Salafist Imam Ahmed al-Assir, Lebanon’s most wanted
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Long hunted by Lebanon’s security services, Salafist Imam Ahmed al-Assir was arrested August 15 at an airport in Beirut. Lebanon's judiciary has accused him of involvement in the deaths of 17 Lebanese soldiers and sentenced him to death.
He wanted to disarm Hezbollah, overthrow the Syrian regime, and dreamed of becoming a key figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community. But it now seems unlikely that Salafist Imam Ahmed al-Assir will achieve these goals.
Having exchanged his generous beard and religious garb for a thick mustache and the look of an intellectual from west Beirut circa the 1970s, he flew to Nigeria via Egypt. But he underestimated the vigilance of the security services ̶ a member of which, intrigued by Assir’s Palestinian travel document (which later proved fraudulent), detained him.
Thus unmasked, Assir reassumed his true identity. Placed under arrest and interrogated by security, he will soon have to appear before a military court. The judiciary sentenced him to death last year in absentia for his role in a bloody battle against the Lebanese army in June 2013 in which 17 soldiers were killed.
So ended the flight from justice of this radical imam. He had been living in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Helweh in southern Lebanon, which has become a haven for extremist groups and is off-limits for the Lebanese army and other security services.
Assir first rose to prominence in 2012 over the Syrian crisis. The unknown Salafist sheikh opted, initially, for pacifism. He organised a sit-in in Saida, Lebanon’s third-largest city, in support of the Syrian opposition. He also called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite political and military movement. He accused the group of having marginalised the Sunni community in Lebanon with the help of its Iranian sponsor and of supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is fighting Sunni rebels in Syria.
He quickly became the darling of the local media, which was intrigued by this new preacher who dared to defy the well-established Hezbollah movement led by Hassan Nasrallah. His first rallies attracted only a few hundred supporters. By smiling for the cameras, readily responding to requests for interviews and being pictured riding bikes with his cronies, Assir’s reputation quickly grew and his Facebook page gained a following. His speeches, increasingly sectarian, found an echo in several Sunni strongholds far beyond Bilal bin Rabah mosque, located in the outskirts of Saida. Within months, Assir had become part of Lebanon’s political landscape.
By riding a wave of frustration felt by a minority of Sunnis but never supported by the mainstream, and by provoking Hezbollah, Assir ratcheted up the tensions in a country that was already under pressure. A November 2012 confrontation between supporters of the radical sheikh and members of Hezbollah ̶ sparked by a disagreement over posters glorifying the Shiite movement ̶ descended into violence that left three dead.
Assir shifted his media strategy and was soon being pictured alongside men armed with Kalashnikovs. Soon after he retreated to his mosque, which had been converted into a fortress.
“Al-Assir’s repeated provocations of Hezbollah may lead to a certain radicalisation and could spark more serious incidents across the country,” noted a security source questioned by FRANCE 24 at the time. His predictions proved correct.
Crossing the 'red line'
The final confrontation came several months later. On June 23, 2013, Assir's religious supporters attacked an army checkpoint in Abra, which was his stronghold on the eastern outskirts of Sidon. The attack crossed the Lebanese army’s red line. Backed by public support, it decided to do away with Assir and his hundred followers. The army stormed the mosque and took it within 24 hours after a gun battle and sporadic rocket fire. Assir, who later accused Hezbollah of supporting the army in the operation, mysteriously disappeared while his headquarters was encircled.
Increasingly radical in tone, Assir made a few appearances in audio and video clips posted to the internet over the following months in which he called for a jihad against Hezbollah and asked Sunni soldiers to defect from the Lebanese army. Local rumours even hinted at the possibility of his being made the emir of the Islamic State group in Lebanon.
Security sources have said that Assir gave up some of his former colleagues during his interrogation, providing information that resulted in a series of arrests across the country.
In addition to the crimes of which he already stands accused, Assir will be called upon to explain the source of the funding that allowed him to surround himself with an armed militia and remain successfully on the run for two years. Such revelations could spark new controversy in Lebanon and undermine the local political support that Assir succeeded in mobilising to counter the influence of Hezbollah.
This article has been translated from the original in French.