By Radwan Mortada
The Lebanese town of Ersal is in an unenviable state. It now has the regrettable reputation of being “the capital of terrorism,” with hundreds, if not thousands, of militants infesting its streets and the surrounding jurud –the barren hills typical in this area of Lebanon.
The militants have effectively hijacked the town and its inhabitants, whom they occasionally assault, all the while exploiting religion for personal gain. They have imposed unlawful levies, kidnapped for ransom, and engaged in armed robbery, to name but a few of their feats. Their permanent rallying call is the so-called oppression of the Sunnis, a tired claim the militants use to amass arms and “fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah.”
The majority of the militants consist of Lebanese and Syrian nationals. They operate out of the porous border regions between Lebanon and Syria. It is there that they have established their “mini-state,” controlling informal border crossings, and moving around in convoys of tinted SUVs – mostly stolen – branded with the words “Baba Amr Martyrs Brigade” and the flag of the Free Syrian Army.
The Brigade’s members maintain flashy Hollywood-style appearances, wearing identical uniforms and holstering pistols on both ankles. Their primary weapon is the expensive US-made M4 rifle. Some like to wear unnecessary bandoliers or certain types of sunglasses, perhaps in an attempt to channel the Salafi version of Rambo.
The Brigade’s love for theatrics far outweighs its supposed religious fervor, which is only visible in the external appearance of its members. Nevertheless, the group is considered today the fiercest and largest of its peers in the area.
In and around Ersal, few have not heard of Raed al-Jouri, 25. Before the Syrian crisis, Jouri was a small-time smuggler. But soon, he became known as “Sheikh Raed,” thus completing his metamorphosis from bandit to “revolutionary cleric.”
Like many, Jouri went to fight in the Baba Amr district of Homs before it fell to the Syrian army. After that, he moved to Qusayr as head of an armed group. He did not remain there for long, as the locals expelled him because of his actions, which included random executions.
Jouri then set up shop in the Syrian town of Qara near the Qalamoun Mountains where he announced the creation of the Baba Amr Martyrs Brigade. Today, he is based in the Lebanon-Syria border region, where it is impossible for anything to pass without his permission and without paying him a toll.
Despite his fame as a “merchant of religion,” Jouri developed strong ties with the fundamentalist groups stationed in the Qalamoun Mountains. For instance, Jouri is on very good terms with the commander of al-Nusra Front in the area, the Saudi national Abu al-Huda al-Jazrawi, and his Kuwaiti deputy, known as al-Karrar. Jouri has provided them with arms and money in order to avoid any confrontation and to gain their blessing.
The majority of fighters under Jouri’s command are Lebanese residents of Ersal who have transformed from smugglers into “revolutionaries” and arms dealers. They are allegedly involved in dozens of robberies and murders under the guise of “jihad” in Syria.
The smuggler-turned-cleric’s group also specializes in kidnapping for ransom, mainly targeting foreign reporters. On April 29, the group kidnapped Jonathan Alpeyrie, a photojournalist for the Polaris agency. Alpeyrie was freed on July 20 for a ransom of $450,000.
The Brigade has also reached out to the group that abducted Italian reporter Domenico Quirico in Homs in April, at the behest of the brother of a Lebanese MP. Their plan is to collect a $500,000 ransom that they would later split among them.
Jouri and his group also work in the field of explosives. Two months ago, a huge explosion was heard in the hills near Ersal, reportedly involving a fuel tanker. Al-Akhbar learned that the tanker had been loaded with explosives before it detonated by accident, killing more than 10 militants from Jouri’s group.
Jouri was heard by some publicly admitting the killing of four men in Wadi Rafeq – two from the Jaafar clan, one from the Amhaz clan, and another from the Oglo family – near Ersal on June 16, claiming that the four victims were a “Hezbollah reconnaissance unit.”
It should be noted that the majority of suspects in the July Bir al-Abed bombing, the rocket-firing incidents, and the killing of army soldiers at a checkpoint in Bekaa – named in a statement by the defense minister – belong to Jouri’s group. Information obtained by Al-Akhbar indicates that the group operates as a band of hired killers who are motivated by money and personal gain, not religious ideology.
Case in point: Ahmad Hammid, a suspect being sought for the murder of army soldiers and in connection with explosive devices. Ahmad is the cousin of Khaled Hammid, who was killed by army intelligence in Ersal in early February.
An informed source who spoke to Al-Akhbar said that Ahmad Hammid did resemble his cousin at all, noting that “the latter was religiously devout, while Ahmad is known for not being religious, drinking alcohol, and doing hashish.” This, according to the source, means that it is extremely unlikely that Ahmad’s motives are religious, and that he is probably motivated by personal gain and follows orders from a certain handler.
Regarding the location of these militants, the same source maintained that they can be found between Qara and the Qalamoun Mountains in Syria. “The militants based there are preparing for an imminent battle with the Syrian army and Hezbollah, and are busy preparing ambushes and improvised explosive devices in Qalamoun and Yabroud,” he said.
According to reports, these militants possess advanced rockets, and are preparing for a military operation to retake the village of Joussieh on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
The Qalamoun Mountains are an extension of the hills surrounding Ersal. To enter Qalamoun, passing through these hills is inevitable. Qalamoun is also surrounded by several pro-opposition Syrian villages.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.