Who is Hussam Sabbagh?

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New evidence shows Hussam Sabbagh might have been part of the recent spate of car bombings in Beirut's southern suburbs. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hussam Sabbagh stands accused of being the emir of al-Qaeda in Tripoli, recruiting militants to fight in Syria, being the commander of the Salafi armed factions in north Lebanon, and of being the architect of several attacks using car bombs. These are just a few of the allegations being made against the man who hails from the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli. Sabbagh has so far only issued a brief statement in response, denying the charges attributed to him. Below is an profile of Sabbagh compiled from accounts by people close to him.

Hussam Sabbagh is a rather unique figure in Tripoli. He is not quite a cleric and does not declare himself to be one. He is involved in herding and trading cattle. Those who know him call him al-Hajj, or the pilgrim. He also goes under the aliases Abu al-Hassan or Abu Mazhar.

Sabbagh dropped out of school while he was in the fifth grade. His religious education is self-acquired. He left Lebanon in 1987 to Australia to escape from the Syrian security services. Sabbagh’s name came to the limelight after Shadi al-Mawlawi was arrested in May 2012.

Mawlawi is a leading Islamist whose arrest had set off a series of violent protests in Lebanon. Before the arrest, Sabbagh had been named in security reports, particularly after disappearing during terror-related investigations in 2006.

Sabbagh’s name surfaced once more in the past two days with the leaked summaryof the interrogations of Naim Abbas, Bakr al-Mahmoud, and Omar Khodor, three jihadi suspects currently in the custody of the Lebanese army intelligence. Abbas is alleged to be involved in moving suicide bombers and explosive-laden cars, and preparing for terror attacks on Lebanese territory, while Mahmoud and Khodor are suspected would-be suicide bombers.

According to the leaked information, Khodor confessed that he was on his way to meet with Sheikh Hussam Sabbagh in north Lebanon to hand him funds to be used in preparing car bombs. But Sabbagh issued a statement denying the allegations, which he said were part of “the shameful and brazen attempts to serve the Syrian regime and its allies.”

In 2004, Sabbagh returned to Tripoli via Beirut airport. He left his construction work in Australia and chose to return to Lebanon to “safeguard the faith” of his ten children.

He was not wanted in Australia, as the Australian intelligence services have confirmed, and was not wanted in Lebanon when he first returned. Beyond that, Sabbagh is said to have advocated some interesting positions. For example, he opposed “jihad” in Australia because of its participation in the war in Afghanistan, saying that this country “gave us shelter when none did.” Instead, he called on jihadis to fight against Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Unlike most clerics in Tripoli, Sabbagh is averse to the spotlight, and prefers to keep his distance from the press and the media. He has often told reporters seeking to interview him that the “the time has not yet come” for that.

Like Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, Sheikh Salem al-Rafii, General Amer al-Hassan, and retired Colonel Amid Hammoud, Sabbagh is seen as an influential figure in the security scene in the capital of north Lebanon.

Sabbagh is known to be quite straightforward, and is not inclined to equivocation. When he does not want to answer a question, he just smiles.

He often tells the impassioned youths in Tripoli, “We do not want problems with the government,” and habitually uses his influence to pull them from the streets. According to security reports, Sabbagh commands an armed group consisting of nearly 300 fighters, but sources close to him say the real number is probably twice that figure.

In the fight with Jabal Mohsen, Sabbagh is opposed to what he calls “wars of attrition that politicians exploit at the expense of the people of the city and their lives.” His position on this is clear: “Either a decisive battle or no battle at all.”

Regarding the Syrian conflict, Sabbagh supports the Syrian revolution, “based on moral and religious principles,” as he believes in “helping the oppressed against the oppressor.” But he tells those he meets with that he is against sending fighters to Syria, saying that the “jihad effort there does not need fighters but money to buy weapons.”

Sabbagh denies having links to al-Qaeda. He believes that these and other allegations are fabricated to justify an assault against Salafis.

Sabbagh is a controversial figure in Tripoli. Some see him as a threat to the city. They see him as a “fuse” while others see him as a “safety valve.”

Throughout the past two years, Sabbagh enjoyed protection thanks to the political status quo in Tripoli. But after he was named in Naim Abbas’s confessions as someone involved in the recent bombings, his future, and with it Tripoli’s security, is now at stake.

Sabbagh understands this all too well, but so do the security services. The latter know that any attempt to apprehend Sabbagh will lead to a conflagration in Tripoli. That is unless there is a local and regional political decision to liquidate the Salafis in the city. But there are no indications that is about to happen yet.

Follow Radwan Murtada on Twitter @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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