Lebanon’s Salafis: The Elusive Sheikh Sabbagh
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Thursday, November 29, 2012
Part Two of Al-Akhbar’s portrait of Salafis looks at Tripoli’s Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, a mysterious figure unaffiliated with any mosque or political party, but still able to wield power on the ground.
It is nearly impossible as a journalist to meet Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, considered by many as the most influential Salafi in northern Lebanon, for he is said to “hate” the media.
Most say that he is a good-natured man but one Salafi sheikh who spoke to Al-Akhbar claimed Sabbagh reacted violently and pushed a journalist for asking a provocative question.
This reporter offered to meet the sheikh on the condition that none of the interview would be published, a “getting to know you” friendly chat, but to no avail. Sources close to the sheikh declined due to “security concerns.”
It is true that Sabbagh is wanted by local and international authorities, but you soon find out that the man regularly meets with security officials in the North. His involvement in politics apparently comes with immunity from the law.
There are many views of the sheikh in northern Lebanon. Critics say he is the new leader of al-Qaeda in Lebanon and a threat to Tripoli’s security, while supporters counter that he is the city’s protector.
These contradictory views of Sabbagh differ according to the political background of those expressing them, although the sheikh is known to have moved decisively into the camp of jihadi Salafism.
Those who know the 40-something preacher talk of his upbringing in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district of Tripoli, attributing his popularity to being “courageous,” claiming he does belong to any political party.
Sources close to him say that, as a young man, Sabbagh joined the Jamaa al-Islamiya, Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood, but left the group in the 1980s as civil strife engulfed Tripoli.
He soon left Lebanon altogether for Australia, where he became a Salafi. Even though he never formally studied Islamic law in any institution, he is self-taught and considered quite capable of expounding on all aspects of sharia.
Today, Sabbagh lives in the Abi Samra district of Tripoli, but finding him there is next to impossible. He is said to change his telephone number every month to avoid being traced by the authorities.
He is not associated with any particular mosque in the area, preaching in several places, the most important of which is the Ihsan Mosque, located near a farm where the sheikh resides.
Many stories are told about the evasive and charismatic Sabbagh, who is also known as “Abu al-Hassan.” He is said to have instructed his supporters not to call him by his name, or shake his hand in public, for his personal safety.
He is known to rush to the turbulent Bab al-Tabbaneh at the first sign of trouble. There, he leads the strongest armed group on the ground. When you ask local residents about him, they say he appears out of nowhere and just as quickly disappears.
His closest companions are Sheikh Salem al-Rifae, Sheikh Kamal al-Bustani, Omar Hadbeh, and previously Sheikh Nabil Rahim, who was indicted alongside Sabbagh by a Lebanese military court in 2007. Military court judge Rashid Mezher accused Sabbagh of “establishing armed groups, and preparing young Sunni men ideologically and militarily for any development that may erupt on Lebanese soil,” in addition to sending them to support Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
But many Salafis wear such accusations as a badge of honor, telling Al-Akhbar that their work started after the July 2006 war, which “encouraged us to arm ourselves, in order to be prepared, in the case that Israel decided to repeat its assault.”
Read Part One of Al-Akhbar’s series on Salafis.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.