BEIRUT: Following the Army’s arrest of Imad Ahmad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian rebel commander, Islamists in the town of Arsal Saturday went on a rampage, attacking checkpoints, kidnapping Lebanese soldiers and kick-starting weekendlong deadly clashes that have residents fleeing for safety.But who was Jomaa – also known as Abu Ahmad Jomaa and Mahmoud Jomaa – and why has his arrest precipitated some of the worst unrest in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began?
Jomaa, who is in his late 20s and hails from Qusair, is considered the leader of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, which was originally part of the Homs-based Farouk Brigades, an Islamist group fighting in Syria.
“He likes the limelight and fame,” according to Capt. Bassel Idriss, a commander of the secular rebel 77 Katiba unit who knew Jomaa. “He started fighting in Qusair, then Qalamoun. He was a fierce, distinguished fighter.”
His background, according to Idriss, was hardly that of a born-and-bred fundamentalist.
“He hails from a simple, poor family, and his family was never very religious ... before the revolution he had a Suzuki van that he used to sell milk. He has two brothers and three sisters, and is divorced but remarried two years ago.”
Jomaa was heavily involved in the battle for Syria’s strategic and mountainous Qalamoun region, most of which was seized by Syrian regime and Hezbollah troops in spring last year. Fajr al-Islam was active in Qusair, and after it fell, Jomaa relocated to the outskirts of the town of Qara, and after Yabroud fell, to Wadi Zamrani, and area in the vicinity of Flita-Arsal.
He and his brigade have been living in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town close to the border that is hosting around 100,000 Syrian refugees.
In the wake of enormous victories in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) last month, Fajr al-Islam released a YouTube video pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader.
The NNA reported Saturday that, according to an LAF Orientation Directorate statement, Jomaa “confessed to belonging to the Nusra Front.” However, sources denied this, and Nusra Front Sunday confirmed via Twitter that Jomaa was not part of their group.
Jomaa was caught at a checkpoint in the outskirts of Arsal at midday Saturday, according to the Army statement, with NNA reporting that he had been “injured during recent battles and was being transported to a hospital in the vicinity.”
But the source refuted this, saying he had merely been accompanying someone else who was injured.
Either way, within hours of his arrest, Islamist militants dressed head to toe in black had spread throughout the town and had begun their campaign of attacks against the Lebanese Army. The source said Fajr al-Islam members were among them.
Speaking Sunday at a news conference, Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi denied that the attacks began due to Jomaa’s detention, but rather were “planned a long time ago, [with the militants] waiting for the appropriate time, which came during the last 48 hours.”
The Army said Jomaa had been handed over to the relevant authorities for further investigation.