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Jihadist recruitment tops security fears in Tripoli

File - A gunman aims his weapon during clashes in Tripoli's neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The watchful eyes of Army troops were transfixed on pedestrians as well as passing vehicles along Abdel-Hamid Karami Square in the northern city of Tripoli.

Their heavy presence was an indication that the military is expecting more security incidents that could either target their units or public centers, such as the Tripoli Serail or the Justice Palace.

In anticipation of the worst, the military has reinforced patrols with more tanks, giving one entering the troubled city the impression that it has become a war zone.

Information available about the security situation indicates that something dangerous is brewing in Tripoli and that it is related to the dynamics on the ground in embattled Syria. Residents express paranoia over the instability in the city, which includes bouts of arbitrary killings, assassinations, thefts and stray bullets. Recently however, it’s the growing number of young men involved in the fighting in Syria that has inspired fear for many residents.

Jackson Halal, a branch manager at a bank in Tripoli, is alarmed at what he sees around him.

“We are at the bottom of an abyss, with the economic and social situation reflecting the possibility of a deep crisis and an unknown fate if things remain as they are,” he said. “Twenty seven stores which carry international clothing brands have closed this past week in the neighborhoods of Azmi, Nadim al-Jisr and Qadisha. They represented the central hub of Tripoli’s trade scene, while the rest of the souks have transformed into battlegrounds for the most trivial reasons.”

The apparent calm in Tripoli actually conceals a fragile security situation, which could ignite at any moment. Armed gangs are taking advantage of the unbearable situation and the conflict in Syria to impose their own rules and conditions, and this has gripped daily life in the city.

One politically active sheikh denied that there was a link between armed gangs in Tripoli and the Syrian uprising but did say the former were using the conflict next door for financial gain in different ways, including blackmailing truck drivers coming into the country en route to Beirut, building illegally and violating construction permits.

The Salafist community of Tripoli does not fear armed gangs, but is alarmed by the reported rise in extremist cells and groups that belong, ideologically speaking, to organizations like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

Their anxieties stem from the fact that these groups attract hordes of young Salafist boys.

One member of the Salafist community who requested anonymity said the most dangerous development in Tripoli were the fatwas issued by Syrian rebel groups soliciting young Salafist men to fight.

“The most dangerous developments in Tripoli nowadays are the effects these fatwas from ISIS and the Nusra Front are having on the minds of young men who won’t hesitate to carry out these calls, even the most dangerous of missions,” he said.

“The latest fatwa, which is definitely the most dangerous is one issued by ISIS in Syria, calling for the killing of Alawites, robbing them of their money and capturing their women and children, calling them a misguided infidel sect,” he said, adding that the fatwa has said Alawites could be spared if “they forgo their religion and join them by publicly announcing their alliance.”

“Can you imagine the danger of adopting this fatwa in Tripoli and Akkar, which includes approximately 100,000 Alawite residents?” he asked.

Moreover, he added, some are predicting that operations are being planned to target the Army in particular, which would constitute the first of many attacks that might eventually target Salafists.

“The Syrian presence, done under the pretext of seeking humanitarian assistance, is frightening, and raises doubts from all security standpoints,” he said.

Association of Muslim Scholars member Sheikh Nabil Rahim voices similar fears, saying that so-called “blood fatwas” are extremely dangerous as they stand in opposition to the edicts of Islam, which forbids suicide and the killing of those looking to keep the peace, outside the context of war. He added that one maintains religious values by not shedding blood.

“The state of Islam in Tripoli is not well and needs help, as there are fears that it will be exploited in Tripoli,” he said.

Rahim said these fears pertaining to the state of Islam are not limited to Lebanon, but could be seen across the Arab world, including Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is being targeted by the military government, on the ground in Syria where Islamist groups are fighting one another and in the disintegration of the Libyan government at the hands of fighting Islamist groups.

“The Islamist movement did not master any art, save the art of ruminating on one’s failures over and over again,” he said.

A large number of Salafist in Tripoli are apprehensive about the atmosphere in the city and are discussing their own situation among themselves. Many voice fears that Salafists will become scapegoats for regional projects, even though some of them expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of fighting in Syria.

The most prominent of these men is Hussam al-Sabbagh, known as Abu al-Hasan, who is one of Al-Qaeda’s strongmen in Tripoli.

Sabbagh did not participate in the latest battles in Tripoli because of his belief that the recurrent clashes are an absurd and useless fight. Instead, he has preoccupied himself with recruiting fighters for Syria.

The latest developments on the ground in Syria have him worried, however. By way of example, he recalls that he begged one of his followers, Ahmad Diab, to return from the battlefields in Syria. But his pleas were unheeded, as Diab reportedly underwent a suicide mission.

Ironically, it was Sabbagh who recruited Diab to fight in Syria.

Numerous others have followed in Diab’s footsteps, participating in battles in the Syrian border town of Qalaat al-Hosn.

Though there is a lack of statistics, according to well-informed sources a number of fighters involved in the Qaalat al-Hosn battles were from Jund al-Sham, a rebel group, and approximately 100 members are Lebanese and Palestinian. The sources confirm that at least 25 of them are from Tripoli, and most are young boys under the age of 20. They are currently besieged in the Syrian town of Zara.

Emir Khaled al-Mahmoud, known as Abu Sleiman, in his 30s, is in charge of Jund al-Sham. He was previously imprisoned in Roumieh.

Abu Sleiman, according to those who knew him, was a very simple man who hailed from the village of Mashta Hasan and was a resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh before moving to Ain al-Hilweh and joining Jund al-Sham. He made use of his roots to move and transfer a number of fighters into Syria, many of whom still manage to communicate with their families.

A large number of residents refused to speak about their sons fighting in Syria, though some said they were recruited over the Internet. But in terms of actually crossing over into Syria, the families said more than one person was involved, and they were usually never heard from again.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 14, 2014, on page 3.

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