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Why some Lebanese say arrest of Assir was not enough

Lebanese security forces have arrested Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in an operation that, while lauded by many, has stirred debate about the deepening sectarian tensions in the country.

BEIRUT — Military investigative judge Najat Abou Chakra issued an arrest warrant on Sept. 8 for Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Lebanon on charges of “forming sleeper terrorist cells and planning to assassinate political, military and religious figures.”

Lebanese General Security arrested Assir at the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on Aug. 15 in a remarkably professional operation. Assir, accused of killing 18 officers and soldiers following confrontations with the Lebanese army in the southern city of Abra on June 23, 2013, was arrested trying to flee to Nigeria using a fake passport. Assir had undergone plastic surgery to change his facial features.

The entire Lebanese political class applauded this security achievement. However, different positions have since emerged.

Some, such as Wiam Wahhab, president of the Tawhid Party, a pillar of the March 8 political faction, launched a scathing attack against Assir on Twitter and congratulated Sidon on the closing of “its second dump.”

Others lauded the arrest but wondered why others whose crimes were no less serious than Assir’s were not arrested. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, another pillar of the March 14 forces, tweeted Aug. 16, “How could the same apparatus that arrested Assir, despite his makeover and the precautions he took, fail to arrest the well-known killers of Hashem Salman and Nadima al-Fakhry?”

Salman was shot dead while protesting Hezbollah’s intervention in the war in Syria in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on June 10, 2013. Photos of his killers were widely circulated on social media. Fakhry was killed in the Bekaa Valley in a Nov. 16, 2014, operation that stirred great sectarian tension amid accusations that the perpetrators were well-known and reside in Hezbollah-controlled areas.

Geagea’s tweet pointed to double standards in the security services’ performance.

Director General of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim denied practicing sectarian-based justice as far as security operations are concerned. He said in a September interview with the General Security magazine, “I cannot send a criminal home and ask him to wait until a criminal balance is achieved. I cannot guarantee the arrest of six criminals of each sect.”

Assir’s arrest sent ripples through Lebanese society and pointed to a deep sectarian division and disorder in national partnerships. There may be a consensus on the rejection of Assir’s attack on the Lebanese army, but there is a wide disparity between those who demand his execution — such as the parents of the dead soldiers in Abra and Future Movement-affiliated Sara Assaf, who tweeted, “Sheikh Assir would not have emerged had it not been for Hariri’s exclusion by the March 8 camp and the March 8 media outlets’ insistence on blowing the Assir phenomenon out of proportion.”

This tweet reverberated across Arab satellite channels. In fact, Sunnis across the Arab world hold Iran and its allies responsible for the emergence of radical groups, the exclusion of moderate Sunnis such as Hariri, and the media focus on the Islamic State and radical icons such as Assir as an attempt to distract attention from Iran’s expansionist strategies across the Middle East.

In this context, Assaf told Al-Monitor, “We all reject the crime committed against the Lebanese army, but we always wonder why Assir was captured while Mustafa Badr al-Din, a Hezbollah leader, was not, knowing that the latter is accused of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Badr al-Din is wanted by international justice and an arrest warrant was issued against him.”

Assaf added, “There is a feeling that double standards are adopted in the application of laws and security, as there are areas that are still out of state control. These areas witness multiple acts of kidnapping and theft. Assir’s arrest is a good step, but what is also required is a good and transparent investigation to show the details of what happened in Abra.”

Some newspapers reported the involvement of the Resistance Brigades, a militia affiliated with Hezbollah, in these developments.

This security achievement, while universally praised, does not hide the flaws plaguing national cohesion. The fight against terrorism does not seem to be enough to unite the Lebanese and build sustainable peace.

After it was confirmed that Assir had mostly been hiding in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, where extremist organizations are expanding at the expense of the Fatah movement, the question arose of whether a Palestinian or Arab security apparatus may have informed the Lebanese authorities about Assir’s escape attempt and facilitated his arrest.

Ibrahim categorically denied this idea and said that the operation was a Lebanese effort and that “Palestinians had nothing to do with it.”

Interestingly, the Israeli chief of staff and head of intelligence spoke on behalf of the Israeli authorities, praising the operation and Lebanese security services’ ability to break through the camps thanks to their intelligence services, as these camps were lawless areas out of the Lebanese security services’ control.

For its part, Lebanese General Security did not comment extensively on the arrest. In the September issue of its monthly magazine, General Security republished a blog post by Lebanese-Israeli journalist Julie Abu Arraj, in which she noted that the Israeli authorities had praised Ibrahim for Assir's arrest. This was accompanied by a brief comment by Ibrahim, who noted: “First and foremost, this is an enemy’s testimony. … They only tackled the technical side of the operation. They did not tackle anything else.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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