Exclusive: Veteran Lebanese fighter trains new generation of jihadis – for Syria
Longtime fighter Mustapha explains to the first Western reporter to visit his Bekaa Valley orchard camp how he is preparing eager Lebanese to take up arms against the Assad regime.
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Mustapha once was a member of a Syrian-backed political group in Lebanon but quit in protest in May 2008 when Hezbollah briefly overran Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut in retaliation for the then-government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s communications network. Mustapha returned to his home in the Bekaa Valley and says he quickly began helping to train secret “sleeper” cells of Sunni militants in readiness for a possible future confrontation with Hezbollah. But with the uprising in Syria, that focus has shifted somewhat.Skip to next paragraph
“Today, all the people I train are recruits who want to fight the Assad regime,” he says.
Militant who fought in Bab Amr: No Al Qaeda presence in Syria
Mustapha says he waits until he has around 10 potential FSA recruits and then takes them to the orchard where he delivers theoretical lessons in weapons-handling and basic military skills in a small farmhouse. The practical training then takes place in rugged unpopulated areas of the Bekaa Valley.
“The secondary training ... includes learning how to plant roadside bombs and landmines, moving under fire and marksmanship skills,” Mustapha says.
Such training provides essential preparation for fighters like Khaled, who fought in the Bab Amr and Khaldiyah districts of Homs earlier in the year when it was besieged by Syrian troops.
“I experienced 48 hours of hell in Bab Amr when the regime destroyed a street using artillery and tanks. The house I was in was struck by shells and I had to jump from the third floor to escape,” he says.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” and Islamic militants and assert Al Qaeda is responsible for several devastating car bomb attacks in the past five months.
But Khaled insists that there is no Al Qaeda presence in Syria and that the foreign volunteers are simply devout Muslims engaged in jihad.
“If you took a picture of me holding a rifle in front of a black flag inscribed with ‘There is no God, but God’ and put it in a Western paper, everyone would say I am Al Qaeda,” he says. “[But] I am a Muslim on jihad to defend Muslims. If the West cannot understand that and thinks I’m Al Qaeda, then the West has a problem.”
Still, Khaled exposes the sectarian mind-set of many fighters when asked if Syria had become a source of jihad for all Muslims.
“Not all Muslims, just Sunni Muslims,” he replies. Mustapha, who was sitting beside Khaled, quickly reaches out and touches him on the arm.
“No, not just Sunnis,” he admonishes Khaled. “The jihad is for the sake of righteousness; it’s not a sectarian issue.”
Sectarian strife – on both sides of the border
There is a distinct sectarian dimension to the Syrian conflict, which lately has spilled into Lebanon, a country which itself has a long and tragic history of sectarian strife.
Overlooking Mustapha’s orchard training camp are steep rugged brush-covered mountains where Hezbollah trains its own Shiite militants. The western half of the northern Bekaa is a Hezbollah stronghold, home to Assad regime sympathizers and a string of Shiite-populated villages inhabited by influential clans for whom tribal traditions supersede loyalty to the Lebanese state. On the eastern flank of the valley are several Sunni-populated towns and villages most of whose residents actively support the Syrian opposition by joining the FSA, smuggling weapons into Syria or providing support for Syrian refugees fleeing the violence.
Two weeks ago, FSA elements kidnapped three Lebanese Shiites, one of them from the powerful Jaafar clan, from a village just north of the Lebanese border. In retaliation the Jaafars kidnapped 36 Syrians.
Clashes broke out in the Syrian border villages, pitting the armed Lebanese Shiites of the Jaafar clan against FSA rebels, some of whom were Sunni Lebanese. A prisoner exchange was agreed upon and all hostages were released on May 16.
Sunnis supporting the Syrian opposition “are all extremists,” says Rakan Jaafar, the mayor of the Shiite-populated village of Qaa near the border. “Things will be very bad if they take over in Syria.”
If some 300 Sunnis from the Bekaa Valley alone have joined the FSA, it is almost certain that Lebanese Sunnis from other parts of the country – particularly the north, where support for the Syria opposition runs high – have crossed the border to fight the Assad regime.
Asked if he knows of other places where Lebanese Sunni volunteers are receiving military training, Mustapha shrugs and says, “Look, everyone is training. Them [Hezbollah and its allies] and us. Everyone is training.”