Exclusive: Veteran Lebanese fighter trains new generation of jihadis – for Syria (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) By Nicholas Blanford QAA, LEBANON 05/30/12)
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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.
Mustapha ducks beneath a nectarine tree, its branches heavy with
unripe green fruit, and indicates a shallow valley to the west just
beyond the orchard.
“That’s where we practice with rifles,” he says. “There’s no one
around here to disturb us.”
Mustapha is a veteran of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war who is using his
past military experience to train dozens of Lebanese volunteers eager
to cross the nearby border with Syria to join the armed opposition
against the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
According to Mustapha and other Lebanese affiliated with the Free
Syrian Army, the main armed rebel group in Syria, some 300 Lebanese
Sunnis from the northern Bekaa Valley area alone have taken up arms
against the Assad regime in the past year. Most of them have joined
FSA brigades in the area of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.
The Lebanese recruits are not the only non-Syrians to volunteer for
the struggle against the Assad regime, the FSA volunteers say. Other
foreign fighters include Jordanians, Tunisians, Algerians, and Saudis.
Their presence underlines the sectarian nature of the increasingly
violent uprising, effectively turning the country into a new theater
of jihad pitting a predominantly Sunni opposition against an
entrenched regime elite drawn mainly from the Alawite sect, an
offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“Today there is a need for jihad in Syria, a jihad for righteousness.
It is a religious duty to help our Muslim brothers in Syria,” says
Khaled, a portly Lebanese fighter from the Bekaa Valley who joined
the FSA a year ago after being trained by Mustapha. Sporting a thick
beard and black turban, Khaled arrived at a remote two-room safe
house near Qaa less than an hour earlier having traveled along FSA-
controlled routes from Homs, 20 miles north of the border with
Lebanon, where he is based.
´A jihad for righteousness´
Lebanese volunteers for the anti-Assad struggle in Syria are
motivated not only by religious obligation, but also from a deep-
rooted sense of anger and frustration with what they regard as
several years of humiliation and disenfranchisement within Lebanon’s
political system. In particular, they blame Lebanon’s militant Shiite
Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in the country and the
dominant influence in the Lebanese government, which is backed by
A series of events that rankled Sunnis in recent years culminated in
January 2011 with Hezbollah helping to engineer the downfall of a
government headed by Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement,
Lebanon’s top Sunni political organization – a move his supporters
decried as a “coup.” Mr. Hariri has lived abroad since April 2011.
Recent developments suggest that the vacuum in Sunni leadership could
be filled by more radical elements emerging from the Sunni street.
Two weeks ago, Lebanon was rocked by the worst violence in four years
when Sunnis demonstrated against the arrest of a Sunni Islamist
activist and the fatal shooting of a Sunni cleric by Lebanese
soldiers. At least 12 people died in a week of violence. The fact
that Mustapha and Khaled were willing to discuss the previously
undisclosed military training activities and volunteering for the FSA
underlines the bitterness felt by many Lebanese Sunnis. But both of
them spoke on condition their real names would not be used, nor their
villages revealed, due to the sensitive security environment in
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
“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,”
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
“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
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.” (© The Christian Science Monitor. 05/30/12)
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