Khaled Mahmoud: A Prisoner in Lebanon Turns Emir in Syria

A gunman who said he is a member of a Jihadist group called Shura Taliban Islam sits next to graffiti reading "There's no God but God" and "The solution is Islam" near the Bab al-Hawa border gate between Turkey and Syria on 21 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Friday, January 4, 2013

Who is Khaled Mahmoud? The once imprisoned leader from Fatah al-Islam is now the “emir” of an armed group in Syria. Al-Akhbar looks into the murky comings and goings of the man rumored to be behind dispatching groups of young Lebanese to fight in Syria.

The Fatah al-Islam leader Khaled Mahmoud did not remain absent from the scene for long. Shortly after his release from Lebanon’s Roumieh Central Prison in June 2012, he joined the armed opposition in Syria. Six months later, Mahmoud appeared in a video, wearing a black turban and surrounded by militants, and declared the establishment of an armed group named “Jund al-Sham,” or Soldiers of the Levant.

Mahmoud bestowed upon himself the title “Emir Abu Suleiman al-Muhajir,” and called for “jihad to establish God’s rule on Earth.” Thus, a former prisoner in Lebanon somehow managed to become a military commander in Syria.

Mahmoud is widely believed to be responsible for dispatching Lebanese youths to Syria for “jihad.” In this regard, security reports indicate that Yahya J., a close associate of Mahmoud, is in charge of recruiting and then deploying Salafi groups to Syria, including the group that was ambushed by the Syrian Army in Tal Kalakh last November.

These reports confirm that Yahya, who is based in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district of Tripoli, along with Nader H. and Bashir M., are actively involved in the recruitment of Salafi cells, bearing in mind that the two latter individuals had been previously detained on charges of belonging to Fatah al-Islam. They spent one and three years in prison respectively.

Mahmoud, the emir, had reportedly entered the Syrian territory through the Mashari al-Qaa region of eastern Lebanon. From there, he went to the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria where he became the commander of the armed groups stationed at this historic crusader castle.

Shortly afterward, a number of Lebanese Salafis joined him there from Tripoli, and swore allegiance to him. Of those, the following individuals were identified: Samer R.; Wi’am Sh.; Abu Hamza O.; and Saad A., in addition to 15 others from Bab al-Tabbaneh.

In the meantime, according to Islamist reports, there has been tension between Mahmoud and a number of Salafi clerics, as a result of the clerics’ reservations about Mahmoud’s religious commitment. These reports suggest that the emir of Jund al-Sham is overzealous – even by Salafi standards – and some clerics see him as more of a gun-for-hire than a true jihadi.

The security reports link Mahmoud to Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, and allude to the latter’s role in recruiting youths to fight in Syria. Other reliable sources familiar with the issue deny that Sabbagh has any links to the Tal Kalakh group. They maintain that Sabbagh is in principle against Lebanese individuals fighting in Syria, since “they would be a burden on the ‘mujahideen’ there, who have great numbers and only lack weapons.”

Further Information obtained by security services suggests that a Lebanese man from Tripoli was implicated in dispatching the group of youth from Tripoli who would later be killed in Tal Kalakh.

In the same vein, a Salafi sheikh told Al-Akhbar that the majority of young Lebanese men who go to Syria fight for three groups: al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, and al-Fajr Brigades. The sheikh said that the three groups had no ties to al-Qaeda, but they nonetheless adopt methods similar to those pursued by the global fundamentalist movement.

The Salafi sheikh, who is close to al-Qaeda, said that in the past, the fighters who came through Turkey would exclusively join al-Nusra Front, while those who came from Lebanon went on to fight in the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham or al-Fajr Brigades.The sheikh pointed out that things have changed today, with al-Nusra Front enjoying a strong presence in Homs and al-Qasir.

This, he said, “began six months ago when al-Nusra Front was endorsed by many who have had a long history of jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq.” It should be noted here that the three fundamentalist militant groups are closer in ideology to the Islamic State of Iraq, which is an organization led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, than al-Qaeda, which is led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

According to security reports, large quantities of assault rifles were sent from an Arab country into Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh shortly after clashes with the neighboring Jabal Mohsen. Furthermore, large stocks of ammunition, particularly RPGs and mortar rounds, have also made their way to the area. According to the same reports, these weapons are stored deep in the area’s slums, even inside several mosques.

It is believed that a retired Lebanese army colonel is involved in funding such operations, and personally oversees the distribution of weapons to young fighters.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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