TRIPOLI, Lebanon: He has left his mark on battlefields from Afghanistan to Chechnya, but is rarely photographed.
There are warrants for his arrest in the two countries whose citizenship he holds, but he has never been captured. Now, with the emergence of Salafists as a major force in Syria and north Lebanon, the shadowy Sheikh Houssam al-Sabbagh is said to play a decisive role in militant activities. But Sabbagh avoids the spotlight, and precious little is known about him.
Born and raised in Bab al-Tabbaneh some 50 years ago, Sabbagh cut his teeth during Lebanon’s Civil War as part of Khalil Akkawi’s Tawheed Islamic Movement. He is said to have built his reputation as a field commander in Afghanistan and Chechnya, eventually returning to Tripoli after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. With warrants out for his arrest in both countries where he has citizenship – Australia and Lebanon – for a time the man also known as Abu Hasan lived in the neighborhood of Bab al-Rammel and disguised himself as a cart-pushing snack peddler.
Eventually, Sabbagh threw himself into the Islamist cause in both Lebanon and across the border in Syria. Lebanon put a warrant out for his arrest in May 2007 with the emergence of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared conflict, accused for forming an armed group and affiliation with Al-Qaeda.
The militant came to prominence, both as a man and a myth, with the latest rounds of fighting between Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. He commands some 250 fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh and holds enough sway that when various sides in the fighting met at Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara’s house to discuss tensions in the city, the Lebanese security personnel present declined to arrest him.
Sabbagh is also said to have fought alongside rebels including the notorious Nusra Front in Syria. He has helped smuggle fighters into Syria, and is said to be involved not only for religious reasons but also out of a desire to avenge the injustices he believes the Assad family imposed on Bab al-Tabbaneh when Syria occupied Lebanon.
The Nusra Front and other Syrian Islamist fighting groups now use him as their foremost representative in Lebanon, and Sabbagh coordinates between various groups who hope to establish an Islamic emirate in Tripoli.
Despite his near iconic status, Sabbagh is not without controversy. One well-known Alawite militant who fought alongside Sabbagh in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Fadi Daher, split from the fighter after finding his religious views too extreme. Sabbagh was apparently heard referring to Alawites as “polytheists.”
Some Tripoli sheikhs, who refused to be identified in the media, criticized what they said was a shallow knowledge of Islamic law and an inflated ego. One sheikh said Sabbagh has drawn the ire of controversial Tripoli-based Sheikh Omar Bakri after drawing away some of Bakri’s supporters.
Despite the mystery that surrounds him, all of those who have had contact with the preacher and fighter say he has close ties with those who follow the teachings of Al-Qaeda and the Al-Qaeda inspired group Fatah al-Islam.
While Nabil Rahim, an alleged Fatah al-Islam militant, shares many theological stances with Sabbagh, he believes Sabbagh is making a mistake by avoiding the media spotlight. Rahim has said that he himself made this mistake in the past, allowing rumor and fear to take hold.
Others cast doubt over Sabbagh’s credentials as a fighter abroad, saying they are exaggerated.
Not since Fatah al-Islam’s Shaker al-Abssi led Islamists to prominence in 2007 has the group enjoyed such media attention. The families of Islamist prisoners have gained notice for their protests against the detention of their relatives, and the Salafist involvement in the Syrian uprising has drawn notice both in Lebanon and abroad.
With the Nusra Front designated as a terrorist organization by the United States but also seen as one of the most powerful fighting forces of the uprising, the fate of Salafists in Lebanon and the region is unclear. Some believe that Islamists will become scapegoats when the air in Syria clears, as they have in other conflicts.
But for those in Tripoli and abroad who believe in Sabbagh and his mission, and for those who oppose it, the quest to find out more about this secretive man remains.