Background and implications of the rise of salafi jihadi groups in Lebanon

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Dhu al-Hijjah 22, 1428 2008-01-01

Islamic Movement

by Nasr Salem (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1428)

The recent fighting in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, which cost hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians, has drawn attention to an ominous growth in salafism in Lebanon that until recently had gone largely unnoticed. For many observers, Fatah al-Islam, the obscure al-Qa’ida-inspired group which was crushed in September after more than three months of fierce fighting against Lebanese army troops, is only the tip of a growing iceberg of jihadist salafist groups, some with links to Iraqi resistance groups, that have taken root in the country. The increasing polarisation sweeping Lebanon along sectarian lines, the upsurge of sectarian passions across the Muslim world (fed by the repercussions of the US-led invasion of Iraq), and the influx of cash and battle-hardened fighters escaping from Iraq, are turning Lebanon into a fertile ground for a new breed of jihadist salafism that might well have devastating effects on the country.

Much like the growing influence of salafism in various Muslim countries during the past quarter century, the salafist upsurge in Lebanon is a complex phenomenon. But the rise of strident forms of salafism in Lebanon has been accentuated over the past few years due to the backing funnelled, directly and indirectly, from the Sunni-dominated Future Movement of parliamentary majority leader Sa’ad al-Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. Hariri has adopted the Saudi strategy of funding and sponsoring salafi outfits in hopes of using them to settle scores with political adversaries. The Future Movement was at the forefront of the stand-off that pitted the governing March 14th Coalition and the Hizbullah-led opposition for more than a year. Much as the Saudis did in the 1980s, at the height of their confrontation with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, inciting and mobilising viciously anti-Shi’ite salafism seems to have been a key plank in the Future Movement’s strategy to counter the growing weight of Hizbullah.

Publicly, funding has been channelled to charitable, educational and religious activities. Yet in practice, because of the lack of proper means to track how and where the donated money is being spent, at least part of the funding has been sponsoring other activities, including armed activities. But Hariri’s sponsorship of salafism is accompanied by parallel moves that smack of gangsterism and can only stoke sectarian passions. For instance, after street-clashes in Tripoli last spring between Sunni youths and members of the minority Alawi sect, Hariri and high-ranking figures in the Future Movement rewarded Sunnis who had taken part in those clashes and honored the families of those who had died. Two MPs from Hariri’s parliamentary bloc paid hospital visits to young Sunnis who had been injured during these clashes, footed at least a part of their treatment bills, and gave them cash gifts.

Inflaming sectarian passions to serve partisan political agendas might have infused salafism in Lebanon with a new vigor, but it did not spawn it. Salafism has a longer history in Lebanon. Rather like salafism in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the organisational structure of Lebanese salafism is atomised and fragmented. The tortuous landscape of salafi groups, both jihadist and non-jihadist or reformist (islahi) entities, in Lebanon lacks a unified umbrella organisation to bring together salafis around the country. Lebanese salafism is rather a trend that consists of a multiplicity of localised autonomous or semi-autonomous groups possessing divergent operational agendas, infrastructures and strategies. Though they are organisationally and operationally unrelated, these groups are bound by a common vision and a set of shared values, partly inspired by nostalgic yearning for a pure form of Islam as embodied by the first three generations of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih or the “pious predecessors”), rejecting in the process the bulk of Islamic scholarship produced to interpret and apply the original and primary sources of Islam: the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

The mosaic of Lebanese salafism consists of localised, and fragmented entities scattered in various areas around the country. The genesis of Lebanese salafism can be traced to 1946, when Shaykh Salem al-Shahhal, the progenitor of organized salafism inLebanon, founded the first salafist group in the country, known as Shabab Muhammad (“Muhammad’s Youth”). The group changed its name in the late 1950s to al-Jama’ah Muslimun (an odd name that can be translated roughly as “the people are Muslims”). From that point onwards, salafism began gradually to gain momentum. At first, Tripoli’s salafis refrained from publicly advocating or engaging in violence, concentrating their energies instead on purely religious, philanthropic and educational activities to build grassroots support. They channelled donations from local individuals, as well as from outside (mainly Saudi) sources, to build mosques, set up religious institutes and provide social and health services to the city’s predominantly Sunni community. These efforts came to fruition in the 1980s, when the ranks of salafism in Tripoli began to show significant signs of growth inside the city, as well as expansion to the rural areas of Akkar and Dunniyyeh to the north and northeast.

Tripoli is currently teeming with myriad salafist associations, such as the Jam‘iyyat al-Hidayah wa-al-Ihsan (“Guidance and Benevolence Association”), led by Shaykh Salem’s Saudi-educated son, Shaykh Da‘i al-Islam al-Shahhal, and Jam‘iyyat al-Da‘awah wa-al-Ihsan wa-al-Iman (“Da‘awah, Benevolence and Faith Association”), led by Dr. Hassan al-Shahhal. There are also Islamic educational academies headed by salafist ulama, such as the Ma’ahad Tarablus lil-‘Ulum al-Shar‘iyyah (“the Tripoli Institute of Shari‘ah Studies”), chaired by Shaykh Fawwaz Izmirli; salafi-inclined prayer-halls set up in residential apartments; study-groups, clubs and Islamic centres, such as Markaz Hamzah lil-Wala’ (“the Hamzah Centre for Loyalty”), led by Shaykh Zakariyyah al-Masri; and prominent salafist figures and activists such as Safwan al-Zu’bi, Ahmad Nadda and Dr. Abu Bakr al-Shahhal.

In 1976, at the height of the first phase (1975-76) of the Lebanese civil war, Tripolitan salafism crossed a turning-point when Shaykh Salem al-Shahhal founded a militia called Nuwat al-Jaysh al-Islami (“Nucleus of the Islamic Army”). Although some sources say that this militia took part in fighting during that period, its fortunes declined and its name dropped into obscurity. However, in August 1982, a number of small Tripolitan armed factions coalesced around the leadership of the late Shaykh Said Sha’aban (d. 1998), a dissident member of the al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah (“the Muslim Group”), the Ikhwan’s front organisation in Lebanon, and the Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami (“Islamic Unification Movement”) was formed. The groups that swore allegiance to Sha’aban as emir of the new movement were al-Muqawwamah al-Sha’abiyyah (“the Popular Resistance”), led by the late Khalil ‘Akkawi, Harakat Lubnan al-‘Arabi (“the Arab Lebanon Movement”) led by the late Dr ‘Ismat Murad, Jund Allah (“the Soldiers of Allah”), led by Shaykh Fawwaz Hussein Agha, and a host of mosque committees led by the late Shaykh ‘Ali Mir’ib.

Generally, salafis in northern Lebanon gravitated towards the Islamic Unification Movement in the 1980s. Shaykh Sha’aban, who was a firm believer in Islamic rule based on the Shari‘ah, and looked for ways to unify Muslims of the Sunni and Shi‘ah schools of thought, exercised a moderating influence on the exclusivist tendencies of Tripolitan salafis. But the movement began to splinter in 1985 when two of its commanders, Khalil ‘Akkawi and Kan’an Naji, broke away to form their own group, which they called Jund-Allah (“the Army of Allah”). The fragmentation of the Islamic Unification Movement provided local returnees from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan with an opportunity to set up jihadist groups and spread the attitudes and methods that they had learnt inAfghanistan among the local population. One of these groups was led by Bassam Kanj, a veteran of the Afghan war, who set up a training-camp in Dunniyyeh, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Tripoli. This group was crushed when an attack it launched against Lebanese army positions in Dunniyyeh failed, sparking an intense six-day battle that ended in its defeat. The late prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, Sa’ad’s slain father, made the release of salafist prisoners implicated in the Dunniyyeh incident a key campaign promise during the 2005 parliamentary elections, and spearheaded a campaign to secure an amnesty for them. He fulfilled this promise by rushing through the legislature a draft bill pardoning them shortly after securing a majority in the current parliament.

The town of Majdal ‘Anjar, in the eastern Beqa’a valley, is the second bastion of salafism in Lebanon. Shaykh Zuhair al-Shawish is the main exponent of salafism in this town, which is close to the Lebanese-Syrian border. The emergence of salafism in this area coincided with the return of a group of graduates of the Islamic University in Medina. The two most well-known of these graduates are Shaykh ‘Adnan Muhammad Umamah and Shaykh Hassan ‘Abd al-Rahman, both of whom played a central role in establishing a local school and building the Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Awf Mosque, which is a centre of salafist activism in the Beqa’a region. The influence of salafi activism in Majdal ‘Anjar has spread to neighboring, predominantly Sunni villages such as Ta’albaya and Sa’adnayel. In addition to their educational and charitable activities, some salafis in Majdal ‘Anjar have been actively involved in turning the town into a staging-post for fighters going to Iraq. In September 2004 a number of the town’s residents were arrested on charges of “terrorism”, including allegations that they recruited fighters and suicide-bombers to join al-Qa’ida in Iraq and facilitated their infiltration into Iraq through Syria; one suspect, Isma’il al-Khatib, who was described as a top al-Qa’ida operative in Lebanon, died, probably under torture, while in custody. In 2005 this town made headlines in the local press when five of its residents were killed while fighting alongside Iraqi insurgents. These were Hassan Sawwan, ‘Ali al-Khatib, Muhammad Nuh, Mustafa Darwish Ramadan, and Ramadan’s grandson Muhammad.

The al-’Arqub region, in southeastern Lebanon, is another hotbed of salafist activism and agitation in the country. Salafism emerged here in the early 1970s when a group of Islamic activists formed an organization they called “Jund Allah” in reaction to the launch of an Arab nationalist group. The group was later renamed the ‘Arqub Salafist Movement. In the mid-1980s, salafism was further energised by the activities of Shaykh Qassim ‘Abdallah, who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for a while. Shaykh ‘Abdallah was a conduit for financial aid and other forms of support from Saudi individuals and organisations to the poor and needy in the region. His activities culminated in the building of a large mosque in the town of Shiba’ah called the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Mosque, using funds raised locally and overseas, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Salafism in this region has so far been largely free of jihadism. Salafi activists in ‘Arqub are mainly involved in educational and charitable activities. Unlike their fellow salafis elsewhere, who usually harbor a deadly animus against anything associated with either Shi‘ism or Sufism, salafis in al-’Arqub publicly support the Hizbullah-led Islamic resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanese lands.

Salafism also gained a foothold in Sidon, in southern Lebanon, in the late 1980s, thanks largely to the activities of a number of salafi ulama from other parts of the country, most notably Da‘i al-Islam al-Shahhal and ‘Abd al-Hadi Wehbi. The first salafi mosque inSidon was the al-Hidayah Mosque, which was built in the early 1990s in the al-Zuhur quarter with funding from Saudi Arabia. It was followed by the al-Sahabah Mosque, also in the al-Zuhur quarter, where Shaykh Nadim Hijazi leads the Friday prayer and tries to propagate the tenets of salafism. Since its early days, salafism in Sidon has suffered from a schism pitting jihadist and non-jihadist (or islahi) salafis against each other. Whereas the brand of salafism advocated by Hijazi and other like-minded ulama is islahi in the sense that it favours the goal of social transformation by educational activities, Sidon is also home to a jihadist trend that has yet to bare its secrets to outsiders.

Unlike the relative obscurity of jihadist salafism in Sidon, the Palestinian refugee-camps on the outskirts of the city have witnessed a groundswell of jihadist salafism. Foremost among these camps is ‘Ayn al-Hilweh, the largest refugee-camp in Lebanon, where Hisham ‘Abdallah Shuraide founded ‘Usbat al-Ansar (“the League of Partisans”) in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, Shuraidi, the founder of the first jihadist salafist group in Lebanon, was a disciple of Shaykh Ibrahim Ghunaym, who subscribed to Sufism and taught Sufi ideas and practices at the al-Nur Mosque. He had formerly been expelled from the al-Jama‘ah al-Islamiyyah because of his close ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran. ‘Ayn al-Hilweh’s salafists joined forces with other Islamic-oriented fighters to fight some of the most ferocious battles against the invading Israeli troops during the 1982 invasion, holding their ground against the Israeli juggernaut for some three weeks. The League gave rise to a group known as Ansar Allah (“the Partisans of Allah”) which coordinated its military activities with Hizbullah.

After the assassination of Shuraidi in December 1991 on orders from Amin Kayid, the local commander of Fatah, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Sa’idi, better known by the nom de guerre “Abu Muhjin”, was responsible for breaking the group’s ties with Islamic Iran and bringing it closer to the takfiri salafism (takfir is the act of ‘excommunicating’ Muslims: i.e. declaring them to be disbelievers) of al-Qa’ida. The League has sent fighters to Iraq, issued statements confirming the death of its members in combat alongside Iraqi insurgents, and called for a march to honor Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, former Jordanian leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, after his death in an American air-strike in June 2006.

Disagreements within the League over methods of action and mobilisation gave rise to a splinter-group called Jund al-Sham (“the Soldiers of Greater Syria”). This group maintained links with Zarqawi, who arranged for some of its members to undergo training at al-Qa’ida camps in Afghanistan. It has also sent fighters to Iraq and claimed responsibility for a number of violent acts in Syria andLebanon, including the assassination of senior Hizbullah official Ghalib ‘Awali in July 2004 and an armed attack against the American embassy in Damascus in September 2006.

As is the case with jihadist salafism elsewhere, what makes the rise of jihadist salafism in Lebanon an unsettling trend is acts of violence that are increasingly directed inward, and driven by an exclusivist mindset and a misguided belief that unbridled forms of violence ought to be used to eradicate perceived evil and deviation within the Muslim Ummah. Jihadist salafism in Lebanon has thrust yet another destabilising factor into an already crisis-ridden situation. It feeds on a mix of wrath, hatred, outrageous conspiracy theories and perceived sectarian victimhood. Such a value-system makes jihadist salafists tend to start wars against the world. This is a harbinger of catastrophe for a country as diverse and politically fragile as Lebanon.

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