Salafi Cleric’s Militia Ambitions Curtailed

But 33 days later, he agreed to end his sit-in without achieving this goal. (Photo: Hasan Bahsoun)

By: Amal Khalil

Published Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lebanese Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has become a lightning rod for controversy over the past year, but his failure to live up to his own fiery rhetoric has left many wondering if his bark is worse than his bite.

At his own highly-anticipated press conference in November where he was expected to announce the creation of an armed Sunni faction to oppose both Israel and Hezbollah, Assir surprised many by postponing the project pending further “consultations.”

Instead he merely attacked Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and repeated his version of the recent Taameer incident outside Saida’s Ain al-Helweh refugee camp in which two of his supporters were killed in clashes with Hezbollah supporters.

Assir went on to threaten to organize another sit-in at the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Abra near Saida where he preaches to demand justice for the blood that was spilled in the Taameer incident and condemn the violence in Gaza and Syria.

This is not the first time the bombastic cleric has backed down after vowing radical action. Four months ago, al-Assir launched an open-ended sit-in in the southern Lebanese city of Saida, vowing not to disband until “Hezbollah is disarmed or the last drop of blood of our last child is spilled.”

But 33 days later, he agreed to end his sit-in without achieving this goal.

On the eve of his latest press conference, Assir had confirmed rumors that he would be announcing on Saturday the formation of an armed wing to the satellite news channel al-Arabiya. He had already alluded to the possibility of establishing such an organization to resist both Israel and the “Iranian project.” Assir’s announcement drew condemnation from detractors who accused the sheikh of hypocrisy for condemning Hezbollah’s arms and then forming his own paramilitary force to battle Israel.

But on the morning of the press conference, Islamist Palestinian forces visited Assir once more to emphasize the need to stay calm and maintain the peace.

Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the leader of the Islamic Mujahid Movement, and Abu Tareq al-Saadi, a prominent leader of Asbat al-Ansar, or the Partisans League, met with Assir and reportedly advised him not to rush into declaring an armed wing.

Sources close to the two leaders told Al-Akhbar that they renewed their warnings to Assir not to count on Palestinians to form the base of any armed organization. They emphasized that Palestinians will not take part in the fighting or fuel an internal Lebanese conflict.

The Lebanese pop star singer Fadl Shaker and his brother Mohammad al-Shamandour, leader of Jund al-Sham, or Soldiers of the Levant, are both close to Assir and expended efforts in the aftermath of Taameer to recruit, albeit unsuccessfully, experienced Palestinian fighters from Ain al-Helweh to join Assir’s supposed organization.

Sources say the Islamist organizations that are on friendly terms with Assir are more interested in fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Moreover, the same Lebanese political and security factions that convinced Assir to end his first sit-in have reportedly been pressuring him to take his activities down a notch.

These Lebanese parties also made it very clear to the Palestinians that if the situation were to spiral out of control in Saida, Ain al-Helweh would get dragged into the conflict.

Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities Marwan Charbel echoed these warnings when he delivered a stern message to Assir last Wednesday in Saida when he went to offer his condolences.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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