by Khalil Fadl (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 7, Ramadan, 1429)
In recent months, there has been a worrying rise in violent salafi sectarianism in the northern Lebanese port-city of Tripoli, a dangerous new development in the country’s delicate communal balance. KHALIL FADL discusses the background and potential of this trend among Lebanese Sunnis.
The roadside bomb on August 13 that targeted a bus carrying soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli highlighted the potential for a new level of violence from the salafi jihadist activities in Lebanon. After months of sectarian clashes in Tripoli, the incident also underlined the importance of containing the inter-communal violence that has cost scores of lives. Having lain mostly dormant for decades, salafism in Lebanon has been invigorated in the past few years, fuelling sectarian tensions and internal fissures that could have lasting consequences for all the communities involved.
The explosion killed at least twelve people, ten of them off-duty soldiers, and wounded more than 50 others. Although no one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, which took place during the rush hour in Tripoli’s busy commercial district, the most likely culprits are salafi jihadist members or sympathisers of the Fath al-Islam group, who are believed to have carried out the attack to avenge their defeat in a months-long battle against the army in Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, some 9 kilometres (five miles) north of Tripoli, last year. The explosion, which was caused by 3 pounds of explosive placed in a bag near a bus stop where soldiers often gather, occurred in an army crackdown in Tripoli against violence between Sunni militiamen supporting the country’s pro-Western political bloc, and pro-Syrian minority 'Alawite militiamen backing the Hizbullah-led opposition. In the week preceding the bombing,salafi groups in Tripoli and the southern city of Sidon staged boisterous demonstrations to demand the release of salafists detained by the military because of their involvement in sectarian violence.
The landscape of Tripolitan salafism is fluid and fragmented, consisting of a multitude of groups which operate a dense network of mosques, charitable organisations, schools and cultural clubs. Some of these have branches in other cities, such as Beirut and Sidon. The fissiparous tendencies within Tripoli’s salafis are rooted in the lack of a unified structure or commonleadership that might bring the many segmented and proliferating salafi groups under their wing. These tendencies are exacerbated by the multiple sources of outside funding for the growing number of salafi outfits. Funding from private, and possibly governmental, sources in various Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, has been pouring into the coffers of various salafi factions.
Salafism made its debut in Tripoli in the mid-1940s, when Shaykh Salem al-Shahhal, a local ‘alim who died in July, founded the first salafi group in the country, named Shabab Muhammad (“the youths of Muhammad”), upon his return from a trip to Saudi Arabia. In the late 1950s, the group was renamed al-Jama‘ah Muslimun (“the group are Muslims”). Its members, who made a pact of allegiance (bay‘ah) to Shaykh Salem as the group’s Emir, included activists who later played a prominent role in Sunni Islamic activism in the country, such as Fathi Yakan, chairman of the Jabhat al-‘Amal al-Islami (“the Islamic action front”); the late Shaykh Sa‘id Sha‘aban, founder and former Emir of the Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islamiyyah (“the Islamic Unification Movement”); the late Shaykh Badr Shandar, and the late Shaykh Akram Khudur. The group’s influence spread in Akkar, Minyeh, Dinniyyeh and other northern districts. In the 1960s the group appears to have been wracked by internal defections. Former members of the group played a role in the formation in 1964 of al-Jama ah al-Islamiyyah (“the Islamic group”), an Ikhwani group that regarded the establishment of an Islamic state as a viable long-term goal. Among the founders of the group were Yakan, fellow disaffected former salafis, and other Islamic activists from a small charity and educational group known as Jama‘at ‘Ibad al-Rahman (“the association of the worshippers of the Merciful”), which was actually theIkhwan al-Muslimeen’s branch in Lebanon, founded in 1951 by the late Muhammad ‘Umar al-Da’uq.
After the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Tripoli’s salafis toyed with the idea of forming an armed militia. In 1976, Shahhal founded an armed group known as Nuwat al-Jaysh al-Islami (“the nucleus of the Islamic army”), which played a marginal role in the fighting during the civil war. During the same period, internal disenchantment with the Islamic Group’s ‘soft’ approach, which emphasised educational and social work, resulted in the emergence of a host of splinter groups dedicated to a more radical method of activism, including military action. Three of these splinter groups – 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, and Jund Allah (“the soldiers of Allah” or “the army of Allah”), led by Shaykh Fawwaz Hussein Agha – merged in 1982 with a host of mosque committees led by the lateShaykh ‘Ali Mir’ib to form the Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islamiyyah under the late Shaykh Sha’aban.
In general, the modus operandi of Tripoli’s salafis emphasised religious education, charity and social work. Under the charismatic leadership of Sha’aban the longing for action of many young salafis was channelled into the armed activities of the Islamic Unification Movement, which managed to wrest control of Tripoli from Syrian-backed leftist militias in a series of intense armed confrontations in 1983 and 1984. However, other extremist salafists distanced themselves from Sha‘aban because of his close relations with Islamic Iran. The IUM’s ranks also included highly-trained exiles from the Syrian branch of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, who sought refuge in Tripoli after the failure of their armed uprising in the Syrian city of Hama, which was crushed in February 1982 by the government of the late president, Hafiz al-Assad. Adding insult to injury from Damascus’s viewpoint was the alliance forged between the IUM and the Palestine Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafat, whose relations with the Syrians had reached a nadir after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hence, in the autumn of 1985, Syrian troops swept into Tripoli, putting an end to the IUM’s virtual mini-state in the city. This ushered in an era of heavy-handed Syrian control of the city, during which harsh methods were employed to suppress anti-Syrian Sunni Islamic activism.
While the political activists were bearing the brunt of the Syrian government’s repressive machinery, small salafi groups were given much leeway for action, allowing them to carry out their activities freely, mainly because they were deemed to pose no threat to the Syrians because they largely subscribed to an apolitical view and stayed aloof from politics. A Syrian-Saudi rapprochement at the time further shielded these salafis, most of whom maintained close ties with the kingdom, from Syria’s heavy-handedness. In fact, a significant number of Tripoli’ssalafi ‘ulama and activists have studied Wahhabi theology in Saudi Arabia. After the beginning of the civil war in the mid-1970s, hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian students flocked to study Islamic subjects at Saudi universities on scholarships arranged by Shahhal, who maintained close ties with the kingdom’s then-grand mufti Shaykh, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin ‘Abdallah bin Baz.
The truce between Tripoli’s salafis and the Lebanese authorities came to an abrupt end with the assassination in 1995 of Shaykh Nizar al-Halabi, the leader of the Jam‘iyyat al-Mashar’i al-Khayriyyah al-Islamiyyah (“the association of Islamic philanthropic projects”). Popularly known as al-Ahbash, this is a pro-Syrian, militantly anti-salafi Sunni group that subscribes to asyncretic blend of Islamic belief systems combining elements of Ash‘arism (named after speculative theologian Abu al-Hassan al-Ash‘ari, d. 324 AH/936 CE), Maturidism (named after speculative theologian Abu Mansour al-Maturidi, d. 333AH/944 CE) and Sufism, and which has been dubbed a “Sufi response to political Islamism.” Halabi was gunned down by assassins belonging to a salafi jihadist group known as ‘Usbat al-Ansar (“the partisans’ league”), based in the Palestinian refugee-camp of ‘Ayn al-Hilweh on the outskirts of Sidon. After the assassination, Lebanese authorities unleashed a wave of arrests targeting salafis in the country. Scores of salafis were arrested in Tripoli and other areas of northern Lebanon on charges of plotting terror attacks. Among those arrested was Shaykh Salem’s son Shaykh Da‘i al-Islam, whose charitable organisation Jam‘iyyat al-Hidayah wa-al-Ihsan (“the guidance and charity association”) was also banned. Most of the detainees were later released, with the exception of eight salafis who were charged with distributing seditious literature.
But the crackdown did not stem the underground growth of salafi activism in the country in general, and in the north in particular. On New Year’s Eve 1999, an ambush on a Lebanese army patrol in the mountainous area of Dinniyyeh, east of Tripoli, set off six days of armed confrontation that left 20 salafi jihadists and eleven soldiers dead. The militants belonged to asalafi jihadist group founded in 1998 by Bassam Ahmad Kanj, a veteran of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad known by the nom de guerre of Abu ‘Aysha. An anti-salafi crackdown followed, in which scores of salafis were rounded up; it forced Da‘i al-Islam to go into hiding after coming under indictment.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath provided evidence that underground armed salafi groups were using Lebanon as a conduit for training and recruiting operatives to fight in Iraq. Lebanese salafi networks also facilitated the transit of Arab jihadists, particularly Saudis, to Iraq. The Lebanese authorities turned a blind eye to these activities for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that they would undermine the US military presence in Iraq. Among the scores of Lebanese salafis who went to Iraq were men who were important leaders in the Arab jihadist strand of the insurgency, such as Mustafa Darwish Ramadan, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani, who was said to have been, until his death in an American airstrike in September 2004, the right-hand man of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qa’ida Organisation in Mesopotamia. In tandem with these developments, there were signs indicating the emergence of a strong takfiri (from takfir, which is the act of branding other Muslims as being outside the pale of the deen) strand within the ranks of Tripoli’s salafis. Terminology culled from the sectarian rhetoric that gained prominence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, such as the use of the derogatory “rafidi” (‘rejectionist’) and “Safawi” (‘Safavid’) labels to refer to Shi‘as, began to gain currency.
The departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005 constituted a watershed for Lebanese salafis. It ushered in a period of unprecedented freedom for them to take part in public life, exemplified by the salafi ‘ulama’s mobilisation of their followers to vote for and support the electoral campaigns of Future Current candidates, and to forge a tacit “live-and-let-live” understanding with the government of prime minister Fouad al-Siniora, a member of the Future Current. As long as Lebanese salafis refrained from carrying out attacks within the country and confined their activities to logistic support and the transfer of individuals to Iraq and other places around the globe, they could operate with very little interference from the authorities. Last year’s confrontations with the Fath al-Islam fighters holed up in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp signalled the authorities’ refusal to tolerate armed activities inside the country by freelancing salafis who violated this tacit agreement.
The salafis also benefited from the atmosphere of increasing polarisation that has been gripping the country because of the long-running tug of war between the pro-Western Sinioragovernment and the Hizbullah-led opposition, which is backed by Syria and Islamic Iran. In an effort to counter the rising influence of Hizbullah, Hariri, the leader of the Future Current, has used his formidable wealth to rally grassroots support in areas where salafism exerts a strong influence. In return for Hariri’s financial support, salafi preachers have employed their vehemently anti-Shi‘a rhetoric to mobilise the Sunni public against Hizbullah. The sectarian poison pouring forth from the salafis is relentlessly uncompromising and confrontational, and has contributed to an alarming erosion in inter-communal, especially Sunni-Shi‘a, harmony. This has been shown by the recurrent clashes between the predominantly ‘'Alawite Jabal Muhsinand the predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods of Tripoli.
Sectarian salafi militancy in Tripoli feeds on the growing fear and frustration of Lebanese Sunnis in general, and of those living in peripheral areas, such as Tripoli, in particular. The economic fortunes of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, received a blow with the formation of the state of Lebanon in 1920. Trade along the traditional routes linking the Syrian interior with the port of Tripoli faltered, and decades of negligence by the state of rural Sunni communities in the neighbouring Akkar region increased the sense of deprivation and marginalisationamong the Sunnis of northern Lebanon. The strongholds of salafism in Tripoli are some of the poorest quarters of the city, such as Bab al-Tibbaneh, al-Qubbeh, Bab al-Raml, the Old City (or al-Aswaq), and Abu Samra, where child labour is rife and the school drop-out rate is estimated at some 80 percent, according to UNICEF. It is no coincidence that it is in these cauldrons of abject poverty, destitution and resentment that an extreme salafi discourse and worldview, replete with parochial us-versus-them idioms and simplistic generalisations, has taken root in the past quarter century. It is here that the new breed of Saudi-trained salafi preachers, delivering lessons to study groups in mosques and private homes, have found a receptive audience among segments of the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, comprised mainly of school dropouts, the unemployed and semi-literate craftsmen and artisans.
Like their co-religionists in Iraq, Lebanese Sunnis, who constitute a minority in a highly diverse country, see themselves as part of a vast regional Sunni-Arab sea. Since the formation of the modern Lebanese state in 1920, Sunnis have been largely Arabists. Commitment to pan-Arab causes has been a bridge bringing Lebanese Sunnis and Shi‘as together. The spread ofsalafism in Tripoli, with its local, populist and xenophobic bent, is undermining this tradition of inter-communal cooperation. Salafis have used local narratives of the repression meted out to Sunni Islamic activists by the Syrian security and intelligence apparatuses to whip up an anti-Syrian frenzy verging on racism. The image of Syria as the epitome of evil is nurtured by the fact that the Syrian regime is dominated by members of the 'Alawite minority, whom the salafis deem to be heretical.
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, there is no automatic link between salafism and sectarianism in Lebanon, as indicated by the role played by Shaykh Sha‘aban in Tripoli after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, his support for which was bitterly criticised by some salafis. However, the tendency of some salafis and salafi organisations towards sectarianism, and anti-Shi‘isectarianism in particular, is especially unfortunate and dangerous in a country like Lebanon, which has a Shi‘i majority and a powerful, Shi’i dominated Islamic movement. Despite support for Hizbullah among many Sunnis, particularly non-salafi groups such as the Ahbash, the vociferous sectarianism of the extremist salafis has tended to drown the voices of reason withinTripolitan salafism. A recent eight-point memorandum of understanding between Hizbullah and a number of the city’s salafi groups, which included a condemnation of attacks by any Islamic group against any other and the abandonment of sectarian incitement, was put on hold just one day after it was signed on August 18, because of the criticism of salafi opponents, some of who were egged on by Hariri. Sniping at the agreement, Shaykh Da‘i al-Islam described it as “media crackling in favour of Hizbullah and the Shi’ah community.”
There are indications that, with the waning fortunes of the al-Qa’ida organisation in Iraq, the dark clouds of Iraq have been drifting over to Lebanon. Arab jihadists leaving Iraq are reported to be infiltrating salafi bastions in the country, including Tripoli and ‘Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp. From their appalling record in Iraq, it is clear that these elements can only bring a spiralling wave of nihilistic violence that could tear Tripoli’s social fabric apart and undermine the successes of the anti-Israeli resistance in Lebanon.