Sunday, February 2, 2014

Assir's media return buoys supporters, frightens others

[Originally posted at NOW]

ABRA, Lebanon – A first-time visitor to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque complex today in Abra, east of Sidon, might never guess there were several days of intense rocket and machine gun clashes here just over seven months ago, killing 18 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldiers and around 40 gunmen loyal to the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.

The once-devastated apartment block housing the mosque, which had entire wall panels blown out when NOW saw it after the June 2013 fighting, has now been immaculately repaired and restored, a “For Rent” banner hanging from one balcony indicating that it is inhabitable once again. Long gone, of course, are the young men standing guard outside with AK-47s hanging by their sides. (Those who weren’t killed or arrested have, like Assir himself, gone into hiding.) Gone too are the heavy-duty barriers installed by the sheikh on the side-streets leading up to the mosque complex, as well as a protective metal roof constructed above the mosque’s entrance. Some new shops have opened up in the adjacent small square; others have closed down. The whole block has the eerie air of the scene of an historic and infamous crime, mopped up and painted over but still evidently raw in the memories of those who witnessed it.

Thus when NOW asked local residents Friday about their thoughts on Assir’s recent reappearance in the media, many who still supported him would only say so in lowered voices. “Inshallah (God willing) he’ll return,” murmured one adolescent worker in a bakery before returning to the oven. Others would reveal their sympathies only in roundabout or implicit ways. A few, however, remained as outspoken as ever – seeing perhaps that NOW were journalists, the driver of one passing car raised his fist out the window and shouted, “Sheikh al-Assir, God protect you!”

For such people, the reemergence of the sheikh on social media networks has evidently been a great boon. Having not used his Twitter account since August 2013, Assir surprised followers with a new message on 14 January, and has since posted over 25 times. The messages generally address current events in Lebanon and Syria, peppered with Qur’anic citations and the derogatory references to “Safavids” (Shiites and/or Persians) and “Hizb al-Lat” (a pun on “Hezbollah” implying idolatry) that are the hallmark of hardline Sunni Islamism. On Syria, he sarcastically says the siege of the Yarmouk camp is the “true picture of the support of Iran and [Hezbollah] and Assad for the Palestinians and their cause,” and laments that “the world” cares more about “the mujahideen” in Syria than the regime’s “planes dropping barrel bombs, and chemical weapons, and slaughter with knives.” He also calls for the release of kidnapped Christian priests and nuns, “[even though] many Christian clergymen and politicians stood with Assad and justified his criminality against our people.” On Lebanon, he says the “main reason” for the recent wave of explosions is “[Hezbollah’s] criminality in Syria,” defending March 14, the Future Movement, and President Michel Suleiman from accusations of responsibility. At the same time, he accuses Future leader MP Saad Hariri of providing “cover” for the continuing presence of the army (labeled a “tool” of Hezbollah) in Abra, and mocks March 14’s recently-launched “civil resistance” campaign, the “first result” of which was “the approval of a unity cabinet with [Hezbollah] covering their criminality in Lebanon and Syria.”

As before, it is this posture as an uncompromising defender of “the Sunni people” (Ahl al-Sunna) that appeals to Assir’s supporters. “[Some] still say they don’t feel secure anymore [after his disappearance],” a butcher near the mosque told NOW. “They say he used to protect this area.”

Yet the violent legacy of his movement has also left many in the neighborhood fearful of his reemergence, particularly in the wake of rumors tying him to extremist groups. A Twitter account said to belong to one of his wives wrote on 16 January that efforts were underway to make Assir the head of the Lebanese branch of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda offshoot that has claimed two deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon* since the announcement of its formation in December 2013 and is believed to have around 170 fighters based in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Also in December, one LAF soldier was killed and three wounded in dual attacks on army checkpoints in Sidon, including one close to Assir’s mosque. And on Friday, concerns of possible further attacks in Sidon, including car bombings, prompted authorities to implement new security measures in the city.

“He could be affiliated with any extremist group, in my opinion, because the people who don’t know God tend to bond together. […] May God take his soul,” said a baker near the mosque (at which point his younger apprentice indignantly retorted, “May God protect him!”).

“Most of us were relieved when Assir left, as though a rock were lifted off our chests,” said the manager of a nearby money transfer outlet. “I can’t tell what his possible affiliations are, but I fear he’s affiliated to a group that is worse than Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, like Al-Qaeda itself.”

“His return to the media spotlight definitely caused tension, because we here still have a feeling that things aren’t okay and something is being prepared,” the manager told NOW. “His supporters still show up at the mosque, which is why I have a feeling something might happen, especially after his latest statements.”

All interviewees requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

* Since the time of publication, Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed a third suicide bombing, killing 4 in Hermel.

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