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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Years after battling Lebanon’s military, Al Assir detained while fleeing abroad

The hardline preacher, known for enflaming sectarian divisions among the Lebanese, was arrested fleeing Beirut in disguise, Josh Wood reports.
Ahmed Al Assir addresses his supporters during a demonstration in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on October 14, 2012. Hassan Ammar, File/AFP Photo
Ahmed Al Assir addresses his supporters during a demonstration in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on October 14, 2012. Hassan Ammar, File/AFP Photo

BEIRUT // After more than two years on the run, fugitive cleric Ahmed Al Assir was arrested by Lebanese authorities on Saturday as he attempted to fly out of the country on a forged passport.

Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported that Mr Al Assir was caught at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport on Saturday while trying to board a flight to Egypt using a fake Palestinian passport. Lebanon’s general security directorate said Mr Al Assir was planning on flying to Nigeria via Cairo.

A photo posted by the National News Agency after the arrest revealed that Mr Al Assir had recently adopted a new look, shaving his long, unkempt beard and trading his usual religious robes and headwear for a more inconspicuous jacket and sweater. Some local news outlets suggested Mr Assir had also had plastic surgery to alter his appearance.

Mr Al Assir became one of the most wanted men in Lebanon after his militia went to battle with the Lebanese army in the port city of Sidon in 2013, resulting in the deaths of 18 soldiers and dozens of Mr Al Assir’s gunmen.

When the war in Syria began emboldening extremist Sunnis in Lebanon and inflaming sectarian tensions here, Mr Al Assir swiftly rose from obscurity to become a powerful voice. From his modest Bilal Bin Rabah mosque in the southern city of Sidon, he railed against Hizbollah and later the Lebanese state, accusing them of subjugating Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Mr Al Assir was ridiculed by his opponents for his hardline rhetoric and media stunts, such as a 2013 incident in which his followers forced their convoys through Christian-erected roadblocks to reach a ski resort and play in the snow.

But amid a leadership vacuum for Lebanon’s Sunni community and passions against Hizbollah and the state running high, Mr Al Assir’s strident tone struck a chord with many disaffected, radical Sunnis in the country. His movement even attracted Fadl Shaker, a Lebanese-Palestinian rooftop wedding singer turned wildly popular pop star.

At first, Mr Al Assir maintained that his movement was peaceful in nature. But slowly, the guise of a peaceful movement dripped away.

Soon, the closed-off street where his mosque was located in Sidon’s Abra neighbourhood was teeming with gunmen. Mr Al Assir’s words became more bellicose as he encouraged Lebanese Sunnis to go to Syria and aid the rebels. He spoke about the need to confront Hizbollah, which he called “the party of Satan” or “the Iranian project” and accused it of dominating the Lebanese state.

In early 2013, Mr Al Assir released a video of himself on the front line near the Syrian town of Qusayr, moving through a trench carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle and firing a machine gun from a rooftop position.

Tensions between Mr Al Assir and those he accused of oppressing Sunnis came to a head in June 2013 when his followers attacked a Lebanese army checkpoint in Sidon. The attack kicked off 48 hours of fighting in Sidon as the army launched an assault on Mr Al Assir’s mosque compound. Hizbollah and allied militias also joined in on the attack on Mr Al Assir’s forces.

When the fighting ended and the army captured Mr Al Assir’s mosque, 18 soldiers were dead along with dozens of militants. Mr Al Assir and his surviving companions fled and kept a low profile. He is believed to have fled to Sidon’s Ain Al Helweh Palestinian refugee camp, a lawless enclave known to be a safehaven for extremist elements. Mr Al Assir’s fall was as sudden as his rise.

In the hours after Mr Al Assir’s arrest on Saturday, his supporters blocked off roads in Sidon and the Lebanese army moved into his old neighbourhood in hopes of preventing any trouble. But unless the thinned ranks of his supporters do something drastic, it is unlikely that Mr Al Assir’s demise will have a real effect on Sunni extremist elements in Lebanon.

While 2013 and 2014 saw a spate of bombings carried out by Sunni extremist groups and battles pitting Sunni militias against the army and Shiite militias, Syria-related violence has since quieted. After Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL briefly captured the Sunni border town of Arsal last summer, Lebanese security forces moved aggressively against Sunni militants across the country. After recapturing Arsal, Lebanese security forces set their sights on the restive city of Tripoli, where Sunni militants frequently fought Alawite militias.

In the past year, hundreds of Sunni militants have been arrested by the Lebanese government and typical hotbeds have been subdued.

So far this year, only one major attack by Sunni extremists has been carried out in Lebanon: a January suicide bombing of an Alawite neighbourhood in Tripoli claimed by Jabhat Al Nusra.

And in the two years since Mr Al Assir’s showdown with the Lebanese Army, Hizbollah and the Syrian army have made significant gains against Syrian rebels and extremist groups camped out on Lebanon’s border with Syria. While Lebanese Sunni fighters used to frequently commute to the war from cities like Tripoli and Sidon, access to the front line has become complicated. While grievances and anger still exist — and there remains the possibility of renewed sectarian conflict in Lebanon — Syria’s war is for now farther away from the impoverished Sunni ghettos of Tripoli, Sidon and Beirut that produce fighters.

While muted, Mr Al Assir’s legacy did continue to live on after he went into hiding.

In November 2013, two suicide bombers believed to be connected to Mr Al Assir attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing 23. And in May of this year, one of Mr Al Assir’s followers carried out a suicide bombing for ISIL in Iraq’s Anbar province.

On his Twitter account, Mr Assir hailed the bomber as somebody who protected the rights of Muslims until the day he died. Mr Al Assir — who earlier this year was rumoured to become ISIL’s emir in Lebanon — also took to Twitter in May to congratulate the people of Ramadi on their liberation at the hands of ISIL.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae