While many foreigners might readily associate Lebanese Islamism with Hezbollah – the Shiite militia-cum-party’s “military wing” was designated a terror organization by the European Union last month – the past year has seen an unprecedented surge in violence from Sunni Islamist groups, many of whom draw on a militant interpretation of a theological school known as Salafism. Representing a marginal fringe of Lebanon’s Sunni community, historically Salafists were mostly confined to the northern city of Tripoli.
However, in June, Salafist fighters waged a bloody two-day battle with the Lebanese army in Sidon, killing over a dozen soldiers. And on Thursday, an obscure Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Dahiyeh that took thirty civilian lives – the deadliest car bomb since the 1975-90 civil war and the most violent ever attack by Sunni militants against the Lebanese Shiite community.
In an attempt to shine a light on the often murky methods and motivations of these Salafists, journalist and author Nada Abdelsamad recently produced a video documentary (see above) based on extensive interviews with the movement’s leading figures and their devotees. NOW spoke with Abdelsamad about her findings and where the Salafists’ future might be heading.
NOW: Clearly, Lebanon has seen a marked rise in Salafism-related violence in recent weeks. What do you think are the relations between the people you met and the ones carrying out these attacks?
Nada Abdelsamad: Those that I met were clear about their target: they want a khilafa [caliphate, or Islamic state] in Lebanon. We can’t say if there’s a link between those I met and those who are targeting Shiite areas because we still don’t know who is doing this. Is it even a Lebanese faction? We don’t know.
NOW: So you don’t know who the group calling itself the ‘Brigades of Aisha, Mother of the Believers,’ that claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack in south Beirut, could be?
Abdelsamad: No, the groups I met were well-known in Tripoli. They are not hiding behind group names.
NOW: Do Salafists differ in terms of their willingness to use violence (i.e. are some jihadist and others non-jihadist)?
Abdelsamad: This is what the film tried to answer, this was one of my main questions. They said there is no difference between Salafists. They might be jihadists if they were obliged to be, but the only jihadist faction now is the one led by a guy who doesn’t like to be in the media and nobody knows about him, called Hossam Sabbagh. He’s the only jihadist, although [Sheikh Dai al-Islam] al-Shahhal said he has been trying to build an armed faction after what happened in Beirut in May 2008. This is not only what al-Shahhal said but what [Sheikh Salem] al-Rafei said too.
NOW: Regarding Sabbagh, you mention in the documentary that he previously fought in Afghanistan. Is the war in Syria today likely to produce a future generation of Lebanese jihadists like him?
Abdelsamad: They said that only five people [from among Lebanon’s Salafists] have been killed in Syria. Do you think a huge number of young people from Tripoli are fighting in Syria? If there is involvement, it’s not on a big scale.
NOW: Just two weeks ago there were reports that two brothers from Tripoli had blown themselves up in a suicide bombing in Homs.
Abdelsamad: Yes. You have to add those two to three before. So in total there are only five. They are not hiding their call to fight in Syria, but are people going there? I’m not sure.
It’s different from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is an organized party, but Salafists are not so clearly organized. They can call on people to go and fight in Syria, but people can decide whether they want to go or not. This is unlike Hezbollah, whose leader made a political decision [to intervene in Syria].
NOW: One interesting moment was when you visited the studio of the Irtiqaa (“upgrading”) radio station. How significant are things like this in spreading the Salafist message?
Abdelsamad: It’s important because now they have institutions, radios, schools, universities, and they’re becoming more complete parties and this is what they want. As I told you, their main target is to impose a khilafa, and they think a khilafa is coming.
NOW: What other media do they make use of?
Abdelsamad: Every sheikh has his website, and you have all the prayers, all the Friday sermons online, in video and print. They are well-organized.
NOW: It was also fascinating to see women taking on activist roles, even giving speeches to fellow women promoting the cause.
Abdelsamad: I think we didn’t know about them a lot, but the women in the Salafist movement are prominent. One of them I interviewed, Umm Hudaifa, gives sermons in one of the mosques, and many people attend every week. These women are part of Lebanese society now.
NOW: Some argue that Salafist militants in, for example, Bab al-Tabbaneh are not truly motivated by religion, but instead are poor people who fight primarily because they get paid to do so. You’ve seen these people up close: do you think this is the case, or are they sincere believers in the ideology?
Abdelsamad: We have to look at the Salafist movement away from the ongoing fight in Tripoli. Salafism is not growing because of the fight with Jabal Mohsen, the movement is growing in the whole region because you have an Islamist Spring, you have the fighting in Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement there. They think Hezbollah is killing Sunnis. This is the main point.
NOW: Some also argue that Salafist ideology is foreign to Lebanon and has only spread due to financial inducements from the Gulf countries. What do you say to that?
Abdelsamad: They don’t hide it. If you ask them who is paying for these schools and movements, they say that they have direct money from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from NGOs in Kuwait. The Ministry of Awqaf [“financial endowments”] in Saudi Arabia is paying these schools. It’s not something they hide.
NOW: Finally, is Salafism a long-term threat to Lebanon’s democracy and security, or is it something the country can coexist with?
Abdelsamad: I cannot predict but it’s clear that the Salafists do not believe in Lebanon’s constitution. That’s why they don’t run in elections. They don’t seem to want to impose their khilafa by force, because they know that Lebanon is different. But, still, the khilafa is their aim.