Interest in the existence of a Salafi movement, and its possible impact on Lebanon, has increased since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March of 2011. This new interest has often taken the form of incitement against, in particular, the so-called Takfiri group of Salafis. Action to counter the Salafi trend became a campaign against the Takfiri, which resulted in a view of the Salafi movement as one that is homogenized, monolithic, and terrorist. The dominant understanding of Salafism then, is that as a movement, it emerged suddenly, and out of nowhere, coming quickly to dominate the political and social life of the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon. This report will trace out the origins of the Salafi movement, examining it as a social phenomenon that has succeeded because it fills gaps in the current socio-political environment.
Lebanese Salafist Groups and Violence
Allegations made by Hezbollah and its allies against Salafi groups for the perpetration of violence have struck fear in the hearts of sectarian parties. Hezbollah had placed the blame for violent incidents in the country’s Sunni population centers—towns such as Tripoli, Sidon (Saida), and Arsaal in the Bekaa Valley—squarely at the door of Neo-Salafis. Hezbollah’s opponents, however, have suggested that it was Hezbollah themselves who perpetrated the violence with the aim of sowing the seeds of communal discord between Lebanon’s Sunni community and the country’s national army. According to this argument, Hezbollah’s aim was to create a justification for its own attacks on those cities.
This narrative was given to a number of violent incidents across Lebanon, including: confrontations between the military and one Salafist movement led by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in the outskirts of Sidon; the assassination of two Sunni clerics at an army checkpoint near Akkar, in the north of Lebanon; and for explosions across Beirut’s southern suburbs (Dahiye) followed by Tripoli. These events caused panic throughout Lebanon, which only increased when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda carried out a second wave of bombings with targets across the country. While the Takfiri were being blamed for these events, the discussion around them also raised questions about the veracity of Hezbollah’s accusations against them, and further questions about Hezbollah’s possible responsibility for the security breakdown in Lebanon.
Although there was no official statement on these questions from Lebanese authorities, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed that there was clear evidence that a bombing in the al-Ruwais neighborhood in the Dahiye suburb of the Lebanese capital was carried out by “Syrian dissidents and Takfiri groups, as determined by the official security services.” Later, Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar television announced the contents of what it claimed to be the findings of an internal investigation by the movement, which pointed to the town of Arsaal and accused forces there of plotting the bombings. As a result of such media agitation, and given the recent victory of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in recapturing the Syrian territory in the Bekaa Valley adjacent to Lebanon, the inhabitants of the border village were said to have been lying in wait for some sort of military operation targeting “Takfiri terrorists.” Later, Al Manar predicted that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and a group known as the Free Sunni Command in Baalbek would carry out attacks in the Bekaa Valley. These predictions served to frighten, in particular, the Christian community who feared the destruction of local churches. Such tactics have become typical of Hezbollah and its allies and come as a part of a wider strategy of media manipulation. Lebanese security sources have cast doubt on the veracity of these claims, however, suggesting that they are a strategic reading of events by Hezbollah, as a tactic to help determine political outcomes. Indeed, Lebanese security services were able to go some way to show that Hezbollah was behind the attacks when they located the users of a twitter account claiming to represent Command of the Sunnis of Baalbek, which turned out to be suspicious. The finding cast doubt on the notion that there was even such a militant group, let alone whether they had been behind an attack. Once this was uncovered, suspicions arose about possible widespread espionage networks making use of social media like Twitter to agitate against Lebanon’s Sunni community, particularly the Sunnis of Baalbek.
This sentiment was revealed at the highest level of the Lebanese government, when the country’s Minister of the Interior Nihad al-Machnouk responded to alleged threats made by a group claiming to be the Command of the Free Sunnis saying: “I do not dignify comments such as these with any significance, since they have the tell-tale markings of an espionage story, and the sources of such rumors are well known.” A government investigation that was leaked to the Lebanese media claimed that the group known only as the Command of the Free Sunnis of Baalbek only ever existed on Twitter. The Lebanese authorities went so far as to conclude that the individual responsible for running that group’s account was a Hezbollah emissary to Syria.
While fact, fiction and media manipulation were eventually made relatively clear, the strategy had its impact. Even as the accusations about the involvement of Lebanese Salafists in violence were shown to be false, the role of Lebanese Salafis began to take region-wide dimensions. On Sunday, June 6, 2014, a Lebanese suicide bomber known only as “Abu Hafs” blew himself up in a coffee shop in the working class neighborhood of Wishwash in central Baghdad. Acting under the banner of ISIL, the actions of Abu Hafs revealed that Lebanese extremists were capable of striking as far as Iraq, and in some measure realized the fears manufactured by Hezbollah.
Syria, the Arab Spring, and the Rise of Lebanon’s Salafi Extremism
That Shi’ite Hezbollah fought alongside the Syrian regime in the midst of the Syrian revolution has led to increased sectarian tension between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’ite communities, as well as a sense of resentment and marginalization for the Sunni community. This resentment was conducive to the formation of a radical Salafist group calling supporters to join the jihad alongside rebels in the Syrian revolution.
The situation made Tripoli a natural flashpoint in the struggle, due to the long-standing enmity between its majority Alawite neighborhood in Jabal Mohsen and the majority Sunni and working class district of Bab at Tabbaneh. Commenting on the extent of confessional polarization between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon, the UN Secretary General’s semi-annual report to the Security Council on UNSC Resolution 1559 stated: “Over the last six months, the ongoing turmoil in the Syrian Arab Republic has further affected Lebanon, increasing political polarization and concern that the unrest in Syria could have negative consequences for Lebanon’s stability.”
Increased interest in the role of Lebanese Salafists can first be linked back to the Arab Spring, but particularly to the war in Syria, where the sectarian divides that emerged during the course of the war has spilled over into Lebanon. When Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, Salafis returned in droves, in particular to Tripoli and its satellite region of Akkar. By 2011, Lebanon’s Salafis were strong enough to provide shelter for Syrian refugees entering the north of the country, which in turn enhanced the group’s influence. Given the absence of a strong leader for Lebanon’s Sunni community, the Salafists came to play a dominant political role.
As Lebanese Salafis consolidated their base between 2005-2011, anxieties within the broader Sunni community grew over the lack of a single leadership. Neither the Future Movement dominated by the Hariri family, nor the religious authorities Dar al-Fatwa (gripped by internal conflict), were able to step into the power vacuum. This only served to heighten such anxieties.
Contributing to the rise of the Salafi movement in Lebanon has been the growing popularity and influence of specific Salafist clerics for the Sunni public. This is a trend that can also be observed across the region. In Lebanon, these populist clerics include sheikhs like Salman al-Awda and Sheikh al-Ar’our, known for their antagonism towards Shi’ite Muslims. Their anti-Shi’ite has found a receptive audience amongst Lebanon’s Sunni community due in large part to the support that the Syrian regime (Alawite) receives from Iran and Hezbollah (both Shi’ite). Sunni Islamists and especially Salafis have come to see this cooperation between the communities as proof that their Shi’ite compatriots and Hezbollah wanted to become the dominant power in Lebanon. Specifically, Sunni group saw this as meaning the domination of Sunni Muslims. From this perspective, Sunni groups saw events in Lebanon as connected to those in Iraq and Bahrain, where Iran is seen to be working to establish a “Shi’ite Crescent” across the Levant and Mesopotamia.
To continue reading this Analysis as a PDF, please click here. This Analysis was translated into English by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appaeared online on July 15, 2014, please click here.
This article is part of a two-part series on extremist Sunni groups in Lebanon. The first part of the series was published in English on Sunday, March 22.
 A number of armed skirmishes took place during the months of May and June 2013, in the vicinity of the Bilal Ben Rabbah Mosque in the Ibra district of Saida. The two combatting sides were led by the mosque’s imam, Salafi sheikh Ahmad al-Aseer and the Hezbollah-led “Resistance Brigades.” The first conflict centered on the demand that the Resistance Brigades leave apartments they had rented in the vicinity of the mosque. The conflict became violent, and escalated to the point that on Tuesday, June 18, combatants were using both artillery and machine guns. On Friday, June 21, Aseer declared that he would postpone maneuvers previously planned for Monday, June 24, until the end of the school examination period, however, skirmishes between Aseer supporters and the Lebanese military turned bloody by Sunday, June 23, when Ibra became the center of a fierce attack by the Lebanese army against Aseer and his comrades. This confrontation left more than 16 members of the Lebanese armed forces dead and wounding scores more, with an unknown number of causalities on Aseer’s side. The cleric himself escaped a security cordon alongside former pop star Fadhel Shaker and a tiny group of his closest supporters. Following the incident, a number of prominent Sunni politicians in Saida, including Bahiya Hariri and former Prime Minister Fouad Senouria, accused Hezbollah of involvement in the fighting, with news statements coming out on June 18, 22, 23 and 24, 2013.)
 Incidents took place in two densely populated working class Shi’a neighborhoods known to be under Hezbollah control one in Bir al-Abed on Tuesday, July 9, 2013, and a second in al-Ruwair on Thursday, August 15, 2013.
 These include incidents at two Salafi mosques: the Taqwa Mosque where prayers are led by Sheikh Salem al-Rifai and the al-Salam Mosque which is headed by Sheikh Bilal al-Baroudi, which took place following the Friday prayers on August 23, 2013. Speaking before a military tribunal, the state prosecutor, Justice Saqer Saqer, accused long-standing Tripoli Islamist Sheikh Hashim Minkara, alongside fellow detainees Sheikh Ahmad Ghareeb (Minkara’s aid), Mustafa Houri, and their other co-defendants, of forming an armed and criminal gang. The alleged conspirators were accused of attempting to undermine the state’s “civilian and military institutions,” of forming a terrorist cell, and of detonating car bombs outside mosques in the north of Lebanon. Saqer also accused Captain Mohammed Ali (a Syrian national) and Khader Arban of the same crime, with reports of the accusations appearing on . Friday, August 30, 2013.
 See his speech from Monday, September 23, 2013, published the following day in Al Mustaqbal, Page4.
 See Al Hayat, July 7, 2014;
 An Nahar, July 7, 2014
 On March 2, 2013, Sheikh Chahhal threatened to issue a fatwa (edict) against those who “trespassed against the Sunni Sect.. In a proclamation issued on April 22, 2013, Ahmad Aseer made clear that the “duty of all those capable, and particularly those in Lebanon, to carry out jihad in Syria.” Another Sunni cleric, Sheikh Salem al-Rifai of the Muslim Clerics’ League, stated “Hezbollah involvement in Syria is dragging [Lebanon] towards internal dissent, and pushes the Free Syrian Army to bomb Lebanese villages.” That statement followed on one day after an announcement rallying support for the victims in the village of al-Qusayr in the Hama countryside, along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier. This news was preceded by the announcement of the killing of 17 young men from Tripoli who were on their way to do battle with the Syrian regime under the auspices of a Sunni cleric named Khaled al-Mahmoud based in Bab at Tabbaneh. They were the apparent victims of an ambush set by the Syrian military in the area of Tal Kalkh on Saturday, December 1, 2012. (See media reports on Sunday, December 2, 2012; March 2, 2013 and April 22 and 23.)
 See the Sixteenth semi-annual report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559 (2004), October 17, 2004;
Since 2011, the Sunni political leadership represented by Hariri (and others) was opposed to the Mufti Mohammad Rachid Qabbani and had accused him of serving Hezbollah and Syria. In August 2014, The Mufti was replaced with an official seen as closer to Hariri, who was also more in line with Egyptian officials and Saudi Arabia.
 The term “Shi’a Crescent” was coined by King Abdullah II of Jordan and first used in an interview given to the Washington Post, during a visit to the United States at the beginning of December 2004. He used the term to express his fear of a pro-Iranian regime emerging in Baghdad, which he suggested would create an unbroken chain of Shi’ite influence stretching from Iran to Lebanon, and challenge the balance of power that currently stands with Sunni Muslims. King Abdullah II suggested that such a development would pose serious questions for the economic and political stability of many of the countries in the region.