BEIRUT: Two years ago, the name Sheikh Ahmad Assir would likely have meant little to most Lebanese. A year ago, he’d have been recognizable, his beard and his antics – from bike riding to popular dance performances – providing an amusing backdrop to an increasingly firebrand rhetoric which attracted young Sunni extremists into his fold. Today, as he purportedly holes up in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Assir is almost universally condemned in Lebanon as the man who in less than 24 hours brought war to Sidon. Born 45 years ago to a Sunni father and Shiite mother, Assir became a full-time preacher in the southern port city of Sidon in 1989.
Preaching from the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, which today is more commonly referred to as Assir’s mosque, the Salafist sheikh’s fiery sermons pronouncing his support for the Syrian uprising and condemning Hezbollah’s arms and Iran’s influence in Lebanon increasingly drew national attention.
Some analysts claim the sheikh’s sudden popular ascent was partially a result of a Sunni leadership vacuum created when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri departed the country after he lost the premiership in 2011.
In March 2012, Assir’s address to an anti-Assad rally in Downtown Beirut was preceded by a performance by singer Fadel Shaker – who later retired his vocal cords to follow the religious teachings of the sheikh. On Monday, the once notorious figure on the glitzy Beirut celebrity scene was among those on a wanted list of Assir’s followers.
Shaker was not the first singer Assir drew to his Salafist path; the sheikh reportedly also convinced his father, who was a folk singer, to quit his profession and become more religious.
Along with rallies to support the Syrian revolution, Assir also led a month-long protest last summer in opposition to Hezbollah’s arms. The sit-in blocked Sidon’s coastal highway and scuffles between Assir’s group and its opponents were regular occurrences.
Although Assir told the media he had no appetite for fame, his antics frequently made headlines. He was photographed enjoying ice cream, borrowing children’s bicycles, taking a seaside dip and catching bouquets. A mid-winter skiing excursion to Faraya with dozens of his followers prompted a standoff with Christian locals and a media field day as the sheikh frolicked in the snow.
In his earlier interviews, Assir reportedly emphasized his opposition to armed sectarian violence, but by late August 2012 the sheikh’s discourse had become more militant.
Railing against Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Assir said: “We announce to the prime minister and all Lebanese that we will resort to one escalation after the other until the last moment of our lives and until [all] arms come under the jurisdiction of the state.”
By November reports abounded that Assir was forming a military wing after two of his bodyguards were killed in a shootout with Hezbollah and he called on his followers to take up weapons against the party. Since then he has been increasingly caught on camera armed with weapons he previously preached should only be wielded by the state.
In a YouTube video posted Sunday, Assir vocalized his opposition to the Lebanese Army. “To all our partisans, we are being attacked by the Army, which is Iranian and Shiite ... I call on all partisans to block roads and all honorable Sunni and non-Sunni [soldiers] to quit the Army,” Assir said.
Assir is the eldest of five children. He has been religious since childhood and reportedly capable of memorizing and reciting the Quran since age 7. The young Assir went on to study Shariah at the University of Shariah run by Dar al-Fatwa in Beirut.
Assir has two wives, both of whom wear the full-face veil.
Assir’s sister Nohad told AFP he once supported Hezbollah’s fight against Israel, “but he left when he saw the truth” about the Shiite movement.