extensive influence in Sidon, but it exercises this in subtle ways, mainly through Sunni affiliates. One of these is the Popular Nasserist Organisation (PNO) created by Maarouf Saad in 1970 and now run by his son Osama. The latter is a sworn foe of Future Current, whose founder Rafiq Al-Hariri also hails from Sidon.

Another affiliate of Hezbollah is the Sunni militia known as the Resistance Squads, or Saraya Al-Muqawama. The group claims to be defending Sunni interests, but most Sunnis have distanced themselves from it.

Lebanon’s Sunnis are not prone to forming militias. Even during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), when the Druze, Christians and Shiites all formed powerful militias, the Sunnis mostly stayed above the fray.

Sectarian tensions have grown in Sidon with the rise of pro-Al-Qaeda factions, however, especially those known as the Faithful Youths, or the Shabab Al-M’umen. The latter are known to pick fights with almost all other groups, including Palestinians from Ain Al-Helwa.

It is in this nest of tensions that groups such as that led by Al-Assir grew, and the risk of further groups coming onto the scene cannot be ruled out. At its height of power, Al-Assir’s group had 600 men under arms.

What spelled the end of Al-Assir was not his antagonism to Hezbollah but his challenge to the Lebanese army, which had initially tolerated the extremist Sunni group. The showdown between Al-Assir and the army, when it finally took place in summer 2013, caused concern among Lebanon’s Sunnis, including those from Future Current.

While they congratulated the security forces on their recent feat, Sunni and Christian leaders in Lebanon made it clear that they would like the country’s police to be just as efficient in arresting other “criminals.”

Future Current leader Saad Al-Hariri hailed the security forces for “chasing down the outlaws.” But he also urged the government to “refrain from protecting criminals and armed gangs.”

Samir Ja’ja’, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party (LFP), congratulated the police on the “spectacular work,” but voiced his puzzlement that the same level of diligence had not been applied in easier cases.

“Al-Assir was caught while wearing a complete disguise,” Ja’ja’ said. “And yet the murderers of Hashem Al-Salman and Sobhi and Nadima Al-Fakhri are still at large.”

Hashem Al-Salman, a Shiite, was killed during a demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. Sobhi and Nadima Al-Fakhri, both Christians, were killed in their homes by what have been described as well-known Shiite outlaws.

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