Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 1

January 2000 

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Syrian, Lebanese Security Forces Crush Sunni Islamist Opposition
by Gary C. Gambill

Syrian and Lebanese forces have simultaneously moved to crush clandestine Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movements in both countries over the last month in an apparent bid to eliminate potential opposition to peace negotiations with Israel.

On December 30, Syrian security forces began a massive manhunt for Islamist militants in Damascus, Homs and nearby villages, some of whom were accused of infiltrating into the country from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Several Syrian intelligence agents riding in a car were ambushed and killed by armed Islamists, touching off a series of intense clashes with security forces that continued for four days.1 A press release by Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (The Islamic Liberation Party) claimed that approximately 800 people have been arrested by security forces, adding that many relatives of its party members were seized as hostages to put pressure on them to surrender. In a statement published by Al-Quds al-Arabi, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the arrests, which it said also included members of leftist opposition groups, and demanded the release of all political detainees.2

Lebanese army units
Lebanese army commandos near the village of Dinnieh on January 1
At the same time, Syrian officials ordered the Lebanese Army to prepare for action against an obscure band of 200-300 Sunni militants calling themselves Takfir wa al-Hijra who had established themselves in the mountains of Dinnieh, east of the north Lebanese port city of Tripoli. The operation was originally scheduled to take place in mid-January, but the advance deployment of military forces to the region apparently tipped off the rebels, who ambushed an army unit in the village of Assoun, killing five soldiers. Over the next several days, an estimated 13,000 Lebanese army troops backed by tanks and artillery swiftly defeated the rebels, driving isolated bands of surviving guerrillas into remote areas of north Lebanon. The army reported a total of eleven soldiers killed in action, while twenty-five rebels were killed and fifty-five captured.

Very little information is available about the Takfir wa al-Hijra movement. Although this same name was used in the early 1980s by the militant Egyptian Islamist group responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, there does not appear to be any explicit connection between the two. There was virtually no mention of Takfir wa al-Hijra in the Lebanese media until the group allegedly bombed four Orthodox Christian churches in and around Tripoli in October and November of last year.

The group's membership is extremely multifaceted. Although most are Lebanese, there are also a significant number of Palestinians, Syrians, and others from elsewhere in the Arab world. Most have been previously affiliated with anti-Syrian Sunni Islamist movements such as Jama'a al-Islamiyya and Al-Tawhid al-Islami. The Lebanese-born leader of Takfir wa al-Hijra, Bassam Ahmad Kanj (also known as Abu A'isha), and many of its members reportedly fought with the Afghani mujahidin against occupying Soviet forces in the 1980's. According to one report, Kanj received financial support from fellow Afghan veteran Osama bin Laden through bank accounts in Beirut and north Lebanon.3

Lebanese security forces say that the group's infrastructure and leadership have been irrevocably obliterated (Kanj and his two top lieutenants were killed in the fighting).4 However, the official claim that Takfir wa al-Hijra was an isolated fringe movement deserves close scrutiny. With one exception, no family members have come forward to claim the bodies of the dead rebels--possibly in order to avoid revealing their identities and affiliations with other Islamist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere.

The Takfir wa al-Hijra uprising may be representative of a much broader, loose affiliation of Sunni militants who could pose problems for Lebanese and Syrian authorities in the future. Several other outbreaks of violence occurred during the fighting which lead credence to this assessment.

On January 2, a gunman claiming to be "a martyr for Grozny" (the capital of Chechnya, where Russian forces are fighting Islamist rebels) fired several rocket-propelled grenades at the Russian embassy in Beirut, killing a security guard and wounding several others. Lebanese officials publicly dismissed the man, a Palestinian named Ahmad Raja Abu Kharrub (alias Abu Ubeida) as a psychologically unstable individual. However, according to one report, Abu Kharrub was a member of Usbat al-Ansar (the Partisan League), a Sunni Islamist Palestinian group linked to Takfir wa al-Hijra, based in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon. The leader of Usbat al-Ansar, Abd al-Karim al-Sa'di, is said to have sent members of group to Beirut and other areas of Lebanon in November to avenge Russian atrocities in Chechnya.5 Usbat al-Ansar is also suspected of responsibility for a grenade attack against a Lebanese army checkpoint near the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp that wounded a soldier on the same day. The following week, four unidentified gunmen disguised as Army soldiers attempted to launch another attack on the Russian embassy from the neighboring Bohsali building, but the plot was foiled by security forces.6

The connection between Lebanese and Chechen Islamists runs much deeper than a shared sense of outrage at Russian atrocities in Chechnya. Last year the Ukrainian government informed Lebanese officials that Chechen fighters were being trained in Ain al-Hilweh.7

Many opposition figures in and outside of Lebanon have noted that northern Lebanon is securely under the control of Syrian military forces and claim that Takfir wa al-Hijra could not have been able to recruit and train a paramilitary force of 200-300 guerrillas without explicit permission from Syrian intelligence.

Simon Abirilia, the head of the National Gathering opposition movement loyal to former prime minister Michel Aoun, claims that the Islamist threat in Lebanon has been greatly exaggerated by the Syrians in order to show the United States "that Lebanon has not reached a sufficient stage of maturity to govern itself and that the permanent presence of Syrian forces remains necessary in the event of the withdrawal of the Israeli army from South Lebanon . . . the goal of Syria is to be recognized by Washington as the guarantor of stability in Lebanon."8

The possibility that some of the isolated attacks around the country that accompanied the rebellion might have been staged by Syria should not be discounted. On January 5, Lebanese television reported an attack against Lebanese army troops in Jounieh by three gunmen dressed as Islamic militants, one of whom pulled off a fake beard as he ran away.9

  1 "Syrian Islamists Come Out Fighting," Intelligence Newsletter, 6 January 2000.
  2 Al-Quds al-Arabi, 17 January 2000.
  3 Al-Nahar, 5 January 2000.
  4 Al-Quds al-Arabi, 6 January 2000.
  5 Al-Nahar, 5 January 2000.
  6 Al-Kifah al-Arabi, 12 January 2000. Another recent incident which may be connected to radical Sunni fundamentalist groups was the abduction and murder of a 59-year-old nun, Antoinette Zaidan, in the Beirut suburb of Hadath on New Year's Eve.
  7 Al-Kifah al-Arabi, 28 December 1999.
  8 "L'ombre de Damas sur les violences au Liban," Libération, 5 January 2000.
  9 "Lebanese 'Islamic Militant' Reveals True Face," AFP, 5 January 2000.

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