Last week Lebanese security forces arrested Omar Bakri and several associates on terrorism charges. Bakri, as you’ll recall, is the Lebanese national who was once leader of the London-based Islamist outfit Al-Muhajiroun and returned to Lebanon in 2005 after he was thrown out of England following the 7/7 bombings of London buses and underground. Now that he’s in trouble, Bakri has retained the legal services of one of Hezbollah’s MPs.
Given the last few years of Shia-Sunni conflict throughout the Middle East, a collaboration between a Sunni fundamentalist and Shia Islamist may seem improbable, but the fact is that there’s plenty of inter-confessional cooperation. Hezbollah itself, for instance, has plenty of connections to Sunni radical groups in Lebanon and the rest of the region. And as for the Sunni radical in question, it’s not the first time Omar Bakri has reached out to an ostensible enemy. “I believe the last time we heard from him,” says Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer, “Bakri had turned to Her Majesty’s Navy to help him get out of Lebanon during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. In a similarly shameless gesture, Bakri is now begging for help from the Shia. This is classic Omar Bakri.”
Spyer is the author of the just published The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict. A British-born Israeli who earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics, he recalls the figure that Bakri cut in the London Islamist scene back in the mid-1990s. “Hizb ut-Tahrir was the pre-eminent outfit then,” says Spyer, referring to the international Islamist organization that calls for a renewed caliphate. “But there was a split in HT and the new group took the name Al Muhajiroun,” meaning the immigrants, but also alluding to the prophet Muhammad’s earliest followers who moved with him from Mecca to Medina. “HT is theoretical and educational,” says Spyer, “and tends to deal with abstract questions. Al Muhajiroun was a more activist organization. With my professional interest in Middle East political ideologies, I accepted an invitation to attend their launching meeting, which was held at a cramped little mosque in southeast London. It was the first time I heard the man then known as Omar Bakri Muhammad speaking in his inimitable style.”
Bakri speaks English well, says Spyer, who heard Bakri preach many times and eventually met him briefly. “He lived in England for many years and raised a family there, including a daughter whose choice of career landed her in the British tabloids.” Her career as a stripper was reportedly funded by her father, who the tabloids claim paid for her breast enhancement surgery. “Bakri’s preaching style was unusual for the Islamists,” Spyer recalls. “Typically the Islamists like to project calm and certainty, an almost contemptuous certainty that their worldview will in the end win out. But Bakri wasn’t like this at all—he was bellowing, roaring. It was fire and brimstone, very old-time religion. His accent was a unique mixture of Syrian and cockney, and then you had the extremist Islamist ideology. I wasn’t the only one to notice that Omar Bakri, with all due respect, was a semi-comical figure. It was pretty hard not to laugh at him.”
And yet as Spyer is quick to note, Bakri was linked to the 2003 bombing of the Tel Aviv bar Mike’s Place that killed three people and wounded 50 others. After 9/11 Bakri ran into trouble when he tried to host a rally, canceled at the last minute, for the “Magnificent 19” who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. After 7/7 Al Muhajiroun was declared illegal after it was discovered that at least 2 of the bombers were associated with Bakri’s outfit. That is to say, even buffoons like Bakri can be deadly. Here’s hoping he’s got a long prison-term ahead of him, despite his crack legal team.