Passport

Sheikh on the run

The old saw goes that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Omar Bakri seems to have leapfrogged over that first step. The radical Sunni Islamist sheikh, who fled to Lebanon after being banned from Britain in 2005, was just sentenced to life in prison by a Lebanese court on charges of inciting ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The old saw goes that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Omar Bakri seems to have leapfrogged over that first step.

The radical Sunni Islamist sheikh, who fled to Lebanon after being banned from Britain in 2005, was just sentenced to life in prison by a Lebanese court on charges of inciting murder. Bakri was tried in absentia, and has 15 days to appeal the verdict before being arrested.

Sheikh Omar currently lives in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli and, as it happens, hasn’t changed his phone number in three years. "I will never, ever give myself up to any non-Islamic court," he told FP. "They have no evidence, not a shred of proof."

Bakri also said that he has an escape plan. "If worse comes to worse, I will go to Beirut and ask Hezbollah for protection," he said. He added that he was planning to leave for Beirut tonight to discuss with Hezbollah the terms of any protection that they would be willing to offer him.

This may all sound very nefarious, but it’s actually rather difficult to take seriously. Bakri likes to talk a big game — particularly to Western journalists in nice Beirut cafes — about his admiration for Osama bin Laden, but his actual influence among Sunni youth in Tripoli is suspect. Given his vocal statements, it was inevitable that a Lebanese court would eventually pin charges on him, but among the many cause of instability in the country, Bakri is small potatoes.

Bakri insisted that Hezbollah would be willing to ensure his safety because he shared their anti-Israel and anti-American bona fides. Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. The Party of God is allowed to operate outside the normal rules of society because many Lebanese think it serves as a necessary defense against the threat posed by Israel and their other enemies. Many Lebanese are already chafing at Hezbollah’s current impunity; if the party extends their security umbrella to a loudmouth with no obvious constituency, it will make the status quo even more difficult to justify.

Bakri and Hezbollah may share some political views, but there is one important difference — only one of them is able to put their words into action.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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