Reporting from Beirut — Authorities arrested a radical Lebanese cleric Sunday after a car chase punctuated by gunfire. Days earlier, Omar Bakri had been convicted on charges of inciting a bloody months-long confrontation between the government and an Al Qaeda-linked militant group.
A military tribunal on Thursday sentenced Bakri, a Lebanese Syrian national, to life imprisonment for his role in provoking the summer 2007 conflict between the group Fatah Islam and Lebanese security forces that left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless in the Nahr Bared refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli.
Lebanon's official National News Agency reported that Bakri "has been placed under lock and key" after undercover military intelligence operatives confronted him in Tripoli, sparking a gunfight with his security guards; there were no casualties. Other news outlets reported that Lebanon's Internal Security Forces arrested Bakri after a car chase that ended with warning shots.
Bakri, 52, is a follower of the puritanical Salafist strain of Sunni Islam that also inspires Osama bin Laden. After Bakri was expelled from Saudi Arabia, he spent 20 years in Britain and founded the Muhajiroun, or the Immigrants, a now-disbanded Islamic group that had been linked to Al Qaeda.
Bakri gained some international notoriety after hailing the hijackers who staged the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States as "the magnificent 19."
He returned to Lebanon after the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. The secular leadership in Damascus does not tolerate radical Islamists such as Bakri.
Once in Lebanon, he became a local celebrity, hobnobbing with visiting scholars and Western journalists and appearing on television as a pundit. In 2006, London informed him that he was barred from reentering Britain.
Bakri was among 54 Lebanese, Palestinian, Saudi and Syrian nationals sentenced to prison terms on charges of aiding and abetting Fatah Islam. He has two weeks to appeal the verdict. Specific charges against him included incitement to murder, looting and vandalism, possession of explosive materials and aiding criminals to escape justice.
Before his arrest, he told local news media that he opposed political violence but that his religious convictions did not allow him to recognize the court's authority, which was why he refused to show up for court dates.
"My name was thrown in with this group in order to accuse it of affiliation with the Al Qaeda organization," he told the pan-Arab Al Jazeera satellite news network. "I say that there is no Al Qaeda presence in Lebanon. Moreover, I confirm that I am not among those who incite people to carry out such acts, either inside or outside Lebanon."
Security experts have long worried that extremist movements with ties to Al Qaeda have found a home in Lebanon's Sunni community, which fears diminished status with the ascent of Hezbollah, the well-armed militia that represents much of the country's Shiite community.