BEIRUT — It always starts with the posters. On Nov. 11, followers of the Sunni Salafist leader Ahmed al-Assir tore down a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the southern Lebanese city of Saida. The destruction of the sign -- the traditional way for parties to mark their territory in Lebanon -- provoked a sadly predictable response: A shootout erupted in the neighborhood, claiming the lives of three people, including two of Assir's bodyguards, and wounding a Hezbollah official.
In the clash's aftermath, Assir mulled forming a militia himself -- but soon suspended the formation of his "resistance brigade" after a public outcry. Tensions, nevertheless, remain high: On Nov. 19, a Lebanese judge issued search warrants against 24 gunmen seen at the funeral of Assir's bodyguard. The question seems to be when, not if, the conflict flares up again.
The Oct. 19 assassination of Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the country's most powerful Sunni intelligence chief and a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, spurred this recent bout of instability. Angry anti-Assad groups took to the streets after Hassan's death, accusing Syria and Hezbollah of the crime and calling for the downfall of the government in Beirut. But there was a twist: In a departure from their normal political leanings, Lebanon's Sunni protesters had taken on a distinctly Islamist hue.
In the hours following Hassan's assassination, Sunni Islamist militias deployed in the streets of the northern port city of Tripoli and in central Beirut, taking the fight not just to rival groups but also toward Lebanese Army patrols. In all, at least six people were killed and 27 wounded over one mad weekend.
A Lebanese security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told Foreign Policy that militant jihadist groups across the country had increased activities significantly in the past 20 months.
"The current situation gives these groups a safe haven to operate, mainly inside the [Palestinian] camps," the source said. "Their modus operandi is ambushes and attack. These are guys who have been to Afghanistan or Iraq and there is no doubt that they are joining [the fighting] in Syria at the moment."
Assir has been the public face of this newfound religiosity among Lebanon's Sunni community. The firebrand cleric, whose day job is as imam at Saida's Bilal bin Rabah mosque, shot to prominence this summer as the most vocal opponent of Assad's dominance in Syria, and Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon.