News recently spread on Lebanese websites about the first conference held by al-Qaeda in Lebanon in the northern city of Tripoli. The websites reported that the Salafist preacher Sheikh Omar Bakri Fostock participated in the conference, titled “The Islamic Forum for Estranged Sunnis in Lebanon.” Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s black flags — bearing the expression, "There is no god except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" — were raised in the Marj Zhour square in the Abi Samra district of Tripoli.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on July 30, 2013, Bakri said that he “refuses to describe any person raising the black flag of the Messenger of God as an al-Qaeda member, a terrorist or a takfiri, in addition to other descriptions used by some to justify the arrests of supporters of the Syrian revolution in Lebanon.” Bakri added, “Nowadays, no one can stop us from carrying these black flags, the flags of the noble Prophet. We are not to be held responsible if al-Qaeda carries the same flags.”
Regarding the reasons for holding the Islamic Forum for Sunnis, Bakri said, “This forum is held at the behest of a large number of Muslim families in Lebanon. I personally raised the issue of holding cultural religious forums, including various activities aimed to enhance cultural and educational communication. We are present in the north as Islamist groups, but we have no awareness-raising activities. This project is the result of a cultural, educational and social demand; and it also aims at discussing the Islamic ummah outside of Lebanon and our relationship with it.”
Bakri, who does not hide his sympathy and support for al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, told Al-Monitor that al-Qaeda does not have a presence in Lebanon, just as there is no presence for Jabhat al-Nusra at the organizational level. He explained, “If al-Qaeda had a presence in Lebanon, I would have announced it. Moreover, the organizations that do exist [in Lebanon] include several Islamic movements supporting the Syrian revolution, but which have nothing to do with Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Bakri is a Syrian national from Aleppo who is also a Lebanese citizen and resides in the city of Tripoli. He is the leader of the Al-Muhajiroun Organization, officially disbanded by the British authorities in October 2000. After 20 years in London, he was deported to Lebanon in 2005 on charges of helping terrorists. The British daily Telegraph reported on May 24, 2013, that Michael Adebolajo, who executed the Woolwich attack that led to the death of a British soldier in May 2013, knew Bakri and had listened to one of his lectures in which he said that the beheading of enemies is permissible. Moreover, Bakri praised Adebolajo’s courage.
On the other hand, the Lebanese Military Court had sentenced Bakri to life imprisonment in November 2010, after convicting him of the crime of participating in the formation of the terrorist group, Fatah al-Islam, that aimed to carry out terrorist attacks by explosives, to transfer weapons and ammunition and to train terrorists. Bakri was released two weeks after his arrest, but his case has not closed yet.
When asked about the presence of armed Islamic groups in northern Lebanon and about the ongoing battles in Tripoli, Bakri said that these battles are fought on behalf of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions’ forces, indicating that some political figures supported these armed groups. “I am sure there are radical extremist ideologies refusing the other and using violence, just like secular movements who do not accept the other as well. This is due to Hezbollah’s open intervention in the Syrian situation, which aggravated the situation in Lebanon, thus rendering it more likely to host the Islamic emirate,” continued Bakri.
Regarding the project of establishing an Islamic emirate in Lebanon, particularly in the north, Bakri said: “This idea is realistic and I think that it inspires all young Muslims, since some feel that the state, the army and Hezbollah are attacking Sunni Islamic doctrine.” He warned, “If the situation is not remedied, it will explode and this is all caused by the reckless actions of Hezbollah, which interfered in the Syrian war.”
“I have warned on several occasions that if the security events are not remedied, if the detainees are not released, if no pardon is issued for Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and Fadel Shaker, and if Osama Mansour is not released, this will lead to security unrest with the army and in Jabal Mohsen as well.”
Assir is a Salafist sheikh who launched with his supporters a bloody battle against the Lebanese army in Abra last June. Assir fled from his compound along with the former singer Shaker to an unknown destination, while the army arrested Mansour, along with a terrorist cell, on the road to Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley in July 2013.
It is strange that Bakri — who denies having any links to al-Qaeda or Jabhat al-Nusra, and who denies their presence in Lebanon — had told The Telegraph on Jan. 25, 2012, that al-Qaeda and his own al-Ghuraba group were ready to carry out suicide attacks against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He added, “In two or three operations, [al-Qaeda] can make the Baath party run away.”
In December 2012, Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn confirmed the presence of al-Qaeda members in Lebanon, and said that weapons and some al-Qaeda members were being smuggled into Lebanon through illegal border crossings between Syria and Lebanon, particularly in the Lebanese border town of Arsal.
Yet, Ghosn was targeted by media campaigns orchestrated by the March 14 forces.
Lebanese security and political sources believe that Ghosn confirmed the presence of al-Qaeda in Lebanon based on reports by the Lebanese army's Intelligence Directorate.
Elias Farhat, a retired army general, confirmed to Al-Monitor the presence of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, and noted the role of some related groups in North Lebanon.
Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, who was accused by the Lebanese authorities of forming a Salafist group and of having links with Fatah al-Islam in 2007, is currently responsible for a group of hundreds of gunmen in Tripoli, who are involved in the battles against the Alawite-majority Jabal Mohsen neighborhood. While some describe Sabbagh as being the first commander of Salafist jihadists in the city, others consider him the emir of al-Qaeda in the north.
Nevertheless, Bakri denies the presence of any organizational links between Sabbagh and al-Qaeda, except for the connection among all Muslims, namely Islamic ideology and fraternity, and following the Quran and sunna as the good Salafists understood them. He indicated that the insistence of some Lebanese security services and media that Sabbagh is affiliated with al-Qaeda does discredit him, but it increases his importance and status among Muslims. Bakri called on all Muslims in Lebanon to support Sabbagh and his brothers, and described him as “a commander of Sunni Islam in Tripoli and the north.”
In April, Al-Monitor received security information confirming the presence of al-Qaeda in Lebanon, where the sources cited as examples Sabbagh’s group in Tripoli, and Kamal Bustani — one of his most prominent aides, known for working for al-Qaeda — the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp group, and two other groups in Wadi Khaled and al-Qaa areas in the northern province of Akka.
The story of al-Qaeda in Lebanon dates back to the attacks of Sep. 11, 2011, where it was found that Ziad Jarrah, a participant in the attacks, was a Lebanese national from the Bekaa. His death was announced by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader at the time. In 2004, an al-Qaeda group planning to blow up the Italian embassy was arrested, and a member of the cell died while being investigated.
The Lebanese military court tried a number of al-Qaeda members that carried out attacks targeting US chain restaurants in Beirut and Tripoli, attacks against the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon and that fired Katyusha rockets into Israel, for which al-Qaeda linked groups claimed responsibility. In an audio recording in September 2006, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said, “Lebanon is a land of jihad, not a land of support, and that [jihadists] will fight the crusaders, through the UN forces stationed in the south.”
The attack in Ain Alaq region of north Metn on Feb. 13, 2007, was conducted by Fatah al-Islam, led by Shaker al-Abssi, who fled after bloody battles with the Lebanese army in the northern Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. It is known that Abssi came from Iraq, embracing al-Qaeda’s ideas and influenced by the approach of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
A Lebanese expert on Islamist groups, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor on July 30 that there is a limited presence of al-Qaeda’s members and cells in Lebanon. Yet, the organization has a lot of supporters who have a jihadist and intellectual approach that is similar to that of the group. He pointed out that these supporters form a favorable environment, from which al-Qaeda recruits its members.
As for the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, the same expert said that the Syrian war and infiltration of jihadist gunmen from both sides through the Lebanese-Syrian border has allowed groups of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda to move into Lebanon. He said some of these groups are in northern Lebanon, and others are in the barren mountains of Arsal in the Bekaa and the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
Regarding the fact that some politicians and Islamists in Lebanon deny the presence of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, the Lebanese expert reminds us that Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria denied in January 2013 having links with al-Qaeda. Yet, a few months later the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, affirmed allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.