x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

We run the road

Nir Rosen reports from Majd al Anjar, where the rage of young men mixes with the sectarian fervour spilling over Iraq's borders.

Shia gunmen from Amal and Hizbollah fire at Sunni positions in west Beirut.
Shia gunmen from Amal and Hizbollah fire at Sunni positions in west Beirut.

Nir Rosen reports from Majd al Anjar, where the rage of young men mixes with the sectarian fervour spilling over Iraq's borders.

On May 12, a few days after street fighting erupted in Beirut, I drove to Majd al Anjar, a Sunni stronghold in Lebanon’s Bekaa, close to the Syrian border, where gunmen were still blocking the motorway from Beirut to Damascus.

At the edge of town, several hundred men with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, pistols and hand grenades stood before earthen barriers and fires. Some wore masks. There was nobody in command – this was a mob, not a militia. The men were angry, afraid, suspicious, shouting at strangers and each other, each one an authority unto himself, carelessly swinging weapons around, oblivious to where they were pointing. Some rested the barrels of their rifles on top of their feet, a sign they had no professional training.

Lebanese soldiers stationed at the intersection perched indolently atop their armored personnel carriers, phlegmatically watching the anarchy. The road was blocked to vehicles, but hundreds of Syrian labourers descended from buses to walk through the roadblock toward the border. Two old men were detained as they passed through the mob – their identity cards revealed they were Shiites, and locals sitting nearby swarmed around them. Rifles were loaded and a frisson of blood passed through the crowd, but the men were eventually released.

Majd al Anjar occupies a strategic location on the road to Syria, but it is also a crossroads for the sectarian fervour unleashed across the region by the American invasion of Iraq. The town has dispatched numerous suicide bombers and fighters to Iraq, where they have targeted American troops and Shiite civilians alike. The war – and the rise of a US-backed Shiite government in Iraq has stoked fury here that borders on racism, fired by irrational fears of a “Shiite crescent” encircling vulnerable Sunnis.


Analysts talked of the “Lebanonization” of Iraq as the country spiralled into civil war after the fall of Saddam, and now Lebanon – a weak state awash in oceans of arms – faces the spectre of Iraqification. In Majd al Anjar, angry young men are not waiting for leaders to emerge; they are prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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By 2007 Lebanon had come to feel more and more like post-war Iraq, with new neighbourhood militias arming themselves and sectarian tensions rising to a boil. The conflict, ostensibly over politics, pitted Sunnis against Shiites, with Christians essentially marginalised and politically insignificant. After the war in Iraq – which empowered Shiite Islamists and removed a key opponent to Iran, Saddam Hussein – and Hezbollah’s July 2006 war with Israel, many analysts suggested a “Shiite revival” was underway. But as the Lebanese political scientist Amer Mohsen told me, it would be more accurate to talk of a general resurgence of sectarian identities across the Middle East: “There is a Shiite revival, a Sunni revival, a Druze revival, an Alawite revival and a Kurdish revival – all happening simultaneously.”

In the summer of 2007, tensions had deepened and a sense of foreboding was widespread. The July war was a fresh memory, and many feared that neither Israel nor Hizbollah considered it settled.

A third war – “the next civil war” – loomed on the horizon, and the fighting in the camps and the street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites earlier in 2007 seemed to indicate that the chaos unleashed in Iraq was spilling across its borders as fighters, weapons, tactics and sectarian conflicts migrated to Lebanon.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites exploded in May 2008, when Hizbollah and its allies – alarmed by moves against its communications network – closed down the road to Beirut’s airport. Demonstrations turned into clashes, and Hizbollah quickly took control of the streets, vanquishing poorly trained Sunni militias in and around Beirut. By the second day of fighting Hizbollah men were patrolling the streets of the capital, calling into question their prior commitment never to use their weapons inside Lebanon. The conflict quickly spread, stirring the more militant Sunnis of the Bekaa and northern Lebanon, and on May 9, the irate shabab of Majd al Anjar closed the motorway to Damascus.

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Few roads lead into the tightly connected homes and narrow streets of Majd al Anjar – whose many mosques and ethos of austerity and solidarity have always reminded me of Fallujah. At the makeshift roadblock I met one of the local leaders, a red-headed 34-year-old whom I will call Omar. He carried a tiny pistol he could hide in his pocket and wore a ski mask, but raised it above his brow so we could speak. Omar talked like the takfiris I knew in Iraq, radical Sunnis who declare other Muslims, especially Shiites, to be kufar – infidels. He used an anti-Shiite slur, “rafidha” (meaning rejectionists), and said Lebanon’s Shiites had been armed by “nusayris”, an insulting term for Alawites – meaning the Syrian regime. The Shiites, he claimed, were agents of the Israelis; if Shiite holy sites in Iraq had not been liberated from American occupiers, he asked, how could Hizbollah claim it would liberate Jerusalem from Israel?

“Resistance,” he continued, referring to Hizbollah, “is not about entering Beirut and humiliating its people. This roadblock is for victory in Beirut and the Sunnis. We won’t open the road until they open the airport.” To Omar, Hizbollah – “the Party of God” – was “Hizb al Lat”, the Party of Lot, meaning the party of sin. Like many other salafists, he also called them “Hizb ash Shaitan”, the party of the devil. “We are the shabab of Majd al Anjar,” he said, “we fight the ‘rafidha’. We are known as fighters. We ruled for hundreds of years. We have many mujahideen and martyrs in Iraq.” He told me that many jihadist websites had published calls for Sunni volunteers to come fight in Lebanon: “If the Sunnis of Beirut call us we will come.”

Omar had no formal military training, though “from age 10 I’m using weapons,” he said, “and many guys from here are like that.” But Omar’s life changed when he fell under the influence of a man named Abu Mohammed, a local of Kurdish descent also known as Abu Shahid al Lubnani – who served as a deputy to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the slain founder of al Qa’eda in Iraq. Abu Mohammed also died fighting in Iraq, in a failed attack on Abu Ghraib prison. “Abu Mohammed gave me my creed,” Omar said, explaining that he became devout seven years earlier under the older man’s influence.

Abu Mohammed was trained in Afghanistan and took part in the first appearance of al Qa’eda in Lebanon – when jihadists led by a Lebanese veteran of the Afghan and Bosnian wars named Basim al Kanj battled the Lebanese army at the end of 1999. Kanj recruited fighters from slums and camps to set up his own network, which included some men from Majd al Anjar. He set up training camps in Dinniyeh, east of Tripoli, and soon clashed with the army in a bloody standoff that killed 15 of the Islamists along with 11 soldiers and five civilians. The Dinniyeh group was not large, but dozens of salafis around the country were arrested – and radicalised in prison. Abu Mohammed was eventually arrested at a mosque in Majd al Anjar in 2002, but he was able to use connections and pay his way out of jail after only four months. He headed to Iraq, where he was said to have dispatched the car bomb that killed the Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

At least seven other young men from Majd al Anjar were martyred in Iraq, and Omar had a plaque in their honour mounted in his living room. His own brother-in-law was killed fighting in Rawa, in Anbar province, in June 2003. I had visited Rawa the day after Omar’s brother-in-law died, one of dozens of Iraqi and foreign fighters killed in a desert camp by the Americans; locals buried them near a mosque, placing their ID cards in bottles that served as makeshift tombstones. One of them was the son of Abu Mohammed – this is why he was also called Abu Shahid, the father of the martyr.

Omar was arrested in 2004, accused of plotting to bomb western embassies. But he was released in 2005, along with other jihadists, at the same time as Samir Geagea, the leader of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, who had been convicted of war crimes – in a move widely regarded as an attempt to bolster the Sunni credentials of the Future Movement.

After the invasion of Iraq, he told me, Omar worked smuggling weapons and fighters into Syria and then on to Iraq. Abu Mohammed would come in from Iraq and meet him in Damascus. Omar delivered truckloads of weapons – bombs, explosives, missiles and silencers. The two men bribed Syrian customs officials and moved goods on clandestine dirt roads. Omar’s friend Ismail Khatib purchased the weapons and handled communications with their comrades in Iraq. “We were a very tight group,” Omar said, “we couldn’t be penetrated.” But after a fighter from the group was killed in Iraq and two lorries of weapons were seized, the authorities began to watch them, and Omar was arrested in September 2004, two months after his last delivery of weapons to Syria.

Majd al Anjar had become a critical smuggling centre, an important stop in the network that moved fighters into Iraq from Lebanon and its Palestinian camps, especially Ain al Hilweh. Dozens of men from the camp had become martyrs in Iraq, among them a friend of Omar’s named Abu Jaafar al Qiblawi, who was killed alongside Zarqawi in June 2006. Omar had smuggled Abu Jaafar into Syria and Ismail took him into Iraq – in Zarqawi’s last video, Abu Jaafar can be seen handing him a machine gun. In Abu Jaafar’s own last will, filmed on the banks of a river in 2005, he addresses his parents, gun in hand, calling on his brothers to join the jihad.

Omar and his associates were caught with fifty kilograms of TNT and five kilograms of C4. All of the men were tortured by members of the Ministry of Interior’s Information Branch, Omar said – he was hit in the back of the head with a club and his legs remained bruised for months after the beatings. Ismail died in custody – allegedly tortured to death, though the authorities denied it – and news of his demise sparked riots and demonstrations in Majd al Anjar, while Sunni politicians called for the resignation of interior minister Elias Murr.

After Ismail died, Omar lost his connections to Iraq, and there was no more work smuggling for the jihad. He bragged wistfully about those days: “We are al Qa’eda,” he told me, “we had connections to Abu Shahid.” Omar knew seven or eight men in town who had returned from Iraq, and he said there were others as well. I met one middle-aged Iraqi Baathist who was said to have been in the resistance, but he refused to discuss his past except to say that he served the state. “I’m wanted for terrorism in Syria,” Omar told me, adding that he was wanted in Lebanon as well, for opening fire in a fight.

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Shortly after I arrived at the roadblock, a convoy of expensive cars arrived carrying Sheikh Mohammed Abdel Rahman, the head of the Sunni religious endowment in the Bekaa. A loudspeaker was set up and hundreds of the men surrounded him as he addressed the crowd.

The Sunni elite feared young men like Omar over whom they had little control, and Sheikh Mohammed had come to attempt to exert some influence. Representatives of the Future Movement, Omar told me, had asked them to lift the roadblock, but they refused to back down. Locals voted for the Future Movement out of Sunni solidarity, according to Omar, but they did not belong to the party.

Sheikh Mohammed addressed them directly. “You represent Majd al Anjar,” he said, “the decision to open the road is yours. It’s impossible to open the road without your agreement. The decision must protect the interest of the town and the people of the town and the shabab of the town.” The issue was protecting the Sunni sect, its dignity and autonomy, he said. “The Islamic Sunni resistance begins today,” he said. “We work for Lebanon, and they work for Iran.” Young men shot into the air as he spoke.

The following Friday I visited the Abdel Rahman Auf mosque in Majd al Anjar, known locally as the “wahabbi” mosque. Omar met us at the edge of town and took us to the mosque, where he handed us off to a chubby, bearded friend. Expensive cars were squeezed into every available space outside the mosque, which was full of boys and young men. In his sermon, Sheikh Adnan al Umama described Hizbollah’s “barbaric raid” on Beirut and condemned Iran.

There was a battle of creeds, he said: “These people who came against us are secular and infidels, and if they are honest about what they say then we have to be ready to fight them. We saw them invading Beirut with hearts full of hate and accusing us of the murder of Hussein.” It was time for Sunnis to stop being afraid of “them” – meaning Shiites – and time to start rising. “From this podium, I say that until the government is able to defend us we insist on carrying our guns,” he said, “and we will resist with our women and children and all the power we have. I praise our heroes who blocked the road. Yes, they did the right thing. And for those who invaded us under the name of resistance, we wont forget that your guns that invaded Beirut under the name of resistance are not resistance weapons anymore.”

Before the end of the sermon, a thick older man with a long gray beard snatched my friend’s notebook and demanded mine as well. After the prayer ended, a group of men surrounded us, but Omar’s friend vouched for our presence.

The next day I visited Sheikh Adnan at his home. Landscape paintings and gaudy European art decorated his living room. He was young and quick with a smile, more jovial than I had expected after the tone of his sermon. He usually tried to avoid talking about politics, he said, and to focus on religion, because politics always change.

Shiites in Lebanon, he continued, were acting as they had in Iraq – but the Sunnis in Iraq were stronger because they had at their disposal weapons belonging to the former regime. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, he said, erred when they called for al Qa’eda to come to Lebanon because they did not understand the country: it was too divided and mixed for jihadist groups to establish a stronghold.

But after the Hizbollah takeover of Beirut, he argued, it was natural that Sunnis would want to arm themselves. His sermon, he explained, was not a call for fitna – internal Muslim conflict – but a warning of the danger facing Sunnis. He felt that Lebanon’s Sunnis were still searching for a leader to represent them; the Future Movement, he said, had no creed, only the desire for money; Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, was too close to the Saudis and the Future Movement and did nothing to respond to Hezbollah’s actions in Beirut.

Afterwards we went to see Omar at his house. “We are not in line with Shiekh Adnan,” he told me. “He is moderate, as they say.” Omar and his friends followed the fatwas of scholars associated with al Qa’eda.

Omar’s sitting room was a shrine to jihad: he had a large collection of ammunition shells and grenades on display in a cabinet and framed pictures of the September 11 attacks – the Twin Towers aflame and a smouldering Pentagon – greeted visitors near the doorway. When his little boy wandered in, Omar asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and the child, grinning, said “a mujahid!”

A tall, thick man – wearing jeans and a T-shirt that were both too tight, in the true Lebanese style – came to see Omar, wearing a pistol on his belt. He introduced himself as Walid, and Omar explained he had been one of the organisers of the roadblock. Motioning to the pistol, I asked if he was police. “No,” he said, “I’m a mujahid.” He explained that the decision to close the road had been taken spontaneously by the shabab. “Our conscience and our honour made us close it,” he said, “I smoke hashish, I’m not religious. It was something from the inside.”

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I visited often in the spring and summer. Omar was never without his 9mm Glock pistol; it was always in his hand, his lap, or next to him on the table. The gun was another symbol of the spread of the Iraq war – like many Glocks I had seen in Lebanon, it had been smuggled into the country after being issued by the Americans to the Iraqi security forces.

One day in June, as I was sitting with Omar, he picked up the phone and then grabbed the pistol and ran out the door. Three unfamiliar cars with tinted windows had driven into town. He called Walid to report the news. “They might be military,” he said. “Park your car and I”ll send someone to pick you up – they’re raiding your house.” “Don’t worry about me, I’ll start shooting if they get close to my house.” Omar took out a walkie talkie and contacted other men in their network. Before long Walid burst through the door with a thuggish-looking friend, sweating and out of breath. He was carrying a new AK-47 with a scope and flashlight. His friend carried a belt-fed machine gun. “If Saddam Hussein was alive he would help us with ammunition,” Walid said. “That’s why they killed him.”

“I never carried a rifle before,” Walid went on, “but since the Shiites attacked I started carrying one.” He wore an vest laden with extra ammunition and several American hand grenades that he said cost $50 a piece. Walid claimed he had forced Shiite officials at the Masnaa border crossing to stop working there. This was why security officers were paying a visit to the town. His thuggish friend put it succinctly: “We and the state are opposed.”

“Before May 8 I used to love life,” Walid said, “I would never sleep, I was into women, drugs, alcohol, I was living life to the fullest. Something happened in my heart I cant explain to anybody. Since May 8 I am a different person. I started praying five times a day, feeling more confident when I’m fighting.” Now he fantasised about becoming a suicide bomber. “I should be doing martyrdom operations too,” he told me, his eyes darting to Omar, looking for approval. “I would like to blow myself up during Nasrallah’s speech when there is a large group of people.”

He got so much pleasure from shooting, he said, and he surmised that if he went on a martyrdom operation his soul would feel even better. Omar, for his part, said he expected suicide operations to begin against Shiites in Lebanon. “I wont be surprised if it happened, and we are waiting for it to happen,” he said.

Omar didn’t seem to have a job, but I soon realised he had a lucrative underground business selling weapons. One afternoon as we drove through the narrow alley leading to Omar’s house, a man casually stopped the car and stuck his head in the window – as if it was the most natural thing in the world – to ask if he could buy 2000 rounds of ammunition. “Come to my house,” Omar said, and when we arrived his living room looked like an armory. He had an RPG launcher, boxes of ammunition, eight rifles, two machine guns. In a box that once contained a dress from Syria, Omar had stuffed an assortment of grenades. To my displeasure, he took some out to play with, showing me how to take them apart. He also had some Israeli C4, which he brandished as if to prove that anything can be smuggled.

I asked him if he was worried about the authorities. “The army is not allowed in here,” he replied, and I asked who prevented them from coming. “We don’t allow them,” he said, “none of them will survive. Do they want another Nahr al Bared?” The police were also barred, he added: “if they come the whole town will fight.”

Opponents of Hizbollah like to describe it as a state within a state. But outside of Beirut there are few signs of any state in Lebanon, or any authority willing to assert itself – and for Sunnis, in Majd al Anjar and elsewhere, there is no Hizbollah to step into the vacuum.

Omar referred to a man called Abu Hudheifa as his sheikh and emir. When I met him he had just been released from a 10-month stay in prison; in 2004 he was arrested in Syria for trying to enter Iraq and spent eight months in a Syrian jail and three more in a Lebanese prison; he was tortured in both countries, he said.

Abu Hudheifa told me he thought Majd al Anjar was special because it had a lot of religious people of the same colour – meaning Sunni. “We have a lot of people who went to Iraq and were killed there so we have people who love jihad,” he said.

One night in June close to midnight Omar called to tell me they had just received word that two local boys, Abdallah Abdel Khalaq and Firas Yamin, had blown themselves up in Iraq on two consecutive days. 20-year-old Abdallah had called his family to say goodbye and announce his plan. At noon the next day he blew himself up while driving down a crowded Baghdad street. Two hours later his companions informed his parents, who proudly distributed sweets to celebrate. “If I had a chance” to go to Iraq, Omar said, “I would go.”

But the ideology of jihad often seemed less important than the sheer will to fight – against whoever could be found. One night the Lebanese army arrested one of their men in Masnaa; the next morning we drove through Majd al Anjar with one of Omar’s friends. “We are ready,” he said to a woman on the phone. “Still ready. We didn’t sleep last night.” The men skirmished regularly with nearby Shiites, whom the men called Hizbollah, probably inaccurately. “Last night we went down to Marj,” Omar’s friend said, “patrolling with our cars with tinted windows, driving back and forth in the main streets of Majd al Anjar and Marj. We had guns, we were ready.”

Another one of Omar’s friends, who they called Dr Saadi because he had a PhD in history, had been imprisoned for his alleged involvement in the 2000 Millennium plot to blow up hotels and Christian sites in Jordan, and travelled to Fallujah after his release. There was no true Sunni party in Lebanon, he complained: the Future Movement were mercenaries without belief who controlled Lebanon’s Sunnis but obeyed orders from the Americans. But one day soon, he promised, salafists would raise the Sunni flag in Lebanon.

As we talked bursts of AK-47 fire rang out nearby, and all the men laughed, especially when they saw me flinch. A friend had been released from prison, Omar explained, and was firing rounds into the air. “Army intelligence captured him,” Omar explained, “but we threatened to block the roads, and now he is celebrating.”

Like many salafis I have met, Saadi was openly envious of Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel but contemptuous of its failure to fight beyond Lebanon’s borders. “Hizbollah protects the Jewish border with orders from the Syrian regime,” he said. The goal of Hizbollah’s “takeover” of Beirut was to weaken Sunnis in the Arab world, he argued.

“Sunnis have woken up,” Saadi continued. “Sunnis around the world are mad after what happened in Beirut. The result will be a thousand Zarqawis going after Hizbollah.”

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security and the New America Foundation. His reporting was supported by a grant from the Nation Institute.