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Ahmad al-Assir's arrest in Lebanon raises many questions Open in fullscreen

Karim Traboulsi

Ahmad al-Assir's arrest in Lebanon raises many questions

Wife of Ahmad al-Assir led a protest in Saida calling for his release [MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 17 August, 2015

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One of the most enigmatic figures in Lebanese politics since 2012 was wanted radical cleric Ahmad al-Assir. His arrest at Beirut airport answers as many questions as it raises.

On August 15, Ahmad al-Assir was arrested at Beirut's international airport after a two-year manhunt, as he tried to flee to Nigeria via Cairo on a fake Palestinian travel document.

He had changed his name to Khaled al-Abassi and altered his appearance dramatically to - unsuccessfully - trick the security services.

Outside the circle of a cultish minority of supporters in the Sunni Muslim community of Saida, southern Lebanon, and the Salafist-Jihadist scene in the country, Ahmad al-Assir has been a much-reviled figure.

He has also been often mocked by the Lebanese for his stunts and unconventional combination of populism and radicalism. That is, until he ordered his supporters to open fire at the Lebanese army in Abra, a suburb of Saida, in June 2013.

Assir's Quixotic attack on the Lebanese army, one of the most respected institutions in Lebanon, claimed the lives of 18 soldiers and 40 Assir supporters. Over 100 soldiers were wounded.
He changed his name to Khaled al-Abassi and altered his appearance to trick the security services

Eventually, the army seized the mosque complex controlled by Assir shortly after he fled the premises.

Assir and many of his lieutenants, including his most famous disciple pop singer-turned-jihadist Fadl Shaker, went into hiding afterwards, most likely disappearing in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh near Saida. The camp is off-limits for the Lebanese government.

While in hiding, Assir would release sporadic recordings, often urging Sunnis to defect from the army that he saw as Hizballah's ally, though to little effect.

The Assir Phenomenon

The unlikely rise of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to stardom and then infamy took place in a time of vacuum in Sunni leadership.

The leader of the mainstream Sunni community Saad Hariri, head of the largest block in parliament and son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had been ousted from power by Hizballah and its allies. Security threats then forced Hariri to go into self-imposed exile from which he is yet to return.

The Sunni power vacuum was partially filled by anti-Hizballah Sunni extremists. The revolution in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Hizballah, was a great boost for their cause, mainly revolving around Sunni victimhood.

There were also allegations that these were funded by Sunni powers as counterweight to Hizballah.

But Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir also captured the spotlight because he knew how to pander to the sensationalist local media.

He wanted to be the Sunni answer to Hizballah's charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah, and soon became a guest on local television talk-shows.

His fiery rhetoric that spared no one from criticism, and his theatrics - including snowboarding, playing football and cycling in public - caught the media's attention for a while.


The 'emir of IS' in Lebanon

Before the clashes in Abra, Assir was explicitly supportive of the rebels in Syria, particularly Islamist factions. He even organised a public campaign for people to sign up to join the "jihad" there.

After he became a fugitive, there were conflicting rumours regarding which jihadist faction he supported in Syria, especially in the aftermath of the split between al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS).

Initially, Assir's supporters fought in the ranks of al-Nusra Front, especially in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon. However, in January 2015, local and regional press reported that Assir was the top candidate for the post of "emir of IS" in Lebanon.
The radical cleric's stunts - including snowboarding, playing football and cycling in public - caught the media's attention

He had apparently switched his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "after conducting a self-review."

Closure

According to Lebanese State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir will face a public trial to be held at the Military Court. Local newspapers on Monday said the first hearing could be held as soon as Tuesday.

There is already an indictment against Assir issued by the military investigative judge, on charges related to terrorism and murdering Lebanese soldiers.

Assir's arrest could bring some closure to the families of his victims and the Lebanese public opinion.

Politicians and ordinary people in Lebanon alike have hailed his arrest, including on social media. A somewhat morbid hashtag in Arabic is even asking twitter users to #Propose_a_sentence_for_Assir.

Meanwhile, he is proving to be a treasure trove of information for Lebanese law enforcement agencies, which have already arrested a number of his wanted associates and supporters since his arrest.

However, Assir's arrest is likely to delay closure for the families of his detained supporters, who were hoping their relatives, many of whom are yet to face trial, would receive sentences or allowed to go if found innocent of wrongdoing.

Implications

Both sides of the Lebanese political divide are likely to breathe a sigh of relief for the capture of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.

The pro-Hizballah camp will be getting rid of a raucous opponent they believe was inflaming sectarian sentiment against Shias and mobilising Sunnis to fight Hizballah and the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, some in the anti-Hizballah camp, particularly the Future Movement, will be pleased to see the back of a rival who was chipping away at their support in the fringes of the Sunni community, especially among the Salafist constituency.

Yet many are probably hoping Assir's public trial will not bring them embarrassment given his history, the secrets he may be carrying about who was funding him and the sympathy he might still command among certain segments in Lebanon.

Many will also be holding their breath, amid reports he has been busy creating militant cells and planning attacks, according to unverified confessions by one of his captured aides.

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