TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A Lebanon-based Sunni militant with reported links to Al-Qaeda pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria in an audio recording released late Saturday, urging the radical Syrian rebel group to "reactivate its cells" in the country.
“We pledge allegiance to [ISIS chief] Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurshi al-Baghdadi to listen and obey,” a man identifying himself as Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari and claiming to be based in the northern city of Tripoli said in the audio message.
“We ask [Baghdadi] to reactivate its [ISIS] cells in Lebanon to carry on with jihadist [operations] that have intimidated America,” Abu Sayyaf said in the recording, which was circulated on social media websites and widely covered on local news outlets.
In an article published Saturday, Al-Akhbar newspaper described Abu Sayyaf as an Al-Qaeda commander based in Lebanon but little else is known about the man in the recording.
In the message, Abu Sayyaf also urged Lebanese soldiers from the Sunni sect to desert, accusing the military of siding with Hezbollah.
“The Umma has been shaken as a result of the betrayal of the crusader Lebanese Army that is backed by Hezbollah,” he said, asking Muslim Scholars in Tripoli to support his cause.
Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Tripoli-based Islamist, voiced concern that the audio recording was the first serious sign of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon, adding that Abu Sayyaf’s words resembled statements by Osama Bin Laden, the group’s notorious slain commander.
“This is certainly the first serious statement by Al-Qaeda in Lebanon in which the commander identifies himself. This is in line with Al-Qaeda rules and regulations,” Bakri told The Daily Star.
“He introduced himself in the recording in a manner similar to how Al-Qaeda commanders [introduce] themselves. He who knows but is not known, who attacks but never is attacked. He is a secret Al-Qaeda figure par excellence,” he added.
The sheikh explained that Al-Qaeda adopted its own system of identifying commanders, noting that the name Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari followed the group’s conventions. He noted that Abu Sayyaf’s last name, al-Ansari, is understood to identify the man as a “supporter of the Sunni community in Lebanon.”
“This means [in effect] he is a member of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” he added.
“Al-Qaeda’s agenda is centered on finding a basin of support. In this case, they could be aiming to establish the Emirate of Tripoli in Greater Syria because Abu Sayyaf even approached Tripoli’s Muslim scholars in his speech and asked them not to betray him,” he said.
Referring to Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi, Bakri warned that an attack on the Army was probable and that this “should be followed by announcing Tripoli as an extension of ISIS.”
The Lebanese Army has in recent days been targeted during sporadic clashes between opponents and supporters of President Bashar Assad in Tripoli. Two soldiers have been in the attacks.
Tripoli has witnessed some 19 rounds of fighting between fighters in the pre-dominantly Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen since the uprising in Syria began in March of 2011.
Abu Sayyaf’s remarks stirred controversy in the ranks of Salafist sheikhs in Lebanon’s second largest city.
A source in the Tripoli-based Committee of Muslim Scholars said “sheikhs voiced discomfort with Abu Sayyaf’s statement because ISIS will ruin everything in Lebanon and everything we have worked for.”
“Our problem is with Hezbollah and Alawites in Tripoli but not the Lebanese Army,” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Star. “We fear that attacks against the Army could escalate to attacks against Christians as well.”
Another sheikh, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said he feared ISIS and the Nusra Front sought to transform Lebanon into a global jihadist front.
Aby Sayyaf’s remarks came a day after the Nusra Front in Lebanon warned the Sunni sect to avoid areas where Hezbollah has a presence or enjoys support. The group also called for the support of the Sunni sect in its fight against Hezbollah.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon, which is linked to Syria’s Nusra Front, has claimed responsibility for bombings in areas in Lebanon that back Hezbollah.
On Saturday, Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned against attempts at dragging the Lebanese into conflicts between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, saying such radical groups were linked to the Syrian regime.
“The suspicious calls launched by extremist forces that are clearly linked to the murderous regime in Damascus only aim to transfer the flames to Lebanon, to the benefit of this regime,” Hariri said in a statement.
ISIS and Nusra Front in Lebanon have claimed responsibility for three bombings in the country, including the Beirut southern suburbs, in retaliation to Hezbollah’s military campaign in Syria.
Hariri, who has repeatedly urged his supporters to remain moderate in the face of rising radical groups, has said he is willing to join a new government with Hezbollah for the sake of safeguarding Lebanon.