Exclusive: The confessions of Ahmad al-Assir
An exhausted Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir arrived at the military court in the Lebanese capital Beirut last Tuesday, after undergoing two lengthy interrogations with the Army Intelligence and the General Security Directorate, after his arrest on 15 August.
Al-Araby al-Jadeed obtained the transcript of al-Assir's interrogation by Army Intelligence that took custody of al-Assir on 19 August from the General Security Directorate "based on the instructions of the military prosecution."
The 34-page transcript dated 22 August 2015 and signed by al-Assir also contains six pages of questioning directed at al-Mutasim Billah Abdul Rahman al-Shami and Khaled Mohammad Awzar, who were charged with "undermining the state" and "assaulting citizens" in addition to harbouring and transporting al-Assir and transporting weapons and explosives for him.
The transcript, numbered 49241, reveals al-Assir's candid answers to 11 questions put to him by the military investigator.
Dividing al-Assir's security legacy
The interrogation took place at the Lebanese Ministry of Defence in northern Beirut and focused on al-Assir's role in the battle of Abra between al-Assir's armed group and the Lebanese army in June 2013. This occured after an altercation between al-Assir's supporters and an army checkpoint close to Bilal bin Rabah mosque in the Abra neighbourhood of Sidon, which al-Assir had transformed into a security zone.
The interrogation also touches on al-Assir's involvement in military developments that were taking place in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr and the surrounding areas, however it does not deal with the period since al-Assir escaped the battle of Abra until he was arrested in August.
According to information obtained by al-Araby al-Jadeed, al-Assir's case is being shared between army intelligence and the General Security Directorate.
After confirming al-Assir's physical state of health (the interrogator mentioned he was fit enough to serve a prison sentence), al-Assir was questioned about his personal life and the ideological changes that transformed him into the head of an armed group that "fought the Lebanese army, resulting in the martyrdom and injury of a number of soldiers, in addition to the death of civilians."
The interrogation also dealt with al-Assir's relationship with Fadl Shamandar, known as Fadl Shaker, and how he left Abra during the battle and arrived at "the house of Sheikh Salem al-Rifai in Tripoli, northern Lebanon," according to al-Assir's confession.
|Pages from the confessions file|
From preaching to war
Al-Assir, who is in his 50s pointed to "the assassination of the martyr Rafic Hariri" and "the start of the Syrian revolution" and his support for it as pivotal moments in his life that transformed him into a politicised preacher and then the head of an armed group.
The demonstration which al-Assir called for, in the Abra mosque in 2011 - in which 700 people took part according to al-Assir - and his fatwa calling on Sunnis in Lebanon to wage jihad in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr are important moments in his trajectory.
The interrogation also included details of the organisational structure of al-Assir's followers. According to al-Assir, they "were divided into 20 groups of 7 religious preachers and then became military groups, each containing some 300 youths who joined the Free Resistance Brigades that I formed after al-Qusayr fell into the hands of the Syrian army and Hizballah in 2012."
Al-Assir's armed group was composed of a shura council, a military division, security and military commanders of the Free Resistance Brigades, a personal security official, a training official and a person in charge of the group's weapons and ammunitions depot.
Over 50 people belonging to these divisions were mentioned in the transcript, including al-Assir's three sons, Abdul Rahman, Omar and Mohammad, as well as Fadi al-Sousi the group's security and military official who was killed in Syria in 2014.
According to al-Assir's statements, his group only contained 5 foreign fighters, including one Syrian who was known as "Kimawi" (chemical) due to his bomb making abilities. Al-Assir admitted to sending for him from Syria "to train a number of the group's members on making and using explosives."
| I gave al-Salis $10,000 for jihad purposes and fired a machine gun towards a Syrian army position.
During the interrogation, al-Assir denied that he was behind the violent clashes that took place in Abra, saying that al-Sousi (another Lebanese Jihadi Salafist) was the military commander and the person who "laid the plans to defend" the security zone around the mosque.
Questioned on how his armed group was funded, trained and armed, Al-Assir replied that two groups "were sent to train in the Syrian village of Jousiya, close to the Lebanese border and to take part in fighting in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, in coordination with the Syrian Ahmad Saif al-Din, who was known as al-Salis."
Al-Salis was kidnapped a few months ago in the Lebanese town of Arsal on the Lebanese border with Syria, by militants belonging to the Islamic State group (IS) due to disagreements with the group.
Al-Assir pointed out that the reason behind sending the two groups was "for combat training and to fight the Syrian army in al-Qusayr, however the first group was not able to reach al-Qusayr, while Sheikh Ahmad al-Hariri and Musab Qaddoura from the second group sustained injuries to their legs due to Syrian army shelling of the area."
|Fighting the army was not planned but happened due to the developments around the mosque
Al-Assir admitted to visiting the outskirts of al-Qusayr and "inspecting the battlefields while the first group was in Jousiya. I gave al-Salis $10,000 for jihad purposes and fired a machine gun towards a Syrian army position in the area then returned to Arsal after less than 24 hours with the assistance of Muhsin al-Shaaban."
Shabaan also helped secure a "location to train my supporters in Arsal, where two groups of ten youths were trained before we moved the training location to an area close to the mosque in Abra due to the difficulty in reaching the area [in Arsal]."
All of the groups that visited Jousiya and Arsal took part in fighting the Lebanese army in the battled of Abra, however al-Assir stressed that "fighting the army was not planned but happened due to the developments around the mosque."
A plot against him
Clashes in 2012 between his supporters and Hizballah affiliats Saraya al-Muqawama as well as clashes that took place before the Abra incidents, were behind his decision to
|I felt that something was being prepared against me
order al-Sousi to "mobilise the groups and call members through text messages and distribute them according to the defensive plan."
'I did not order the targeting of the army'
According to al-Assir, he had a positive relationship with the army. During the Abra incident, al-Assir requested that a checkpoint be moved to ease the movement of worshippers; something that the army granted.
This good relationship did not do much to quell his fears of a conspiracy to trap him. Al-Assir described how he headed two meetings, one for the Shura Council before the "battle of the apartments" and a follow up meeting for the "military board."
|Those present unanimously decided on self-defence and fighting the army in the event it tried to enter the security zone to eliminate [our] group
He said: "The reason for the meeting was my feeling that something was being plotted to trap me, so I mentioned to the gathering of nearly 30 people how to deal with the Lebanese Army, in case any group worked on creating a conflict between us, or the army decided to get rid of the al-Assir phenomenon as a result of an action or a fabrication planned by a group (Hizballah). After the consultation, those present unanimously decided on self-defence and fighting the army in the event it tried to enter the security zone to eliminate [our] group and not to surrender to it."
Al-Assir denied the existence of any prior intention to fight the army in his answer to a question by the interrogator: "I told you honestly that there was no intention to fight the Lebanese Army, except to fight against it in the event it tried to enter the security zone in Abra and arrest or eliminate the group."
When the military investigator confronted him with video recordings from surveillance cameras from the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Abra that were confiscated by the army after the battle and which he told him contained Assir's orders to target a Lebanese military armoured vehicle, Assir denied that by saying: "I gave the orders to target all sources of fire that were aimed at the mosque and the Army was one of them along with shooting that came from apartments that faced the mosque and from the Haret Saida side."
|[My] relationship with Fadl Shaker was cut after we separated during the Abra battle.
- Ahmad al-Assir
To flee or not to flee?
Fadl Shaker, one of the most prominent Arabs to join an armed group in Lebanon appears to have offered al-Assir an opportunity to leave the besieged mosque. However al-Assir states that he flatly refused this offer, stating he would rather die in the mosque.
Ironically, an hour later, (as per the transcript), al-Assir then followed him with his two wives, and sent them back to their parents. He shaved off his beard and made his way to Tripoli to the house of a prominent Sunni scholar.
The relationship with Fadl Shaker
Fadl Shaker, a hugely successful Arabic pop singer (referred to in the interrogation by his original name Fadl Shamandar) was causing a stir in the region due to his much publicised involvement with armed groups in Lebanon.
A relationship developed between the two which was commented on by local media and prompted a line of questioning (as per the transcript). Answering a general question about the relationship, al-Assir said that his "relationship with Fadl Shaker was cut after we separated during the Abra battle."
It also appears that the relationship was not that deep. Apparently, al-Assir was looking for a level of discpline and commitment that the pop-star turned salafist did not exhibit. According to al-Assir, he had asked Shaker to leave the vicinity of the mosque weeks before the violence that took place. The reason for this being that Shaker had purchased a nearby apartment for himself and rented basement parking spaces and apartments for his group. This apparent spoiling of the men caused problems in the area between Shaker's undisciplined men and civilians in the area, particularly after armed men were deployed around the mosque.
Nevertheless, there appears to have been some kind of understanding between the two, as al-Assir also claims that Shaker promised him not to "make any move without consulting me."