BEIRUT – Prominent Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim was found shot dead in a car in southern Lebanon on Thursday morning, a killing that fellow political activists took as a warning from the Iran-backed Shiite militant group.

Slim, a Shiite Lebanese commentator in his late 50s, had long antagonized Hezbollah, which with its allies holds the most power in government and effectively operates as a state within a state.

In a recent TV interview, Slim blamed Hezbollah for the blast that ripped through Beirut’s port Aug. 4, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.

At about 2 a.m. Thursday, Slim’s wife, Monika Borgmann, tweeted that her husband – who was in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold – was not answering his phone and had not been seen since 8 p.m. Wednesday. At noon Thursday, the state news agency reported that his body had been found in a car, without a phone or identification. The coroner said he was hit by four bullets in the head and one in the back.

Lebanon is no stranger to political killings, having endured a slew of assassinations in the mid- to late 2000s. But Slim’s killing was especially alarming, given that he was not a top political actor or a well-known public figure.

Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, said the killing was a message to activists, especially Shiite ones, and a sign that targeted killings are no longer necessarily bound to “household names but people who have influence in shaping public opinion, shaping ideas.”

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“My real fear is that we enter a new phase of targeting these less-visible people who have a very strong influence,” he said in a phone interview. His foundation, which focuses on media freedom, is named for a journalist killed in 2005.

Slim often provoked the ire of Hezbollah: Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper, called him “The Star of ‘Embassy Shiites’ ” in 2015, criticizing him and other Shiites for working with foreign governments. Slim set up nonprofits promoting civil liberties and alternative Shiite voices, some of which received U.S. State Department funding.

Slim also pushed for normalization talks with Israel, Lebanon’s southern neighbor and Hezbollah’s sworn enemy.

In October 2019, protests engulfed Lebanon as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets, frustrated by an emerging economic crisis, the political elite and government corruption. Protesters took over downtown Beirut and set up tents to host free-flowing dialogue. Slim was to co-host a lecture there in December 2019 about the need for Lebanon’s role in regional and international conflicts.

The talk, held in a tent, was disrupted by people accusing the lecturers of promoting normalization with Israel. The tent was torn down two nights later.

Slim later said dozens of people gathered outside his apartment that night, calling him a Zionist and traitor. Dozens of fliers glorifying killing “agents” were posted outside. “Hezbollah is the honor of the nation,” one read.

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Slim said at the time that he held Hezbollah responsible for what had happened, and what might happen, to him and his family.

Hezbollah has historically not taken well to detractors from its own sect – attacks from Lebanese Shiites are seen as a special kind of betrayal. Pro-Hezbollah Twitter accounts either celebrated Slim’s killing, some using the hashtag “no remorse,” or denied that Hezbollah would kill him, deeming Slim a figure of little consequence.

On Jan. 8, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah told local media: “You are attacking us; you are encroaching on our dignity; you are accusing us of very ugly, deplorable and offensive things.”

His comments were in response to a Washington Post report published months earlier on Hezbollah’s drug operations, later republished by Lebanese outlets. Nasrallah added that Hezbollah’s issues with local media “must be dealt with.”

Rasha al-Amir, Slim’s sister, said she does not expect that her brother’s killers will be brought to justice, “because I know [who did it].” She said she expected that “all denouncing statements by officials will be forgotten within 48 hours.”

U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea has called for an investigation, saying in a statement, “Lokman Slim publicly and privately acknowledged that there were threats being made against his life, and yet he bravely continued to push for justice, accountability, and the rule of law in Lebanon.”

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Jan Kubis, the United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon, tweeted: “You can kill a journalist but you cannot kill his or her message.”

Slim’s is the third slaying since December that has raised questions about political motivations and links to the investigation of the port blast. The first was the killing of a former customs officer in early December; the second was the slaying of a telecom employee and freelance photographer. No link to the blast investigation has been found.

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The Washington Post’s Susan Haidamous in Washington and Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.