TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Residents of Tripoli believed that members of Parliament and political officials were merely celebrating April Fools’ Day when they announced the recent security plan to quell Syria-related unrest in the troubled northern city.
There have now been 20 rounds of violence between the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and the largely Alawite Jabal Mohsen district since 2008, leaving hundreds of casualties and scores wounded.
Even as the Army was entering the depths of Bab al-Tabbaneh, conducting raids, confiscating weaponry and apprehending dozens of wanted suspects, many of the prominent militia leaders involved in the recent fighting in Tripoli had already disappeared.
Numerous stories arose concerning the whereabouts of those leaders. Some say they left for Turkey or crossed the border into Syria to fight alongside the Syrian opposition; others say they remain hidden in Tripoli and its surrounding areas and are living off wealth accumulated from the funding and support they received from several political parties and security officials.
Sources suggest that many have stationed themselves in houses outside of Tripoli after the Committee of Muslim Scholars entered Bab al-Tabbaneh and accused them of being responsible for the deteriorating security situation, recruiting young men for their gangs and threatening Alawites.
The disappearance of the militia leaders has put Tripoli back on the brink, with the growing threat of another round of fighting erupting at any second depending on the political situation.
Security information suggests that the Army’s First Deployment Regiment is executing a delicate plan to apprehend unknown antagonists who continue to disrupt the peace with stun grenades, as well as overseeing raids in a number of places reported to be harboring wanted militia leaders.
“We will not allow an overall lack of security [to continue] as some hope we will. We have orders to control the security situation, whatever the sacrifices,” said a senior Army officer overseeing the security plan, which was preceded by a significant deployment of the Intelligence Directorate of the Lebanese Army in the north.
Efforts to apprehend missing the leaders have increased after a photo of militia commander Ziyad Allouki holding a machine gun circulated on social media websites. The background indicated that it was taken in the northern district of Minnieh at the home of fellow militia leader Saad Masri, in the town of Nabi Youchieaa.
According to a high-ranking security source in North Lebanon, it is necessary to differentiate between the different militia leaders, who fall into three distinct groups.
The first are those who fight as a result of poor social and economic conditions, including the rampant level of unemployment, in Bab al-Tabbaneh. These factors are believed to have been the main reason people such as Allouki, Khodr Masri, Amer Arish, Jihad Dandashi and others became militia leaders.
The second group is composed of those representing extremist groups led by Sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, Osama Mansour and Shadi Mawlawi and his brother Nizar. The ideology of such Islamists is close to that of Al-Qaeda, and most are preoccupied with sending fighters to Syria whenever they are able to cross the northern border into Homs province or the area of Qalaat al-Hosn near the northern Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled.
The third group, whose members have remained almost invisible up until now, is comprised of highly secretive arms dealers who provide ammunition and weapons in both Lebanon and Syria.
According to sources, the morale of most militia leaders is low and will remain so as long as they are deprived of their weapons. Many talk of their concern that political officials have used them only to abandon them.
One, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had tried to contact his friends by text since going into hiding but had not yet had any response. Another spends his days praying and reading the Quran.
“There is no confirmation at all that Hussam al-Sabbagh left for Syria, and according to information made available to us, he is still in Tripoli,” one militia leader said, speaking to The Daily Star from an undisclosed location.
“We were betrayed and all we did was defend our honor. Political powers were once depending on us but at one point ... ahead of a regional crossroads, they abandoned us all.”
Ghassan Qorhani, a prominent militia leader otherwise known as Abu Ahmad, insisted on exposing both his real name and his face despite being pursued by authorities.
Qorhani escaped to the Beddawi area close to the Palestinian refugee camp there after a series of raids conducted by the Lebanese Army. He is accused of weapons trading and exporting arms to Syria.
“It is a big honor for me to help the Syrian revolution, but I did not do this at all, and therefore I believe that Hezbollah’s security forces are seeking to take me out,” Qorhani said angrily.
He said the real conflict was not with the Army or the military court, but with Hezbollah’s security forces.
“I will not fall into the trap, and I will not clash with the Army, even though they are looking to raid my house. But in my mind I am not in an open confrontation, and I warn them of playing with fire because, as usual, I will not turn myself in,” he said.
He has begun resorting to WhatsApp and social media sites such as Twitter to make his point, posting a photo of himself with the line, “Beware of the patient one when he is angered.”
He pointed to the role he has played in maintaining civil peace, particularly with respect to the 2007 conflict in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp between the Army and hard-line Fatah al-Islam fighters. According to Qorhani, he alerted the Lebanese security forces to the presence of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the camp some time before, but they simply “mocked” him until the clashes eventually erupted.
He also said that extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front were present in northern Lebanon and “working freely,” adding that they were also leaving for Turkey by sea.
“Nobody should think that he is able to touch my dignity, and if the issue was different, I would have turned myself in. I expect my situation to be settled as has happened before because, simply, this is how things are dealt with in Lebanon.”