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Urduni, Lebanon’s elusive new ‘emir’

  • Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria wave ISIS flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014. Urduni is unknown in Salafist circles in Lebanon. (REUTERS/Stringer)

BEIRUT: One of the first orders of establishing an Islamic caliphate is the naming of emirs to rule over the various emirates. The Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), appears to have done just that earlier this week as local media reported that Abdel-Aziz Mohammad Abdel-Salam al-Urduni was named the emir of Lebanon. There is very little information available to the public about Urduni, a man shrouded in more mystery than the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was recently recognized by his followers as Caliph Ibrahim.

LBCI television reported the Islamic State’s appointment of Lebanon’s emir Sunday and the announcement was quickly circulated by other local media outlets and created the buzz on social media. Urduni allegedly travels regularly between Syria and Yemen and provided Monther al-Hassan, a Swedish national of Lebanese background connected to the bombing in Raouche’s Duroy Hotel, with explosive belts to be used in suicide missions. But apart from this, little is known of the new emir.

Urduni is not on the U.S. terror list, unlike Baghdadi who was designated such by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2011. In fact, no one interviewed by The Daily Star said they had heard the name before it was reported in local media this week.

Made up of radicalized Sunnis, ISIS has taken hold of a large chunk of land divided between Syrian and Iraq. It has declared this area the new caliphate and asked Muslims from around the world to join them.

Jihadis associated with groups like the Islamic State often adopt a last name that identifies their roots, though that is not always the case. Baghdadi, for example, is thought to have been born in Samarra, Iraq, and not Baghdad. Earlier reports conjectured that Urduni, meaning Jordanian, could be a Palestinian with Jordanian nationality that grew up in a Lebanese refugee camp, though analysts expressed doubt.

“Palestinian refugees are mostly from Galilee and a small minority from Jordan are not registered with UNRWA,” said Mohammad Salam, a veteran political analyst.

Lebanon has 12 Palestinian camps and 455,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA. The largest camp, Ain al-Hilweh, is overflowing with arms and said to be a base for numerous radical Islamist movements.

“You can’t rule out that he may be from Ain al-Hilweh,” retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Farhat said. “Still, even experts on Ain al-Hilweh didn’t hear such things [about appointing Urduni].”

A security source in Ain al-Hilweh ruled out the idea that Urduni hailed from the overpopulated camp or even had a momentary presence in Ain al-Hilweh. “What is certain is that Urduni is unknown to Islamist circles within the camp,” the source added.

In spite of his mysterious reputation, Urduni’s name could possibly mean he is simply a rising star in the jihadi community.

“Perhaps he’s a young leader in his 20s,” Farhat said. “Most of the people involved in terrorist attacks in Lebanon, whether planning or committing them, were in their 20s.” Urduni’s alleged associate Monther al-Hassan was born in 1990. The suicide bomber that blew himself up in the Duroy and a second bomber caught by security agencies were also both in their 20s.

Another curious development is the absence of an official statement issued by ISIS. Following the establishment of the caliphate, Baghdadi released a message to mark the holy month of Ramadan. The speech was made in Arabic with written translations in English, French, German, Russian and Albanian. No sort of statement is available appointing Urduni as an emir.

This was also pointed out on social media by followers and supporters of the Islamic State.

“This is a fabrication by the media and until now the Islamic State has not announced anything,” said one Twitter user from Tripoli who closely follows the group and its political developments.

Another pertinent question relates to why the Islamic State chose to name an emir for Lebanon, a state whose borders are often rejected by Islamist groups. Lebanon is usually included with Syria and Palestine in an area called “Sham.”

“They could be deciding to appoint an emir for each country as opposed to the whole Muslim world,” explained Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, a political analyst and expert on Islamist movements.

In the past, local media reported that wanted Australian-Lebanese dual national and Salafist figure Hussam Sabbagh was appointed the Nusra Front’s “Emir of North Lebanon.” Sources close to Sabbagh reject reports that he has relations with Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, but security sources and political analysts familiar with developments in Tripoli agree there is a connection.

Until more information is revealed, the announcement will be treated with skepticism by some and shock by others.

“This is a surprise as nobody in the last 10 years has talked about this name,” said Farhat. “Even in Jordan they don’t know him.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2014, on page 4.
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Summary

One of the first orders of establishing an Islamic caliphate is the naming of emirs to rule over the various emirates. The Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), appears to have done just that earlier this week as local media reported that Abdel-Aziz Mohammad Abdel-Salam al-Urduni was named the emir of Lebanon. There is very little information available to the public about Urduni, a man shrouded in more mystery than the Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was recently recognized by his followers as Caliph Ibrahim.

Urduni is not on the U.S. terror list, unlike Baghdadi who was designated such by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2011 .

A security source in Ain al-Hilweh ruled out the idea that Urduni hailed from the overpopulated camp or even had a momentary presence in Ain al-Hilweh.

In the past, local media reported that wanted Australian-Lebanese dual national and Salafist figure Hussam Sabbagh was appointed the Nusra Front's "Emir of North Lebanon".


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