After Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 the new anti-Syrian and pro-Western Sunni leadership – the main component of the 14 March coalition – sought the cooperation of quietist Salafi clerics in northern Lebanon in order to protect the cohesiveness of the Sunni community. Quietist control over the Salafi corpus was intended to legitimize the rule of the civil Sunni representatives – MP Fouad Siniora and Rafiq’s heir Saad al-Hariri.
But pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah Sunni Islamists stressed the lack of Islamic legitimacy of Hariri’s leadership, accusing it of furthering Western designs by implementing UNSC resolutions in the Middle East. In yet another attempt to control Sunni Islam, al-Qaeda’s Egyptian ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri issued two statements on 20 December 2006 and 13 February 2007 urging Lebanese Muslims to oppose UNSC Resolution 1701.
In November 2006, jihadist fighters from Iraq established the Fatah al-Islam radical Sunni Islamist group in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon. Its leader, Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian from Syria, recruited volunteers to support his cause to ‘liberate Palestine by fighting the Western Zionist Crusaders’. In an attempt to win over Hezbollah and its allies, Shaker al-Absi stressed his resistance credentials, focusing on opposition to UNSC resolution 1559 which called for the disarmament of all militias on Lebanese soil.
Fatah al-Islam was involved in several anti-civilian terrorist attacks and also targeted the UN presence in Lebanon. In May 2007 Lebanese Internal Security Forces (FSI), who are closely aligned to the 14 March coalition, launched an attack against Fatah al-Islam. This triggered a war between the group and the Lebanese Army in Nahr al-Bared, which lasted more than three months and resulted in 163 military and 222 jihadist casualties.
Divisions among Islamist militant groups, regardless of nationalist or religious affiliations, continue to fuel ongoing political violence between 8 and 14 March alliances. On 7 May 2008 Hezbollah turned its guns on 14 March Sunni institutions in Beirut, under the guise of protecting its military activities against the Israeli army.
Sunni Salafi clerics reacted by setting their followers against the ‘Shia Iranian threat’. The civil Sunni leadership in Lebanon, whether opposed to the Syrian regime (Saad al-Hariri) or close to it (Najib Mikati), faces a dilemma. It is weakened from within each time a Lebanese Sunni jihadist movement canvasses support in the Sunni constituency, which involves prioritising Divine Law over community politics; but in order to demonstrate its Islamic legitimacy, it also has to acknowledge the importance of Sunni religious appeals.