TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A Lebanon-based Sunni militant with reported links to Al-Qaeda pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) 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-Qurashi al-Baghdadi to listen and obey,” said a man identifying himself as Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari and claiming to be based in the northern city of Tripoli.
“We ask [Baghdadi] to reactivate its [ISIS] cells in Lebanon to carry on with jihadist [operations] that have intimidated America,” Ansari said in the audio recording, which was circulated on social media websites and widely reported in the local media.
In an article published Saturday, Al-Akhbar newspaper described Ansari as an Al-Qaeda commander based in Lebanon. Little else is known about him.
In the message, Ansari also urged Sunni Lebanese soldiers to desert the Army, 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,” Ansari said, asking Muslim scholars in Tripoli to support his cause.
Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Tripoli-based Islamist, said the audio recording was the first conclusive sign of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon, adding that Ansari’s words resembled statements by Osama bin Laden, the group’s notorious former 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.”
Bakri said Al-Qaeda had its own system of identifying commanders, and that Ansari’s name followed the group’s usual conventions. He said the surname “Ansari” was believed to identify the man as a “supporter of the Sunni community in Lebanon.”
All of this, in effect, “means he is a member of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon,” Bakri said.
“Al-Qaeda’s agenda is centered on finding a basin of support,” Bakri said. “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.”
Referring to Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi, Bakri warned that an attack on the Army would be probable and that this could “be followed by announcing Tripoli as an extension of ISIS [controlled territory].”
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 killed in the attacks.
Tripoli has witnessed 19 rounds of fighting between the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011.
Ansari’s remarks stirred controversy among the Salafist sheikhs in Lebanon’s second-largest city.
A source in the Tripoli-based Committee of Muslim Scholars, who wished not to be identified, told The Daily Star: “Sheikhs here have voiced discomfort with Ansari’s statement because ISIS will ruin everything in Lebanon, everything we have worked for.”
“Our problem is with Hezbollah and Alawites in Tripoli but not the Lebanese Army,” the source said. “We fear that attacks against the Army could escalate to attacks against Christians as well.”
Ansari’s remarks came a day after the Nusra Front in Lebanon warned Sunnis 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 the Jan. 21 suspected suicide bombing in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik and the Jan. 16 blast in east Lebanon’s Hermel, both areas where residents largely support Hezbollah. The group has cited Hezbollah’s presence in Syria alongside Assad as a reason for its attacks.
ISIS has claimed it was behind the Jan. 2 car bomb in Haret Hreik as well as a rocket attack on the border town of Arsal on Jan. 17.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri Saturday warned against attempts to drag Lebanese citizens 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.
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.