Ersal is in jihadi hands. In a matter of hours, radical jihadi militants were able to seize this Bekaa Valley town. Militants affiliated to the Islamic State and its “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi overran the town’s streets along with a few army barracks and an Internal Security Forces (ISF) station in the area. Then, after some hesitation, militants from al-Nusra Front joined the battle.
Immediately after it apprehended the wanted fugitive Imad Jumaa, (aka Abu Ahmed Jumaa), the radical jihadi group known as the Islamic State declared war on the Lebanese army. The Islamic State “emir” in the Qalamoun region, who is known as Abu Hassan al-Filastini, ordered his men to occupy Ersal; within a few hours, dozens of militants deployed to its streets, cutting off the main road that links the town to Labweh, before attacking Lebanese army positions in Ersal.
The militants kidnapped six Lebanese soldiers and posted pictures of them on Twitter, using the account of the “Wilaya [State] of Damascus.” However, according to Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji, 13 soldiers are unaccounted for. Next, Islamic State militants raided the ISF precinct in Ersal, intending to kidnap police officers stationed there.
Ubadah Houjeiri, son of Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri, aka Abu Taqiyeh, who had been named as a wanted fugitive in a Ministry of Defense statement for his alleged involvement in staging car bomb attacks, spoke to Al-Akhbar.
He said, “My father and I, along with other men, intervened by force to prevent militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to abduct ISF officers.”
“Kamal Izz al-Din was killed beside me when we were trying to stop them. There was an altercation between my father and Islamic State militants,” he added.
According to Ubadah Houjeiri, the ISF officers were taken to his father’s home, despite threats by the militants to raid it to kidnap the policemen to swap them with the leader of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade Abu Ahmed Jumaa.
Ubadah revealed that the officers were later taken to the mosque, where they remain under guard to prevent their abduction. Regarding the officers’ announcement that they had defected, Ubadah said that the policemen were forced to do so in front of the camera.
When asked why the ISF officers have not been handed over to the army, he said, “Brother, we are also being coerced.”
The army had not known the true affiliation of the detainee Jumaa. Initial intelligence reports had indicated he was a leader in al-Nusra Front. This remained unchanged until al-Nusra Front denied on Twitter having any ties to Jumaa, while jihadi sources told Al-Akhbar that it was tips by Hezbollah informants that led to Jumaa’s capture.
But is it possible the arrest of one man can ignite a war like the one that erupted in Ersal? Was there a plan prepared in advance to attack the town?
A source in Ersal affiliated with the Islamic State responded to these questions. He said, “The war was imposed on us after the army’s aggression in arresting leader Jumaa.”
The source added, “The Islamic State’s soldiers did not want the battle, but they were forced to fight it even though it is not in their favor.” The source also revealed that the Red Cross had contacted Islamist militants to discuss evacuating the wounded.
Although the source in question denied it, the fighting in Ersal coincided with the hashtag “the Islamic State expands into Lebanon” trending on social media sites associated to the Islamic State, as well as reports on jihadi sites about the “achievements of the Islamic State against the apostate army of Lebanon,” shared by people like prominent Islamic State propagandist Turujman al-Asawirti.
On the other hand, sources in al-Nusra Front said, “The Front kept a distance from the fighting at the orders of Sheikh Abu Malik al-Talli (the group’s emir in Qalamoun) until the army and Hezbollah violated the truce that was agreed upon and continued to bomb civilians.”
These sources claim a ceasefire was agreed between 4 and 6 pm on Sunday, which they allege the army did not adhere to, drawing in al-Nusra Front to the battle. The sources revealed that al-Nusra Front was behind the storming of the 85th Battalion’s base and the capture of several of its soldiers, adding that the group’s leadership was still prepared to withdraw from Ersal if the army ends its shelling and military operations.
In a phone call with Al-Akhbar, Sheikh Houjeiri appealed to the Lebanese army to stop shelling Ersal, saying the victims were civilians and not militants. Houjeiri also said he was being threatened by the militants of the Islamic State for having stood up to them and prevented them from taking hostages.
In conclusion, it seems that the people of Ersal have no real say in the matter. Neither Sheikh Abu Taqiyeh nor anyone else in the town, as they have said, will be able to convince the militants to withdraw from Ersal.
Meanwhile, the militants are preventing people in Ersal from leaving, because this they believe would allow the army to annihilate them with the support of the Syrian air force and Hezbollah fighters.
So far, no one knows how long Ersal is going to remain under occupation, its people hostages in the hands of Baghdadi’s soldiers.
Abu Ahmed Jumaa
The arrest of Imad Jumaa aka Abu Ahmed Jumaa is the spark that ignited the powder keg in Ersal. Jumaa was wanted by the security services on charges of forming an armed group and belonging to an illegal organization. Jumaa is also the leader of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, which has between 300 and 400 fighters.
According to the information available, Jumaa, who hails from Qusayr, had withdrawn from the town in the direction of Qalamoun after Hezbollah took Qusayr. Following his arrest, the army said in a statement that he admitted to his affiliation to al-Nusra Front, bearing in mind that the man had appeared several weeks ago in a video message declaring along with a number of militants his allegiance to the Islamic State and the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Sheikh Mustafa al-Houjeiri
Since the start of the crisis in Syria, the name of the Bekaa Valley town of Ersal has been closely associated with that of the sixty-something cleric. Sheikh Mustafa al-Houjeiri had been active in assisting Syrian refugees who sought shelter in the town, offering them aid and land he owned to establish refugee camps that were soon named after him.
After several waves of security incidents in the town, Sheikh Houjeiri was accused of aiding al-Nusra Front militants. Press reports indicated afterwards that he had fled the town to the more remote areas nearby, but these reports proved to be inaccurate.
The man, who dons a traditional Pakistani robe and cap, in response to these accusations, told Al-Akhbar, “We are also victims and the media is being unfair to us.” Houjeiri argued that he is being used as a scapegoat, and says that his efforts to de-escalate the situation in Ersal has placed him in grave danger.
Abu Hassan al-Filastini
The man’s name shot to infamy in recent weeks, after being accused of kidnapping and executing people from Ersal. Abu Hassan al-Filastini is now the official emir of the Islamic State in Qalamoun. He has been credited with the decision to occupy Ersal, after the Lebanese army apprehended Imad Jumaa, one of his lieutenants.
Abu Hassan had fought in the Yarmouk refugee camp before moving to the countryside north of Damascus. Reports indicate that he was a member of Fatah al-Intifada before converting to the hardline Salafi ideology.
Abu Hassan al-Filastini seems to have taken it upon himself to enforce sharia and issue fatwas, and has been linked to executions against people from Ersal. The Islamic State emir leads around 100 fighters, in addition to those of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, which pledged allegiance to him nearly a month ago.
The man reportedly moves under heavy guard. There is information that he is a Palestinian-Lebanese who had lived in Lebanon for a while before going to Syria to fight, and ultimately become an Islamic State emir, succeeding Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi who withdrew to the Raqqa governorate.
Source: Al Akhbar