Beirut, Lebanon - As the army picks through the debris in the aftermath of Sidon's fiercest battle since the end of this country's civil war, information is slowly trickling out over who Ahmed al-Assir, the controversial Sunni cleric who led the two-day battle against the Lebanese army, really is.
The clashes began with the killing of three soldiers in an attack by armed supporters of Assir on an army checkpoint in the southern city's Abra neighbourhood. Two days of intense fighting followed, resulting in the deaths of 16 Lebanese soldiers and more than 30 Assir-allied fighters. This was the culmination of tension which has been escalating over the past 18 months, with Assir always at the centre of the storm.
Assir has hogged the media spotlight, drawing attention to what many labeled a new phenomenon within the Lebanese Sunni community. With controversial sectarian rhetoric, he was both revered and despised, but in a country where sectarian tensions are always delicately balanced, he was often seen as pouring fuel on an already simmering fire.
While often labelled a Salafist, primarily because of his appearance, this has been rejected by both traditional Salafists in the north of Lebanon, and by Assir himself, who told Al Jazeera in an interview last week that he was "just a Sunni cleric who can bring together the political and religious rhetoric which is appealing to the people".
"I bridge the gap between the two," the 45-year-old said, adding that his popularity stemmed from the fact there was a clear lack of leadership within the Sunni community, and he was able to fill that void.
"I have a following because I speak truthfully about the pain of the Sunni community," he said.
Hailing from a mixed background - his mother is a Shia from the south of Lebanon, and his father is a Sunni from Sidon - he grew up surrounded by musically oriented people, with his father being a singer, and his brother an avid oud player.
While the rest of Lebanon only discovered Assir in 2012, a former follower of Assir's told Al Jazeera he was well-known locally for many years before, but that he formerly delivered a more peaceful message.
"He was known around Sidon, obviously. Everyone knew his mosque; it's not like he came out of nowhere," said the former supporter, on condition of anonymity.
"But before all the media hype, he was different, he wasn't sectarian. He was smart, and inspiring, he used his words well.
"Afterwards, I don't know what happened."
Assir shot to fame at the start of 2012 with his fiery rhetoric against the Syrian administration, and his denouncement of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, for being an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and for holding weapons inside Lebanon.
With this gathering momentum, he upped his tone, and in June 2012 he gave an explosive sermon at Sidon's Bilal bin Rabah mosque, in which he accused Hezbollah and Amal, another Shia-dominated party, of selling a toy machine-gun in Dahyeh, Beirut's southern suburbs, which called for the attacking of the prophet's wife, Aysha.
He said he would "haunt the nights" of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Amal leader Nabih Berri, and that of their families, unless the offending toys were removed.
Sunnis across the country were up in arms. Shia across the country were up in arms. Local media jumped on this, hosting him on shows to have him repeat the same sectarian accusations against Hezbollah and Nasrallah.
One local channel was fire-bombed following a particularly inciting interview it hosted with Assir. The channel later issued a statement, saying it apologised to its viewers "for everything uttered by its guest who… disregarded the sentiments of the Lebanese with all their different affiliations and categories".
Investigations into the alleged toys revealed the such toys did not actually exist, and the gun he was referring to actually says, in English, "pull over and save the hostages".
|A military spokesman claimed Assir had patrolled with
rebel fighters inside Syria [AFP]
But the results of the investigations went unnoticed by many across the country, already riled by Assir's statements, and also by most of the media, who were waiting for the next Assir moment.
They did not have to wait long. Within a month, he blocked one of the main roads in Sidon, announcing "a peaceful sit-in" and setting up tents in protest at Hezbollah's weapons. He accused the group of holding the country hostage, and demanded its weapons be stripped from them and handed to the state.
His sit-in brought the city to a standstill, and business owners in the area staged their own protest against Assir's actions, claiming he was harming Sidon's economy.
He ended his sit-in after 35 days, having reached an agreement with the minister of interior who promised to look into the issues raised.
At the dismantling of the tents, Assir said: "I tell everyone, especially Hezbollah's Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, that we want to live together as equal citizens, and the most important thing is the absence of arms outside state control."
Yet within months, Assir and his supporters were involved in armed clashes both with the authorities, and with supporters of opposing parties.
When his son's car was stopped by police in November 2012 for not carrying a driving license, he sent gunmen to wrest his son, Omar, from custody.
The very same day, he called for all posters of Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah in the city be torn down. Yet, despite Hezbollah and the army removing said posters, armed Assir supporters entered a pro-Hezbollah neighbourhood in Sidon and began tearing down more posters themselves.
A gunfight ensued between Assir's supporters and Hezbollah supporters, which left three people dead, including Assir's bodyguard and a representative of Hezbollah from the area.
He accused Hezbollah of placing him under "siege" and using the army against the Sunni community, claims he repeated in each of his frequent sermons, further rallying supporters and riling emotions within the Sunni community.
It was at this point he began actively calling on Sunnis across the country to use "whatever means necessary" to defend themselves.
"We have a blood score to settle with Hezbollah, and that can only be settled by blood," he said.
He appeared on TV holding an automatic rifle, claiming such actions were necessary to protect himself against the Hezbollah presence surrounding his mosque.
He began accusing Shia residents of the Abra neighbourhood of storing weapons for Hezbollah and Iran in their apartments.
On several occasions, his armed supporters attempted to storm these homes, often leading to clashes either with the authorities, or with the Nasserite Party, a pro-Hezbollah party based in Sidon.
When Hezbollah's involvement in Syria became clear with the confirmation of its role assisting Assad's troops in the battle for the strategic town of Qusayr, Assir decided he would counter with the creation of his own militia, the Free Resistance Brigades, calling on Sunnis to fight in Syria to defend the opposition against the attacks of the regime and Hezbollah.
This call then became much more local, focusing on Sunnis based in Lebanon.
"For a year we protested peacefully for all the arms to be in the hands of the government, but when the arms of Hezbollah are stronger, what can it do?" Assir told Al Jazeera.
"The government cannot protect us, and the military has been seized by Hezbollah and Iran," he claimed. "This is why we've declared an armed group.
"We asked for people to take up arms when the government could not protect us. The government actually stands against us, and our youths are being attacked while the criminals are wandering around free."
The evolution of Assir's rhetoric came to a head during Sidon's battles, when he made a video appeal calling for reinforcement, saying they were being "attacked by the Lebanese army which is sectarian and Iranian". He also called on "Sunnis and non-Sunnis to leave the army immediately".
Who is behind Assir?
There is much speculation about the source of Assir's funding. In his interview with Al Jazeera he was adamant that all his benefactors were local.
"Unlike others, I don't receive money or funds from abroad," he said, adding that he owned local businesses which also contributed to his funding.
Yet three separate sources have told Al Jazeera that Assir received monies from some of the Gulf states, which he has visited repeatedly in the past 12 months.
He also has celebrity followers, including Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker, who is said to have contributed significantly to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque. Shaker also actively participated in the recent fighting against the Lebanese army, calling them "dogs of the party of the devil and Iran".
Following the clashes in Sidon, the army revealed several dozen caches of heavy weaponry hidden within the mosque itself, and in the surrounding offices in the compound, further adding to speculation that such a quantity of weaponry could not be based on local funding alone.
In the meantime, Assir's whereabouts, along with those of Fadel Shaker and others who fled the mosque compound during the battles, are still unknown - despite rumours of him being in Syria, or in the Ain el Helweh refugee camp, or even at the embassy of a Gulf state.
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha
Source: Al Jazeera