TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The Tripoli-based Salafi Sheikh Bilal Deqmaq describes Osama bin Laden in admiring terms, but says he doesn’t agree with all of Al-Qaeda’s principles and the group is not active in Lebanon.
In person, Deqmaq – who has been connected to Islamist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam – is anything but the stereotype of a fiery Salafist sheikh. He is friendly, dresses in Western clothes and always has a smartphone nearby.
Called a political panderer and a man ignorant of Islam by some, in a recent interview with The Daily Star Deqmeq discussed his public persona and what he truly believes.
To those who call him a fundamentalist, he responds that he is “a fundamentalist about spreading Islam, fighting polytheists and spreading the word of God.”
“When anything happens in the Arab world or Lebanon that has to do with Sunnis, all eyes are on me,” the preacher says. “This is why there have been disputes between myself and others. Maybe some people consider me a competitor.”
Born in Tripoli’s Bab al-Ramel in 1970, Deqmaq embraced Islamist thought at a young age and become involved in the Islamic Tawheed Movement, dreaming of an Islamic emirate in Tripoli.
Now the head of the Iqraa Institution for Social Development, the media-friendly preacher says he manages to straddle various worlds despite the controversy
He cites Fatah al-Islam leader Abu Huraira as a friend, yet Internal Security Forces head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi also considers him a trusted mediator.
Deqmaq has played a major role in mediating for the release of the Lebanese pilgrims captured in Syria some seven months ago.
He describes Rifi as “a dear old friend who is respected even by his foes. We are bound by a strong relationship and he says he is proud of it.”
Although he opposes the Syrian regime, Deqmaq says he has his differences with the Future Movement, which he criticizes for its secular nature. He also finds himself at odds with Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.
Calling bin Laden the “sheikh of mujahideen,” Deqmaq is pleased to say that “Americans have uncovered some documents that say bin Laden always asked not to hurt women and children, nor to cut down a tree or hurt Muslims. These are evidence of the sheikh’s sincerity, may God have mercy on his soul.”
But Deqmaq insists he does not always agree with Al-Qaeda. He defends the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., but not all of their moves.
“I approve of fighting the Jews, the aggressors, and those who fight the Sunni people. But I disagree with them for the attacks they have launched in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, except for those that target the [Shiite] Houthis. I also disagree with their attacks in Egypt.”
Al-Qaeda has no presence in Lebanon, Deqmaq maintains: “If there were Al-Qaeda in Lebanon, Hezbollah Secretary-General [Sayyed] Hasan Nasrallah would never be able to squirrel out of his hole.”