BEIRUT // After more than two years on the run, Islamic State top cleric in Lebanon, Ahmed Al Assir was arrested by Lebanese authorities on Saturday as he attempted to fly out of the country on a forged passport.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported that Mr. Al Assir was caught at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport on Saturday while trying to board a flight to Egypt using a fake Palestinian passport.
Lebanon’s general security directorate said Mr Al Assir was planning on flying to Nigeria via Cairo.
A photo posted by the National News Agency after the arrest revealed that Mr. Al Assir had recently adopted a new look, shaving his long, unkempt beard and trading his usual religious robes and headwear for a more inconspicuous jacket and sweater. Some local news outlets suggested Mr Assir had also had plastic surgery to alter his appearance.
Mr Al Assir became one of the most wanted men in Lebanon after his militia went to battle with the Lebanese army in the port city of Sidon in 2013, resulting in the deaths of 18 soldiers and dozens of Mr Al Assir’s gunmen.
When the war in Syria began emboldening extremist Sunnis in Lebanon and inflaming sectarian tensions here, Mr Al Assir swiftly rose from obscurity to become a powerful voice. From his modest Bilal Bin Rabah mosque in the southern city of Sidon, he railed against Hizbollah and later the Lebanese state, accusing them of subjugating Lebanon’s Sunni community.
Mr Al Assir was ridiculed by his opponents for his hardline rhetoric and media stunts, such as a 2013 incident in which his followers forced their convoys through Christian-erected roadblocks to reach a ski resort and play in the snow.
But amid a leadership vacuum for Lebanon’s Sunni community and passions against Hizbollah and the state running high, Mr Al Assir’s strident tone struck a chord with many disaffected, radical Sunnis in the country. His movement even attracted Fadl Shaker, a Lebanese-Palestinian rooftop wedding singer turned wildly popular pop star.
At first, Mr Al Assir maintained that his movement was peaceful in nature. But slowly, the guise of a peaceful movement dripped away.
Soon, the closed-off street where his mosque was located in Sidon’s Abra neighbourhood was teeming with gunmen. Mr Al Assir’s words became more bellicose as he encouraged Lebanese Sunnis to go to Syria and aid the rebels. He spoke about the need to confront Hizbollah, which he called “the party of Satan” or “the Iranian project” and accused it of dominating the Lebanese state.