Jihadi leader Zureiqat threatens to occupy Beirut

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A Lebanese army patrol on the outskirts of Ersal. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Tuesday, September 23, 2014

There appears to be no hope on the horizon: The kidnapped soldiers are being treated as martyrs by the government. This is a fait accompli for the political leadership, which knows for certain that fulfilling the demands of the kidnappers is a red line. As the drums of war begin to beat, time is passing very slowly for the families of the hostages, who are waiting for a now-unlikely miracle.

Al-Nusra Front is no longer the only side in the standoff between Lebanon and the jihadis. After the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in Qalamoun, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) have now entered the fray, with an audio recording by the spokesman of the AAB-affiliated Hussein Bin Ali Brigade Sheikh Sirajuddin Zureiqat. It seems the pro-Zawahiri and pro-Baghdadi wings of international jihadism have united in the mountains of Qalamoun against the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and the abducted soldiers.

In the recording, Zureiqat spoke for 16 minutes addressing the kidnapped soldiers, whom he strongly reprimanded for joining the Lebanese army. He accused Hezbollah of standing behind assassinations in Lebanon, and gave a message to the soldiers to deliver, in the event they are released, to their religious communities, to say that “if you fight the Sunnis there is nothing between you and us except the sword.” Zureiqat then warned, “The mujahideen took Iraq in days, and in days they can be in the center of Beirut too.”

If anything, this demonstrates that there is a joint “operations room” led by the emirs of al-Nusra Front, the AAB, and the IS, further corroborating reports about the coordinated division of roles among these groups during the wave of bombings and suicide attacks that hit Lebanon, for which the three groups alternately claimed responsibility.

Earlier reports had indicated Zureiqat was present in the hills near Zabadani, but the impassioned audio recording posted on Monday places him in the hills near Ersal. Zureiqat attacked the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, and the religious communities that he said have turned into a “shield protecting the two.” He said, “The Lebanese army is not an army. Five men raided your barracks, you ‘heroes,’ and took them. You have no [real] men.” He added, “We did not want a battle in Ersal, but we were forced into it,” before he asked, “Do you think the matter ended with a car bomb in Dahiyeh? It had just begun.”

With respect to the negotiations, the view is that al-Nusra Front in Qalamoun did not initially intend to execute any of the soldiers it is holding hostage. This is what the negotiators who met with the emir of the group Abu Malek al-Talli in the first stages of the negotiations believe. However, the negotiations took a turn for the worst after that, prompting al-Nusra to change its plans.

The policy of “aim then approximate” – meaning failure to attain goals forces adjusting course – imposed this change, in the words of a member of al-Nusra Front. Despite reports that al-Nusra Front members executed the kidnapped soldier Mohammad Hammieh in retaliation for the death of a number of its fighters in the hills of Qalamoun, al-Nusra Front sources told Al-Akhbar that Hammieh was killed “because of what happened in Ersal (on Friday), after the bombing, to the people of Ersal and Syrian refugees.” The sources said the rebels were convinced the bombing was staged by Hezbollah, and said that the emir of al-Nusra in Qalamoun “decided to execute the soldier Hammieh to say that we are not joking and we are serious… comply or, you would be killing your prisoners whom you can have released if you want, with our hands.”

The cordial relation Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri aka Abu Taqiyeh has with the leadership of al-Nusra was thought to be enough to prevent the slaying of any of the soldiers, “but circumstances were more compelling.” Sheikh Houjeiri told Al-Akhbar, “I don’t know if I would have been able to stop the execution of Hammieh, but unfortunately, it is no longer possible to continue with the required efforts as a result of compelling circumstances.”

These circumstances include, according to Houjeiri, “the attempt to assassinate me by the army as I was transporting the family of soldier George Khoury and help them meet with him in the hills.” Does he really believe the army wants to kill him? Houjeiri responded, “The way I was fired at indicates a definite intention to kill, and the threats made in the past days and weeks are additional proof of this.” As for whom he thinks is responsible for what happened, Houjeiri answered that this would be “the real kidnapper of Lebanon, the side that has the weapons” – in reference to Hezbollah. Houjeiri then said the incident where he was fired at prevented him from returning to the hills again to meet with the emir of al-Nusra.

As for who brought the wife of kidnapped soldier Ali Bzal, who is next on al-Nusra’s execution list, to meet the emir of al-Nusra Front in the hills on Monday, reports confirm it was not Houjeiri, and indicate that this was likely done through the family of the hostage’s wife, who is from Ersal. According to Bzal’s wife, the leadership of al-Nusra postponed the execution of her husband for another week “to allow the Lebanese government to comply with the demands of the kidnappers.”

Meanwhile, why did al-Nusra Front execute Hammieh by firing squad rather than behead him? Why did al-Nusra Front not execute the rest of the hostages? What is its strategy, and what truth is there to the rumors that the slain soldier was given the choice of how he would be executed, provided he agrees to deliver al-Nusra’s message on camera?

Rumors abound in the media as well as social media regarding the hostage crisis. But sources from al-Nusra denied the rumors about Hammieh having been given a choice, saying that al-Nusra Front stopped beheadings based on a fatwa from Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. The sources say that their group’s policy for over a year now has been to “not film executions, even though this is permissible in sharia, because it does more harm than good.”

On the ground, things are not quite clear. In whose favor is the current balance of power tipped, Hezbollah or al-Nusra Front? Both camps claim their victory is imminent, and enumerate the losses of the “enemy.” While reports indicate dozens of al-Nusra fighters have been killed in the fighting near Falita and Nahla, including leaders close to Abu Malek al-Talli, al-Nusra Front fighters claim “painful and successive blows have been dealt to Hezbollah near Falita, Nahla, Jubbah, Assal al-Ward, Qara, and al-Jarajir.”

Regardless of the above, the central question remains: Will the kidnapped soldiers come out alive or not? The political authorities alone have the answer to this, being now well-versed with the thinking of the kidnappers. The latter are distributed between two groups, one that boasts beheading its hostages one after the other in cold blood without regard to anything, while the other is engaged in negotiations to achieve the most possible gains, which it wants to invest in a “nurturing environment,” though it is aware that there is little prospect of its demands being met for now.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter: @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

These terrorists are just swaggering. Hezbollah can eat them alive.

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