Lebanon warily watches its Salafis

While the small community of adherents to strict Islam are being courted by Sunni and Shiite rivals, many worry they could bring Al Qaeda into the Lebanon conflict.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Tensions rising: A bomb exploded outside a mosque Tuesday in a south Lebanon Palestinian camp. Two Sunni groups, one that follows Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology, have been fighting there for several weeks.

In the hilltop Abi Samra neighborhood of this northern city, black banners inscribed with Koranic verses adorn crowded streets. Young men advertise their religious devotion by wearing white dishdashas, long beards, and short hair.

This is where many of the country's small Salafi community, the adherents to strict Islam who aim to emulate the 7th-century practices and ideals of the prophet Muhammad and his followers, can be found and where they now find themselves under close scrutiny in politically divided Lebanon. Ideologically, Salafis shun man-made laws and politics, choosing instead to embrace only sharia (Islamic law) and believe in some of the same rigid ideals that Al Qaeda espouses.

Militant Shiite Hezbollah has been reaching out to them, believing that striking a deal with a Sunni sect, which does not even recognize Shiites as Muslims, might ease flaring intra-Muslim tensions.

The Future Movement, which represents most Lebanese Sunnis and opposes Hezbollah, also has been eyeing the Salafis. They allegedly bankroll the group's leading clerics, who are also said to be receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.

But concerns linger that Salafi extremists could provide a future bridgehead for Al Qaeda into Lebanon.

"There is no organized Al Qaeda here but there are people who support and love Al Qaeda and justify its actions. And if the conflict in Lebanon continues and sectarian fighting continues, then it could be an ideal opportunity for Al Qaeda to organize themselves and form cells," says Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafi cleric living in this northern city.

Salafis suffered in the 1980s and '90s when Syria, ruled by a secular Arab nationalist regime, controlled Lebanon and launched periodic crackdowns on Islamists. But the group began to gain prominence in Lebanon at the onset of the US-led war on terror in 2001. Their heightened profile is mainly due to the growing Sunni-Shiite schism that has engulfed Lebanon since the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.

Salafis' new clout

Rival factions have been courting the Salafis since 2005, placing pressure on a sect that is supposed to remain aloof from secular politics.

"The Salafi movement in Lebanon is broken. We are not united," says Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, imam of As Salam mosque in Tripoli.

Last month, Hezbollah signed a memorandum of understanding with the Salafi Belief and Justice Movement, a group represented by Hassan Shahhal. Hezbollah is allied with some Sunni Islamists as well as secular Sunni leaders, but penetrating the Salafi community was a remarkable coup. Other Salafis, however, reacted with fury, forcing Mr. Shahhal to publicly freeze the memorandum just two days later.

The Future Movement, headed by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, also has been seeking to win over the Salafis, securing their support during the 2005 parliamentary elections. The anti-Shiite rhetoric of Salafi leaders has served to rally Sunnis to the Future Movement in opposition to Hezbollah. The Future Movement is accused of providing funds and arms to some Salafi groups, a charge that is rejected by a source close to Mr. Hariri.

Money and guns

No one doubts that Tripoli is awash with weapons after months of clashes pitting Sunnis against the city's Alawite community, which is close to Syria.

Sheikh Dai al-Islam Shahhal, a cousin of Hassan Shahhal and the leading Salafi figure in Lebanon with close links to the Future Movement, was surrounded by well-armed bodyguards in his office in the Abi Samra quarter of Tripoli. One of them cradled an American M-4 carbine, worth up to $10,000 on Lebanon's black market.

"Syria's supporters here have many weapons, but as far as the Sunni community in Tripoli is concerned, yes, it is true that we are arming, but only with light weapons," says Sheikh Shahhal.

Although the feuding factions in Tripoli formally reconciled two weeks ago, Rifaat Eid, son of the leading Alawite politician in Lebanon, says that, as a member of a pro-Syrian minority in Lebanon, he fears the potential of the Salafis.

"The Salafis are like kittens when they are weak, but when they are strong they become like tigers," he says.

Hostility between Sunnis and Shiites worsened after Hezbollah and its allies stormed the mainly Sunni-populated western half of Beirut in May. A potential meeting between Hariri and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, is being discussed to try and ease tensions. But for many Sunnis, the legacy of the fighting in May continues to feed a sense of humiliation, fear, and anger.

"There is no way there can be a reconciliation with Hezbollah," says Sheikh Baroudi.

Al Qaeda in waiting?

Two weeks ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, launched an attack on Hezbollah and Iran, scorning Sheikh Nasrallah's claim of a "divine victory" over Israel in the 2006 war. He accused Hezbollah of paving the way for "the acceptance of 15,000 crusader soldiers that separate the mujahideen from Israel," a reference to the 13,000-strong UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

"Condemning Hezbollah and Iran brings Lebanese supporters closer to Al Qaeda's agenda," says Sheikh Bakri.

Although there is support for Al Qaeda and some Al Qaeda-style groups exist, mainly in Lebanon's teeming Palestinian refugee camps, analysts generally doubt there is a formal presence of the group in Lebanon.

The challenges facing Al Qaeda in building a base here are formidable. Lebanon is small and religiously mixed. And Hezbollah would represent a daunting enemy.

Salafi leaders insist that speculation of an Al Qaeda presence in Lebanon is overplayed. "Hezbollah is more dangerous to Lebanon than Al Qaeda," says Baroudi. "I hope there won't be a confrontation with Hezbollah, but I do see one coming."

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