Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Sunni Tragedy/ North Lebanon by Bernard Rougier

Lebanese Sunni militants of “Ansar”, supporters of the anti-Syrian opposition pose while securing an alley in the neighborhood of Baba al-Tabbaneh in the coastal city of Tripoli north of Lebanon on Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East; Northern Lebanon from Al-Qaeda to ISIS by Bernard Rougier

[ This is a dense book, filled with characters and events. I will present  excerpts  in the following order: first the scene in North Lebanon, focusing on Tripoli ;then the author’s methodological essay followed by a combination of introductory and  concluding remarks. Finally I will reproduce select passages that provide unusual insights into his topic.]

The Disenfranchised Region

Today, the North is the poorest region of Lebanon. It’s population  comprises 21% of the Lebanon population, yet includes 38% of the ‘poor population’ and 46% of the  ‘extremely poor population,” a larger proportion than any other governorate (region). The city of Tripoli and the Akkar and Miniyeh regions are especially poor, with infant mortality rates far above those of Beirut. Deteriorating economic conditions have coincided with social and cultural regression. Tripoli lost any significant Christian population after the civil war [1975-1990]. The ‘contented modernity’ of the 1960s, which the historian Khaled Ziyadeh described in his ‘urban biography’ of the city, gave way to a constellation of urban islands, enclaves increasingly withdrawn from each other and increasingly parochial. The economist Charbel Nahas evoked several instances  of “spatial trauma” to explain the city’s geographic evolution and its shrinking sphere of influence. After 1976, the civil war’s rifts deprived Tripoli of its trade relations with Christian areas, including Zghorta, Bsharre, and Batrun. During the civil war, these areas were directly connected to Beirut via a road network designed to bypass Tripoli. On the coastal road from the capital to Tripoli, militia checkpoints discouraged trade flows, leaving the ill-named “Capital of the North’ on its own to bear the pressure of an influx of migrants from the furthest villages of its mountainous hinterland. Finally, the city suffered from the opening of the Lebanese economy to the Syrian market. Flooded with cheap goods and labor, it was unwillingly integrated ‘into a partial regional market, different from the national market in terms of prices.’ This led to the ‘decline of craftsmanship and ‘industry’ in the city, as well as to a ‘fall in agricultural investment and revenue.’

Tripoli’s present-day social and physical geography bears witness to that period. The avenue that crosses the city from north to south, skirting around al-Tell square, divides Tripoli into two urban segments: the wealthy and the middle class live in the west, the poor inhabit the east. Following the flood of the Abu Ali river in 1955, the poor rural population poured into the historic city center, which had housed the administrative of the Ottoman vilayet (province) of Trablus al Sham, with its Mamluk mosques, khans and markets, and stately French and Ottoman buildings. The ancient olive groves of Qubbeh and Abu Samra sheltered the residents of the old town when the fled the flood; the more affluence residents moved out and settled on the western side of the city. In the early 70s, these two neighborhoods underwent a similar phase of impoverishment, and soon afterward, the civil wat accelerated their economic deterioration. For example, the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh, with over 50,000 inhabitants, has the chiaroscuro of a medieval city – towering buildings, crowded homes (seven people per household on average), and unsanitary, damp, dark apartments, often at risk of collapse. In 2008, 60% of the neighborhood’s families lived below the ‘extreme poverty ‘ threshold ($2 a day per person or less).

This ‘Tripoli of the poor’ connects to the rural areas of Akkar and Dinniyeh, but it has few links with the western side of the city, built around the broad avenues that link al-Tell Square and the al-Mina neighborhood on the seafront.  It is the former district, along with its geographical extensions into the countryside, that provided a setting for the process of militant mobilization analyzed in the last four chapters of this book. In fact, the dynamics of ‘enclosure’ underscored by geographers and urban planning experts have not prevented this area from forming connections within the region and across the world. There was a time when Tripoli envisioned itself as a Arab version of modernity, when it welcomed, for example, the bold projects of avant-garde Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who designed its international fairground. The war put an end to those progressive dreams. Now it is a broken town, fragmented into multiple militant spheres, capturing, in way, a larger process that is going on across the Levant.

(this sites the twin bombings of 2013)


This book is an augmented and updated version of my Oumma en fragments ( A Fragmented Umma) published in French in 2011 at the Presses Universitaires de France. The two new chapters have been added, as well as other hitherto unpublished material. It is the result of many years of research. My first contact with North Lebanon was in the late 1990s. At the time I was studying the development of a jihadi identity in the Ayn al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp for my doctoral dissertation. Relations between the camp sheikhs and religious figures in Tripoli later orientated me towards the unexplored field of religious circles in North Lebanon. While teaching political science in French Universities, I devoted the time between school sessions to investigating the various “Sunni worlds” from a most propitious vantage point – the city of Tripoli and its environs. On each subsequent trip, I tried to preserve the ties made in the previous years and to further broaden my circle of relations. I collected the first data at the beginning of the 2000s and complete fieldwork in May 2014. This extended period of research was critical, for it enabled me to gain the trust of my various sources, and to familiarizer myself with the factors shaping their particular social, political, and economic environments. Repeated trips to Tripoli made it possible to analyze the shift in the positions of different actors that took place as the regional situation evolved and to understand, from within, the constant negotiation between beliefs and opportunism, between strategy and tactics, and between risk-taking and preservation. To account for the competition of influence that occurs between different levels of decision-making, I tried to consider individuals of different social backgrounds, searching out the mosque preacher and the former militant, the local notable and the petty criminal, the minister and the local security officers.

Among my various institutional interlocutors, I met several times with Wissam al-Hassan, the former head of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). His able investigations played an important role in uncovering the murderous network behind the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, making it possible for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment incriminating members of Hezbollah. Despite the numerous precautions he took, Wissam al-Hassan was himself assassinated in 2012 in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh in East Beirut. There is no doubt he tried to influence my analysis of regional events in general, and in North Lebanon in particular – such is the nature of any interview between a researcher and a leading actor. It is part of a researcher’s job to understand the factors that might lead such an actors to assume a particular stance in his account of  events. Nonetheless, al-Hassan had no doubts as to the sincerity of the religious figures he dealt with. When asked if he trusted the Salafi sheiks of the North, his answer was “No!” – illustrating the complexity of power relations within the multi-faceted and divided Sunni world that the contradictions of the North encapsulate. In his windowless office at the ISF, he continuously received phone calls soliciting a favor or an intervention, each time engaging his phenomenal memory so as to identify the possible plan and the beneficiary of such an intervention.

In addition to Wissam al-Hassan,any people gave me their trust (or part of it.) Like al-Hassan, some were assassinated, Kamal Madhat, representative of Mahmud Abbas in Lebanon, among them. On the other side of the regional political spectrum is Sheik Sa’ad al-Din al-Ghiyyeh, himself at the crossroads of Jihadi Islamism and collaboration with the Syrian intelligence services, who was assassinated shortly before this book went to press. As I was recommended to him by Rif’at Eid, Ali’s son and the new chief of the Alawite community in Ba’al Mohsen, Ghiyyeh welcomed me several times into his home in the Qubbeh neighborhood, and provided increasingly dramatic revelations about his intersecting relationships with the heads of Syrian intelligence and Syrian jihadi militants. As a combatant who trained in Abu Nidal’s group in the late 1980s, as a jihadi volunteer in Iraq with Zarqawi in 2003, and with close ties to the Alawite community of Ba’al  Mohsen (his mother’s denomination), the ‘sheikh’ was clearly a man of action, but he was also a seasoned adventurer in the arena of politics. Fearing for his safety (and rightly so), he always carried a miniature revolver in the pocket of his three-piece suit. During one of our last meetings, he claimed he wanted to submit for approval to his Syrian contacts a “made in the Iranian embassy in Damascus’ plan that would make him the leaders of Hezbollah in Northern Lebanon. In 2011, with no explanation, he abruptly put an end to our meetings. I never knew if he took this decision on his own, or if his superiors instructed him to stop talking to me out of fear of his volubility.

I was immersed in the work that would serve this book not only time-wise, but geographically as well. In Australia, I made new connections and studied transnational solidarity networks, without which my fieldwork in Lebanon would have been unintelligible. The material for this book encompasses a broad array of documentary sources – hundreds of interviews, sermons, flyers, and legal documents. Chapter 1 in particular is informed by legal documents supplied by lawyers acquainted with the “McDonald’s network’ affair [bombings of McD’s restaurants in 2002] – over one hundreds handwritten pages recording the ‘confessions’ of arrested persons. I had access to part of the report of the prosecutor investigating the Fatah al-Islam* affair, after the arrests of suspects in the camp previous to the establishment of the group. Wissam al-Hassan had also the writing of a memoir entitled Fatah al-Islam: From the Cradle to the Grave, a few pages of which he let me read during an interview in the summer of 2008.  On the other side, I also received from Hamas militants testimonials by the families of the groups fighters, which underlined the presumed responsibility of those close to Hariri in North Lebanon. Thanks to the sum of knowledge accumulated patiently over the years, I was able to make both an external and internal critique of these various documents. As the French historian Antoine Prost writes, “One must first be an historian to make a critique of a document, since in essence, it means confronting that document with everything one already knows about the subject it deals with, the place and the time it concerns.”

Such a critique thus demanded a certain number of methodological precautions so as to take possible distortions into account: the data obtained may have been extracted under duress, with the result  that the ‘testimonies’ of the accused persons are a priori to be regarded with caution unless they are confirmed by other sources or, at least, proved consistent with the overall narrative framework that emerged from the questioning. Far from any normative judgment judgment of one person or another’s responsibility, I was above all concerned with trying to discern, in concrete terms, how a jihadi group had constituted itself, and gave priority to understanding the conditions that made possible the successive play of encounters between individuals of different backgrounds and professional pathways. The main preoccupation of the officials in charge of the inquiry, by contrast, was to establish the degree of responsibility of persons directly involved in carrying out terrorist acts. My work as a researcher was to recreate a part of the social, political, and religious universe, so as to shed light on the circumstances underlying the creation of a terrorist network in North Lebanon, which required a very different vernacular.

It will up to the reader to judge whether the interpretation given here reflects the respect for objective criteria that has always guided this research. Contrary to postmodern epistemology, the author of these lines believes that social reality exists, and that it is possible to objectively reconstruct the perceptions that actors have of it at diverse moments of their actions.

These documents, like the interviews with the lawyers of the accused, are nonetheless of exceptional value. They provide wealth of information and detail, once one has calibrated the weight of the private code that saturates the text with its own ‘language game.” Pieced together, these documents reveal a progression of events that enable one to follow, over roughly a decade, the evolution of different categories of actors that ‘make’ Middle Eastern politics today.

 Rather than impose the very broad and imprecise category of “Islamism’ on the communal and regional divisions within North Lebanon, we have forged the three Weberian-inspired ideal types – the muqwatil (local combatant), the muqawim (resistance fighter), and the mujahid (jihadi) – that enable us to get a better grasp of the situation.

The 1978 Iranian revolution promoted the muqawim as a representative of revolutionary, third world Islam aiming to oust western influence in the region. The muqawim built a power system linking Tehran to the eastern Mediterranean, taking as his Lebanese representatives the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah. In concert  with the Pasdaran  (The Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria since January 2012 in defense of the Assad regime.

The mujahid emerged from the Afghan jihad of the 1980s that attempted to build a power base in Greater Syria. Through informal networks, he claims to defend the whole Islamic community (umma) against the West and secular Muslims. Beyond the  al-Qaeda organization, the mujahid is currently exploiting the Syrian civil war to build an underground organization and base of power.

Finally, the muqatil symbolizes an attitude of local defiance towards external aggression. He lacks a sophisticated ideology, drawing his identity instead from his concrete environment and conceptualizing his fight as against an alien intruder. While the muqawim and the mujahid attempt to impose their reading of religion on other Muslims by force, this defining themselves as Islamic militants, the fighter assumes an Islamic or non-Islamic outlook depending upon his political socialization and preferences.

These categories ae only meant to function as an aid in understanding the political reality of the Arab Middle East. Obviously, they do not correspond to the more complex realty on the ground, where individuals and groups may even pass from one form to another as shifting circumstances dictate.

*FAI (Fatah al-Islam) Name of the jihadi organization proclaimed by its leader, Shaker al-Absi, on November 26, 2006, in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al Bared, neat Tripoli. The organizations core is made up of former Zarqawi associates present in Iraq a few months before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In late 2005, it refocused its activities on Lebanon, taking control of the infrastructure (training camps, offices, buildings) left behind by the Damascus-based Palestinian organization Fatah al-Intifada, whose leaders, expelled from the PLO in 1983, had formed a special relationship with the Syrian intelligence services. The organization represented a grave threat to the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition. The group’s true aim was to shatter the Sunni, anti-Syrian confessional movement from within by turning its own militants against the Hariri family –accused of betraying Islam by allying himself with the West. A vicious war between this jihadi militia and the Lebanese army ensued.

 A Sunni Tragedy

When Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, the county’s North fell under the firm grip of the Syrian imperium. For the ensuing fifteen years it remained essentially marginalized from both national and regional  politics. However, with the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent end of the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, the North has become an arena in which various forces struggle to impose hegemony over Sunni political and religious expression.

Backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, Rafiq’s son, Sa’ad al- Hariri, used his seat in Beirut to construct and lead a broad anti-Assad coalition and champion Lebanon’s sovereignty. This bloc became the March 14th Movement, names after the date of a mass demonstration against the Syrian regime that took place in downtown Beirut on that date in 2005. His opponents were Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its local allies, including the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah – named  March 8th  after the date of an earlier demonstration reaffirming Lebanese solidarity with the Syrian regime and the goal of “Resistance’ against Israel.

But al-Hariri and his allies also confronted a number of amorphous Sunni religious networks that were vying to become the new leaders of Lebanon’s Sunni community. The fact that all of these forces had ties with  political power bases or religious hubs outside Lebanon – political bureaus in Riyad, Damascus, or Tehran; religious centers in Medina or Mecca; Iraq  militant networks in al-Anbar; charities in Doha; even cells meeting in mosque basements in Copenhagen and Sydney – turned North Lebanon into a cauldron in which competing and often irreconcilable regional and transnational interests clashed.

During this period, jihadism emerged and held the ground against a host of foes. At first it took the form of an underground network, then evolved into an armed movement that threatened to upset the internal equilibrium of the Sunni community. North Lebanon thus offers the first example of how jihadism, revolutionary by nature, contrived to seize control of the Sunni community by sidelining its political elite and frightening its middle classes.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in the northern cities of Tripoli, Akkar, and Dinniyeh.

on this map the Syrian City of Homs is just a few kilometers from the north end of lake Oattinah

Volunteers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also sought safe haven, but quickly came to realize that they would have to remain underground if they were to escape the reach of the Syrian regime’s local allies. At the end of 2013, Islamist rebels from the Syrian “Islamic Front, as well as radical jihadis from Jabhat al Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) and from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), followed the FSA fighters to North Lebanon. Hezbollah’s massive intervention in the Syrian civil war starting from 2012, combined with the influx of Syrian refugees in North Lebanon, rendered the border between Lebanon and Syria more and more irrelevant, which in turn facilitated the enrollment of young Lebanese into ISIS’s so-called caliphate.

What makes North Lebanon such an interesting and troubling setting is what it lacks, or only weakly possesses. It is not an intellectual hub generating new political rhetoric and local innovation. The region is instead a locus of hybridization, a crucible for multiple influences, and a cradle for mobilization –factors which give it an exceptional relevance. The wealth of the region’s external connections  means that it is not a passive recipient of influences, for these connections run in both directions. The actors who occupy this space are not only at the receiving end of these influences, but also themselves influence a range of external communities. North Lebanon is an arena in which a plethora of militant and political agendas intersect. At stake is the ability of Sunni Islam in the Levant to create a unified civilian leadership in a highly fragmented political and religious environment. This region has been particularly important to the Sunni community since the end of the civil war, when the influence of Sunni notables who had previously  enjoyed local powerbases in the cities of Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli precipitously decline. The dominant demographic is Sunni, but this observation conceals more. The governorate of North Lebanon, whether we are speaking of its urban center, the city of Tripoli, or its rural and mountainous areas, the sub-districts of Akkar and Dinjniyeh, is are heterogeneous spaces: consider the many Christian villages in Akkar, the proximity of the Maronite town of Zghorta; and the existence of the Alawite minority neighborhood of Ba’al Mohsen. This relative confessional and political diversity results in an internal division of space, with militarization arising inmixed areas where invisible borders now separate Sunni villages controlled by Salafi militants from Alawite villages under the sway of militias backed by the Syrian regime.

Sunni elites in the Levant are threatened by the diffusion of Islamist norms that directly undermine their political legitimacy. As much as Islamist has restructured Shi’a communities that were once divided and dominated by others in Iraq and Lebanon, it has had the opposite effect of de-structuring the Sunni communities of Bilad al-Sham. The reason for this lies with the fact that Shi’a Islamism managed to domesticate a state apparatus in Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution, whereas Sunni radical; Islamism rejected the state system entirely – whether regional or international – and created its own mythology during the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s

In the Levant, perhaps more than elsewhere, events confirm the Hegelian notion according to which only a community able to fight retains the freedom to make its own decisions. The problem is that most of the Sunni militants ready to fight and to die are doing so in the name of jihad “for God’s sake”. By definition, jihadism cannot find accommodation within an existing political framework. Jihadism is the enemy of the modern secular state. The only way it can get beyond this irresolvable  internal contradiction is by manufacturer a political framework of its own – hence the proclamation of an alleged Islamic State straddling Iraq and Syria. Likewise, the jihadi ideologues preferred means of imposing hegemony over the Sunni community is to placed that community in a relationship of permanent conflict with the Shi’ites. The establishment of an Islamic State from Mosul to Tripoli is also the only way to avoid becoming a powerless minority in Iraq and Lebanon. Crushed jointly by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, rendered defenseless by the West’s indecision, the Syrian and Lebanese aspiration to freedom has evolved into a jihadist nightmare.

Jihadi groups are also exploiting a specifically Sunni social revolution that sees young men – little educated and socially marginalized- managing to become local chiefs, community leaders, and religious judges. Jihadi values give them the means to overturn social hierarchies, for inherent in the jihadi ideology is virtually permanent mobilization in defense of Islam against its man enemies. This radicalization may turn into the death knell for the political  zu’ama* in the Sunni milieu, once youths are no longer willing to serve as cannon fodder for the political ambitions of others that bring them no benefit.

In the context where forty years of dictatorship has deprived Sunni society of memories of its urban political history, the effort for military emancipation has been hard pressed to find political and institutional expression. Without Western support but with an abundance of funding from the Gulf countries, those who continue fighting in the ruins of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus are prepared to weather the horrors of enemy bombings and to die in God’s  name. Thus, the continuation of the war reinforces the territorial and ideological disintegration of the community. The longer the struggle goes on, the more it consolidates value systems incompatible with an enduring political community. In such conditions, Sunni elites will find it more difficult still to reconstitute the political memory of their community and incorporate it into a national framework reconciling liberalism and Arab identity.

* The Lebanese political system is characterised by a patron-client system, that is: a system of personal ties between a political leader called za’im (plural zu’ama) and the voter. The za’im provides services for the client in exchange for political support. These services can consist of getting them a telephone connection or a job, a promotion or protection from the police. The zu’ama were often members of families of landowners like the Karami family (Sunnis from Tripoli) or at least families that were always represented in parliament.


The External Provider: The Role of Bilal Khaz’al
Born in Tripoli in 1970, Khaz’al was raised by his grandmother and aunt, as his parents lived in Australia. He spent part of his adolescent years as a militant in the branch of the Tawhid Movement* that Hashem Minqara controlled in the al-Mina district. At the time, young recruits were initiated into Islam through reading Sayyid  Qutb’s ( founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) texts. In 1985, the Syrian army’s invasion of the city forced the family into permanent exile in Australia.

There young Bilal lived in the Lakemba district, a southwest suburb of Sydney. The main street offers the casual visitor several miles of “Little Lebanon, with Arabic shop signs, a number of Lebanese cafes and restaurants, and several Islamic bookshops. The religious buildings of the district chronicle successive waves of immigration that have formed multiple strata in this neighborhood where human geography recreates invisible borders similar to those inside Lebanon, the source of all the immigrants. Migration to Australia accelerated remarkably after the start of the civil war, with the number of Lebanese born in Australia doubling after 1975. In the 1980s, a final wave consisted mainly of Sunnis from Tripoli or its surrounding areas. Most of these immigrants lacked both skills and resources. Khaz’al, still an adolescent when he arrived, had only completed a primary school education. He began religious studies in the Lakemba mosque, established in 19778 on the outskirts of Lakemba.

Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali was his teacher. Born in 1941 in Upper Egypt and trained by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh al-Hilali had arrived in Australia from Lebanon in 1982, four years before his young student. Asa ember of the University of al-Azhar’s mission in Lebanon (which retreated to Tripoli after the Israeli invasion of June 1982), he had taken part in the foundation of the Tawhid Movement. Soon after his arrival in Sydney, a group of worshippers from the Lakemba mosque encouraged him to stand for election as Sheikh of the mosque, in hopes of ousting the incumbent, Ahmad Zayudan, who was close to the Kata’ib Christian party and had the local Iraqi Ba’athist  party’s support. Representatives of the Kata’ib party in Sydney, worried about al-Halili’s influence, tried to have him deported by the federal government but the move only consolidated the Sheikh’s religious legitimacy.

Al-Halili’s election marked a turning point in the way Lebanese immigrants organized and defined themselves in Australia. For the Sunnis, religion began to take on greater importance than one’s village or origin, the identity marker that mattered the most to earlier generations of immigrants. This of religious criteria of identification intrinsically implied the labeling and rejection of non-Sunni Lebanese as alien to the group. In addition this allowed religious elites to take advantage of a framework in which they could directly negotiate with national and local government representatives. These representatives had become convinced since the 1970s that a ‘multiculturalist’ policy towards religious and ethnic minorities was beneficial. Being accustomed to the Lebanese political scene, which was structured by the subtle linguistic codes of intercommunal dynamics, these new religious elites had no trouble mastering the discourse of ‘interethnic harmony’ in their dealings with Australians, yet so no contradiction between this mode of political action and their Islamist orientation.

Young Bilal’s poor English prevented him from continuing his studies, and he took a job as a baggage handler for  Qantas. IN doing so, he managed to avoid some of the social problems faced by the ‘third wave’ of Lebanese immigrants which in the 1990s included unemployment for over a third of the working age population. Those who had recently arrives were poorly integrated into Australian society and survived largely on welfare benefits. With an average of four to six children per household, Muslim families had the highest birthrate in the country at the time. Khaz’al;, on the other hand, was integrated both socially and economically. He had little reason to embrace an Australian cultural model that inflated the meaning and value of the esthetic, erotic and athletic aspects of the body, since such an ethic ran counter to the strict teachings he had received from Sheikh Salem al-Rafi’i during his adolescence in the Tawhid ‘emirate’.

It is difficult to determine how Khaz’al became involved in jihadism at a time when no Internet or satellite television was available. At the beginning of the 1990s, the jihadi ideologue Abu Qatada toured the Islamic centers of Sydney and Melbourne, and it is possible that Khaz’al crossed paths wit him. In August 1992, at the age of twenty-two, he left Australia for two months- his destination remains unknown,. Immediately after he returned, he launched the monthly jihadi magazine Nida’u al-Islam. Its forty issues contained interviews and articles dedicated to the main figureheads of jihadism. Including Osama bin Laden, as well as the texts they penned. The magazine was published in both English and Arabic and presented itself as the voice of the Islamic Youth Movement created by ‘Sheikh  Bilal Khaz’al’. This association had a prayer room on the second floor of a modest building on Haldon Street.

The creation of the Islamic Youth Movement constituted a definitive rupture from al-Hilali. The Egyptian sheikh disapproved of thoe whose “short robes and long beards are their only assets in the science of religion,” and stated that Abu Qatada had ‘excommunicated him’ during  the latter’s visit to Australia. The quarrel between the two men should be seen in the broader context of harsh criticism  by the jihadi movement of the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior. Khaz’al had no choice but to give up all hope of taking control of the Lakemba mosque, which was attended by many worshippers during Friday sermons and enjoyed generous Libyan and Saudi funding.. This failure in conquest of local Islam incited Khaz’al to shift the focus of his action. In 1998, he met Osama bin Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri at the jihadi training camp  in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Khaz’al’s path- the experience of military defeat, followed by exile abroad- coincided with that of other militants who had broken with nationalist Islamist movements to refocus on a transnational struggle.

From Australia, Khaz’al would go on to affect the evolution  Ka’keh’s group in the environs of Tripoli. He influenced its orientation, approved of the assassination strategy, and transmitted messages and money. The magazine publisher became and interlocutor and facilitators of connections between different networks, a person who provided the resources that made it possible to develop a network over a shot period of time and established links between jihadis whose experiences and backgrounds varied.
 In September, Khaz’al published a one-hundred page jihadi manifesto- using an alias- entitled Handbook of the Rules of Jihad: Essential Rules of Jurisprudence and Organizational Orientation Concerning every Fighter and Mujahid Who Fights Impiety….

Thus a baggage handler for Qantas, with no more than and elementary school education in his home country, contributed to a body of jihadi writings that has seen continual growth  since the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s. This corpus first appeared at the time of the Afghan war in the 1980s, and expanded as subsequent Middle East events generated additions. In unabashed ignorance of the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence’s methodological traditions, Khaz’al justified the use of terrorism by equating prophetic precedents with the contemporary situation. This Khaz’al placed himself in the category of ‘haddith-shouters,’ who who used litanies of sacred narratives to drown out their critic. ‘Religious law’ is proclaimed generously through-out his manifesto in an effort to confer divine authority on and justify an anthology of  prescriptions chosen for their usefulness to his cause.

The global scale of the struggle paradoxically allow Khaz’al to renter the Tripolitan scene from his Lakemba suburb of Sydney. He helped al- Ka’keh (‘the engineer’) become more influential within a group  of about 25 jihadists by using the latter’s voice to advocate assassination as the main mode of action. Nonetheless, before organizing a deadly operation, the group first proved itself in a more limited way (bombing western restaurants like McD’s and Pizza Hut)

*MUI/Tawdid (Islamic Unification Movement):  proclaimed on August 25, 1982 in Tripoli, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Strongly influenced by the Iranian revolution, the Tawhid Movement, which groups together various neighborhood militias, has  managed to dominate the city by imposing strict religious directives (bans on alcohol and mixed schools). In 1986, the Tawhid defended Tripoli against the Syrian army assault, while its chief, emir Said Sha’ban, protected by Ayatollah Khomeini, negotiated the city’s surrender with Syria’s president in September. On December 19, 1986, Syrian soldiers and their local allies took revenge for Tripoli’s resistance and massacred several hundred persons in the Bab al-Tabbaneh area.


Yielding jihadi power in  local militias has its difficulties as Sheikh Kana’an Naji recited  to the author about  his experience running the ‘Islamic emirate’ in Tripoli:

We became involved in messy dealings . . . We shouldn’t have gotten involved in these sorts of issues . . .People would come to us and say “so-and-so insulted so-and-so ..Do something!” Someone says to you: “You must intervene . . .” So you send over some youth to deal with the problem . . .but sometimes he would mess up .. .act dictatorially.. The lesson we must learn is that Muslims mustn’t get involved in these kinds of issues, issues of the actual forces on the ground . . .The most delicate and dangerous thing is justice. It takes ten years of study to become a judge. And even with ten years of study, it’s still difficult. The toughest job is dispensing justice to people And all of a sudden someone who can barely write shows up and wants top mete out justice! . . Because he represents de facto power! This is what happened in Tripoli, exactly as it happened in the rest of Lebanon. Tripoli was no different. Power corrupts.

Al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam

Jordanian-Palestinian Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi.

Fatah al-Islam’s leaders came from the Syrian-Iraqi jihadi universe in which Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi was a signal authority. This network existed in parallel to al-Qaeda’s network, without being a part of it. In Shaker al-Absi’s view, acquiring the ‘al-Qaeda franchise’ would increase Fata h al-Islam’s regional prestige, In other words, such recognition would end speculation that Syria was sponsoring the group to further its own regional interests. This suspicion had been undermining his tial new  group’s credibility and causing potential new recruits to hesitate about joining the group.

Before granting Fatah al Islam this recognition, the historic leaders of al-Qaeda investigated the group In 2005 al;-Qaeda-Central had chosen  Tripolitan sheikh Nabil Rahim as their representative in Lebanon, tasking him  to coordinate at all times with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and in the “Land of Two Rivers’ (Iraq). In 2006  Rahim met with with al-Qaeda leaders in Mecca while performing the ‘umra’ ( lesser pilgrimage, a chance to collect some funds for the group he was patiently forming in Tripoli. In early 2007, sheikh Rahim received an al-Qaeda emissary, Saudi Sheikh Addallah al-Bishi who had previously taught Sunni Kurds in Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, where he was hosted by none other than Sheik Rahim, who then invited him  to Lebanon.

During his roughly two week stay al-Bishi ( the al-Qaeda ambassador) taught Islamic studies courses in the Samer center and the Cooperative. He listened to some young Saudi volunteer’s grievances about being confined to their camp despite having contributed thousands of dollars and promised the opportunity to fight in Iraq. Sheikh al-Bishi believed that they should be allowed to go home if they desired. No religious obstacle should prevent them from doing so. This ruling angered Shaker al-Absi ( leader of Fatah-al Islam) as he felt the presence of the Saudis strengthened his organization and added to its credibility. At any rate, he thought, they might be detained while crossing borders and ‘spill beans’, a concern that later proved justified.

Sheikh al-Bishi saw too many shortcomings in Fatah-al-Islam, even beyond the situation with the Saudi volunteers. There seemed tio be no good reason why al-Absi’s refusal to deal with the (Palestinian) Fatah was not extended to all Palestinian factions, all being equally guilty of impiety in al-Bishi’s opinion. He also seemed opposed to the practice of robbing banks- the source of most of Fatah al-Islam’s funds. In a more practical vein, the group’s open existence in a camp in North Lebanon raised the possibility of infiltration by the region’s intelligence services. Al-Bishi’s ‘jihadist audit’ did not produce the results Fatah al-Islam’s leaders hoped for and under threat from its more radical members, had to flee the camp. He was arrested by Lebanese authorities while crossing into Syria on his way to Iraq on a mission to attempt to stop Zarqawi’s attempt to regain control of Al-Qaeda in that country.

Establishing ties with al-Qaeda also required that a respected ‘alim’ (scholar of Islamic law) within the jihadi community get involved. To this end al-Absi contacted the Jordanian-Palestinian Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi.

The categories that Sheikh Maqdisi used to structure his ideas frequently appeared in Fatah al-Islam’s communiques. To him, rigorous divine unity (Tawhid) meant that believers would refuse to acknowledge and follow rules other than those emanating from God alone. Hence, true believers should disobey their political leaders (corrupt tyrants) because the norms of government in modern states are not inspired by divine texts. In fact, the leaders of Fatah –al Islam identified with al- Maqdisi’s idea that any participation in state institutions was tantamount to apostasy. Thus, they did not hesitate to deride secular Arab leaders with the insulting term zanadiq, whose semantic field extends from ‘heretics’ to ‘drunken libertines’. Moreover, al Absi the activist and al Maqdisi the intellectual had both distanced themselves from Zarqawi’s descent into anti-Shi’ite sectarianism, despite the history they shared with him as militants and detainees.

Al- Maqdisi’s obsession with releasing believers from the hold of positive law in every field also legitimized the jihadi groups practice of committing common-law crimes ( theft, hostage-taking, etc.) This explains why Fatah al-Islam’s leaders began robbing banks. Yet far from earning al-Maqdisi’s support, this practice met with his censure. In a letter to Shaker al-Absi, al-Maqdisi questioned the relation ship between means and ends in Fatah- al-Islam practices.

Do not expect me to encourage our brothers resort to pillage! Are such actions logically part of the path of jihad? Did they pledge allegiance to us for that purpose? They pledged allegiance to us on the basis that we were al-Qaeda, and I have been asked time and time again, “Where are the resources, the equipment, the weapons?”: And when I told them to be patient, that we were preparing for all that, they answered: “Did we not pledge an oath to al-Qaeda. Only a  few volunteers who are unable to leave the camp are convinced that robberies are authorized by religion. The others want to kill and fight . . .Please answer me clearly … either we continue working together, or we will provide you with fraternal support.’

Sheikh al-Maqdisi’s questons are typical of the mixture on interest and wariness that characterized responses to Fatah al-Islam by other famous jihadi figureheads able to grant religious legitimacy. His doubts reflected his refusal to become an involuntary role model for a group without real recognition that was locked into a cycle of common-law criminality,at a time when he was endeavoring to improve his image in Arab public opinion.

Jihadi Ideology and Resources
The jihadi ideology worked symbolically: real people were treated as symbols, stripped of their historical, national, and anthropologically substance. The Maronite patriarch, a potential tart for assassination, was no longer viewed as the leader of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. He was disembodied, labeled, and assimilated to be a representative of America, the West, or Christianity. As such, he was to be fought against and eliminated if possible. Similarly, Fatah was mot a Palestinian organization struggling to recover its territory, but a secular entity despised for politically acknowledging impious entities, including the West, Israel and Arab regimes. Jihadi symbols were used to destroy religious systems deeply rooted in the political and religious history of the region. Whereas Islamic law was designed to set boundaries on the arbitrary actions of Men, in its jihadi guise it left open the possibility of actions unrestrained by any limits.

To legitimize assassination as a tactic, Khaz’al cited a hadith about a Jewish woman who was strangled for insulting the Prophet of Ismam. BY not intervening, the prophet Mohammad was said to legfitimize the murder of anyone who insulted the religion. According to Khaz’al, because the killer did not ask the Prophet’s permission, all believers were justified in taking this kind of initiative when someone insulted Islam. No external authority was required, not even that of the Messenger of God

The words of the Prophet were interpreted eschatologically, as if current political events were of no intrinsic interest, often only to be interpreted in the future perfect, because their significance lay in what was to come, a divine intervention to save humanity, as signs of the fulfillment of prophetic passages in the sayings and actions of the Prophet recorded in the 7th century. Khaz’al’s “Orientations” also included many comparisons between present-day Muslim leaders and famous traitors of Islamic history including Abi Righal, ‘who offered his services to the Ethiopian King Abraha when Abraha was endeavoring to conquer Mecca. He also cited Ibn al-Alqami and the religious scholar Sadr al-Din al-Tusi, who served the Mongol invader Hulagu after he had killed “The Caliph and the statesmen, and destroyed Baghdad while exterminating from 800,000 to a million, or maybe two million people  in what is known as the worse massacre in the history of humanity.’ History repeats itself, with its share of “defeats and disasters,” because ‘this umma never encounters a single foreign enemy without someone appearing to assist them, to io them favors, to justify their crimes, to defend their policy, to spread their ideas and to show them their weakness, as did Abu Righal, Ibn al-Alqami and Sadr al Din al Tusi,” During the 200-3 Iraq war, “Abu Righal became king and under his authority, religious sheikhs gave legitimacy to the Crusaders and Zionists.”

 In Weberian terms, Fatah al-Islam leaders and other jihadi sought to induce Sunnis to trade their ethics of responsibility for the ethics of conviction, in order to extract them from their communitarian frameworks, yet these frameworks are important resources for their terror schemes. Life in the neighborhoods offered many opportunities for  interaction. In a context where preachers readily brandish believers’ faith  to lambast the state for neglecting its religious duties, either internationally or towards its own society, and charismatic leaders could infuse jihadism into deeply anchored musical and poetic traditions, refusing to do a favor for a friend, or even an acquaintance, led to crippling moral censure in in communities where everyone knows everybody else. Slowly, jihadist interactions in neighborhoods  facilitated reciprocity of exchanges and building of trust. They could also evoke memories of allegiances and debts owned one faction or the other in the wake of past conflicts, sacralizing past victories or defeats to build loyalty, or fuel resentment.


The Saydnaya military prison in Syria  was of great importance. It functioned as a uniquely convenient place where various individuals’ paths crossed, consolidating past ties and creating new commitments. Likewise, the prison pooled individuals among whom Syrian  intelligence services could identify new recruits, and from which they could gather information about Islamist networks. The Syrian regime acquiesced in part to the opposition’s desire to wage jihad, but only so long as this took place outside Syria or in accordance with their policy objectives. Likewise, the Roumieh prison in Beirut- overcrowded with appalling conditions where riots and break-outs occur- is a place where solidarities and new jihadi networks are created for the future.

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