TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Fears are mounting in northern Lebanon over an influx of highly trained Islamist fighters following the Syrian government’s seizure of a Crusader castle from rebels.
Meanwhile details continue to emerge about the Lebanese emir of a hard-line Islamist group that was killed in the fighting.The fall of the fortress, known as Crac des Chevaliers, which overlooks the Homs village of Al-Hosn, has proven a huge defeat for the Islamist group Jund al-Sham, forcing approximately 300 fighters who were holed up in the castle to retreat to Lebanon.
According to information from Salafist activist sources in north Lebanon, a large number of Lebanese fighters from Jund al-Sham and their families – believed to number around 1,000 – survived a secondary Syrian army ambush near the border area of Bqaiaa.
Locals fear that the presence of Syrian fighters along with defeated Lebanese militants could stoke sectarian tensions at a time when the country’s northern capital, Tripoli, is already the stage for heavy clashes between supporters and opponents of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
When contacted by The Daily Star, several residents said that they were very afraid of the possible consequences but were too scared to elaborate further.
North Lebanon residents fear that fighters returning from Syria will have been imbued with radical, fundamentalist beliefs, gained extensive fighting experience in the field and will possess a readiness to both kill and die for their cause. Jund al-Sham is close to the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front and looks down upon sheikhs who call for moderation.
Many believe that the returning fighters and those who rally around them pose a threat to Tripoli’s security, and worry that their presence may lead to something similar to the 2007 Nahr al-Bared clashes, in which the Army battled militants from the extremist group Fatah al-Islam in the northern refugee camp. Four hundred people were killed in the fighting, including 160 military personnel.
The most notable death in the fierce fighting for Qalaat al-Hosn was Lebanese national and Jund al-Sham emir Khaled Mahmoud al-Dandashi – more widely known by his nom du guerre, Abu Suleiman.
Dandashi has played a crucial role in the formation of the Syrian branch of Jund al-Sham, which has long existed in Lebanon, and the Islamic Emirate in Qalaat al-Hosn, largely following in the footsteps of Lebanese Salafist Walid Boustani.
Both Dandashi and Boustani were among some of the members of Fatah al-Islam who survived the 2007 Nahr al-Bared fighting. Both were arrested and imprisoned in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison before escaping at separate points to join Islamist forces fighting in the Syrian uprising.
Boustani hails from Bab al-Tabbaneh, and fought alongside Abu al-Arabi, a military leader in the neighborhood who became a full-fledged warlord during the 1975-90 Civil War. After the war ended, Boustani left Lebanon and went to Denmark before returning again in 2006 and establishing a Fatah al-Islam cell in the Syrian Qalamoun region as part of the group’s mission to declare Tripoli an Islamic emirate.
The Lebanese security forces arrested him and sent him to Roumieh, but he fled in 2010 under mysterious circumstances. He popped up again in the Syrian border town of Tal Kalakh around two years ago, but was executed by the Free Syrian Army in early 2012, with his death captured on a video posted on YouTube.
Dandashi followed in Boustani’s footsteps. He joined the battlefield at a young age, and already belonged to Fatah al-Islam and the Islamist Al-Hijra w al-Takfir group by 2000. He was sent to prison three times, most recently in February 2008 after the Nahr al-Bared clashes, until he finally escaped sometime in early 2012 and traveled to Qalaat al-Hosn, where Boustani was.
Taking advantage of the chaos in Syria and the rebel Free Syrian Army’s lack of control, Dandashi launched the Syrian branch of Jund al-Sham and declared himself the group’s emir. He fought alongside the Nusra Front and recruited young Lebanese men whenever he could.
Both of his brothers were killed in mysterious circumstances. Bilal, known as Abu Jandal, was assassinated around the same time that Fatah al-Islam was formed in 2007, and his other brother Mohammad, known as Abu Thabet, was murdered in south Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in 2002.
In the video Dandashi released announcing the creation of Jund al-Sham in Syria and declaring himself emir of the group, he added the word “muhajir,” or emigrant, to his nom du guerre and said his primary mission was “jihad to enable God’s rule on earth.” Before dying, he reportedly sent messages to Salafists in Tripoli asking them for their prayers for his entry into paradise.
Others who died in the fighting were identified as: Khaled Nazem al-Dandashi aka Abdel-Rahman from the Akkar town of Mashta Hassan; Hamza al-Zoghbi aka Abu Jaafar; Abdallah al-Hajj aka Abu Shaaib from Akkar; Mohammad Othman Bitar aka Abu Othman; Bahaa Mahmoud aka Abu Dardaa; Amer Hlawaik aka Abu Ashraf; Khaled Asaad Jomaa; Omar Khaled Haidar aka Abu Mohammad; Abu Abdallah from the Syrian governorate of Qunaitra, who resides in Lebanon; Abu Mosaab; and Salem Rustom.
All these deaths have contributed to a growing feeling of anger among some in northern Lebanon who see the fall of Yabroud and Qalaat al-Hosn in a sectarian light.
“This is a victory for Hezbollah and the Assad regime and a big defeat for the Sunni sect, which the entire world has abandoned while the Islamist fighters in Syria are facing death bravely,” said one Salafist sheikh in Tripoli.
“Congratulations to Abu Suleiman [Dandashi] for his martyrdom. He went to Qalaat al-Hosn weighing approximately 100 kilograms and lost half of that before becoming a martyr, whereas Sunni sheikhs in Lebanon are gaining weight.”