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    Salafists: Surviving in Hezbollah’s Shadow?

    Sheikh Omar Bakri

    A growing sense of unease has reigned over Tripoli since March 14 public figures and local Salafists accused the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) of targeting local high-profile Sunnis not aligned with March 8 and Hezbollah.

    During a political rally organized two weeks ago in Tripoli by the Future Movement, March 14 Sunni MP Mohammad Kabbara and Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, a central figure in the Lebanese Salafist community, jointly accused the army of serving as cover for Hezbollah. “Yes, military intelligence targets Lebanon’s Sunnis… unless, of course, they are loyal to Hezbollah,” said Kabbara.

    Since the deadly 2007 battle between the LAF and the militant group Fatah al-Islam, based at the time in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, Sunni fundamentalist groups in northern Lebanon have increasingly fallen under the scrutiny of military institutions.

    Kabbara believes that the security forces are encouraging Lebanon’s militant Sunnis to accept the protection of Hezbollah, for if they do, they will not be charged with sedition and those in custody will supposedly be released on bail.

    The accusations were linked to the recent highly-publicized arrest of Salafist preacher Omar Bakri. He was sentenced in November by the military court to life in prison on various charges, including incitement to murder, belonging to a fundamentalist armed group, attacking the Lebanese army and possessing weapons and explosives. In addition, Bakri was convicted of collaborating with an Al-Qaeda style militant group led by Nabil Rahim as well as providing military training to so-called terrorists.

    Bakri, however, was quickly released from prison after the intervention of Hezbollah MP and lawyer Nawwar Sahili, who is now in charge of the preacher’s defense during his retrial. This came as a surprise to many, as Salafis are ideologically at odds with Hezbollah.

    Pro-March 14 Islamists interviewed by NOW Lebanon, such as Lebanon First bloc MP Khaled Daher and Salafist Sheikh Bilal Dokmak, believe that Hezbollah is trying to gain ground by putting pressure on the Salafi street, using legal means as well as the military institutions, such as the military court.

    “The military [court] is indeed controlled by March 8,” says Sheikh Bilal Shaaban, head of the Islamist Tawhid Movement, a faction allied with Hezbollah. Shaaban denied nonetheless any manipulation on Hezbollah’s part, adding that Bakri’s arrest followed fiery comments targeting Internal Security Forces (ISF) Director General Ashraf Rifi.

    According to different sources, some 20 other Islamic militants were prosecuted in absentia with Bakri, but he was the only one to be arrested.

    “My problems started when I admitted that [Salafist] Ahmad Abu Adass was the one behind the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,” said Bakri. Recent rumors circulating in Beirut have allegedly linked some Shia Hezbollah members to Hariri’s murder.

    “Another reason might have been my comments about al-Qaeda’s Saleh al-Qaraawi’s recent statements, which I believe were fabricated by [Lebanese] intelligence services,” Bakri told NOW Lebanon. Last April, Qaraawi accused the Lebanese army, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and Hezbollah of “working for the benefit of the Jews.”

    “A third reason could be that I rejected the International Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) because of its secular nature,” Bakri added.

    In recent days, Bakri’s realignment has become clearer. Two weeks ago, the preacher told Kuwaiti newspaper An-Nahar that “cooperation with the STL was a religious crime.” This week, in a press release, he asked British Ambassador to Lebanon Francis Gay to “apologize to Hezbollah” for persecuting the organization along other Islamist groups, as well as to remove the Party of God from its terrorist list.

    A wide consensus seems to exist today among Tripoli Salafists that Hezbollah is behind their arrests, underscored an anonymous political source, who is close to the Sunni radical street. ”The Party of God typically intervenes after an arrest is made, thus positioning itself as the savior of the Salafists,” added the source.

    A similar opinion was clearly underlined by Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal’s last public speech. The Salafist leader explained that his community was ready to use all means available to defend itself against “injustices” by the army. “If necessary, we are ready to use our bodies as mines to defend Sunnis, for we will never accept injustice,” he said. “We hereby call for the release of all Islamist detainees.”

    Sheikh Dokmak believes that Hezbollah’s handling of the Bakri case allowed the party to promote a more tolerant image, one of a political faction open to all communities. “It’s not their first attempt. They have already successfully broken the ranks of the Christian community, by forming an alliance with [Free Patriotic Movement leader MP] Michel Aoun,” said Dokmak. “They are now trying to prove they can be open to the most extremist factions, even ones they are traditionally at odds with. This also allows them to restore their image among Sunnis who are still troubled by the May 7, [2008] events.”

    But pro-Hezbollah Shaaban answer was that the party intervened in Bakri’s case only to respond to his personal appeal to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. “Hezbollah’s motivations were purely humanitarian. It’s a normal reaction for anyone in power to respond to a private appeal,” he added.

    Bakri’s “alliance” with Hezbollah will not be the first of its kind among Salafists. The Party of God maintains good relations with Salafist figures, such as Sheikhs Safwan al-Zohbi and Hassan al-Shahhal, first cousin of Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal. Nonetheless, in the streets of Tripoli, the feeling among Islamists, especially among traditional allies of March 14, is that the only way to survive may be in Hezbollah’s shadow.

    Mona ALAMI
    NOW Lebanon

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