TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Foreign jihadists have been immigrating to Lebanon for years, but sources say that following the rapid conquest of territories in Syria and Iraq by Islamist groups, their numbers have recently been increasing to the extent that the country is at risk of becoming a hub for jihadists.
And now the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is hurriedly making its way to Lebanon.
Alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration over the weekend that he is caliph of the Islamic State his group is building and an announcement that the group was now called just the “Islamic state,” Abdel-Salam al-Urduni was named as the emir of Lebanon.
According to opposition fighters in Syria, Urduni is most likely a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, and is someone who has lived in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon for a long time.
This dangerous development will likely stir the feelings of a wide range of Islamist militants currently embedded within Lebanon’s social fabric.
When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and called on Arabs to declare their allegiance to the group, he won the minds and hearts of many fundamentalists, including in Lebanon, beginning with Palestinian Ahmad Abdel-Karim al-Saadi, also known as Abu Mohjen, the leader of Islamist group Osbat al-Ansar. After he was sentenced to death, Saadi fled to Iraq to work there.
Saadi and Walid Boustani, a Lebanese member of Fatah al-Islam, are considered to be among the first to pave the way for jihadists to travel to Syria, specifically to Qalaat al-Hosn or Crac des Chevaliers, after the conflict erupted between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and rebels fighting to unseat it.
Boustani escaped Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison in 2010 after he was arrested, then joined Islamist forces fighting in the Syrian uprising. He was executed by the Free Syrian Army at some point in 2012, with his death captured on a video posted on YouTube in September that year.
Reports have subsequently emerged of an unknown sheikh, reportedly a famed Salafist residing in Tripoli, who issued the decision to kill Boustani. Some of the northern city’s militants have allegedly not forgiven him for his decision as it deprived them of the possibility of establishing their emirate within Syria.
Another key Islamist, Saddam Hajj Dib, was killed in May 2007 in clashes between the Internal Security Forces and Fatah al-Islam in fighting that sparked clashes that summer in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. Hajj Dib is the uncle of brothers Motasem and Hasan al-Hasan, both of whom died fighting in Syria.
The Nahr al-Bared clashes were aimed at destroying Fatah al-Islam and its leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi. Absi founded the organization after first meeting Zarqawi in a Jordanian prison, and then Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, who became the leader of the Nusra Front, in a Syrian prison.
“It is all an interconnected series between all of them and it is the dream of establishing a caliphate and building an Islamic state and ruling only through the Shariah law,” a fundamentalist Islamist in Tripoli, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star.
He is one of many Sunnis in the city who are preoccupied with jihad at the moment as a means to escape what they perceive as an unfairly harsh crackdown on their activities.
According to a Salafist activist with ties to jihadist groups, Islamists emigrating to fight is not a new notion at all, “especially since Tripoli is a safe haven for jihadists, beginning with the emergence of a number of notable personalities primarily [the late] Bassam Kanj, known as Abu Aisha, who was the emir of emigration and takfirism, and who was killed ... in 2000.”
Then emerged Boustani and Australian sheikh Abu Sleiman al-Muhajir, who became emir of Qalaat al-Hosn, and is believed to have been killed in the fighting there after recruiting a significant number of young men, including the Hasan brothers.
The Salafist activist did not respond to The Daily Star’s questions regarding young Lebanese men leaving for Syria to fight there, and whose numbers have reportedly exceeded 100, but he did say that Lebanon has turned into an effective jihadist arena.
According to him, Lebanon will soon witness an increased flow of jihadists into the country, as has already been proven with the uncovering of a number of terrorist cells in the past week.
But despite all of this, he said it was still impossible to organize mass jihadist emigrations from Lebanon to elsewhere in the Middle East. He also said it was unlikely that Tripoli would turn into a base for jihad, especially for those going abroad.
“All of our experiences have failed and we all paid the price of unpredictable adventures,” the activist explained. “Most of the Islamists who have adopted fundamentalist thinking are either buried in the ground with their organizations’ secrets, or have been put in prison and reaped nothing but disappointment.”
He denied that he was what he called a “repentant jihadist,” but acknowledged that he was being more careful in his work.
He also said that there was an ongoing debate among Salafist circles between those supporting the Islamic State launching a jihadist operation in Lebanon, and those that believe that the country is uniquely structured – demographically and geographically – and would not be a good place to establish an emirate.
Also notable is the disappearance of Islamist Shadi Mawlawi – who was briefly arrested in Tripoli in 2012 along with Qatari Abdel-Rahman Attieh, reportedly the top supporter for the formation of the Nusra Front, and Jordanian Abdel-Malak Youssef Othman Abdel-Salam – and his brother Nizar.
Reports have emerged that Mawlawi is moving between Syria and Lebanon via the northern border. He is reportedly accompanied by Osama Mansour, known as Abu Mansour, the Salafist sheikh who disappeared along with others such as Hussam al-Sabbagh in Tripoli.
It is possible Mawlawi and Nizar’s disappearance does not mean anything at all. However, it’s also possible that there is a link between their absence and the recent uncovering of a number of terrorist cells, particularly those in Qalamoun and Fnaydeq in north Lebanon.
A high-ranking security official confirmed to The Daily Star that the significant number of terrorist cells flocking to Lebanon was most probably related to the Islamic State’s decision to destroy the previously calm security situation in Lebanon and link the country up with its areas of jihadist activity in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is believed to be hoping to double its capacity and move its elements around more easily via the Syrian areas adjacent to the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, from where it can take advantage of that fact that many Arab nationals can easily enter the country.
“As with the car bombs, there is no accurate count of foreign suicide bombers in Lebanon, but we are following up diligently on Lebanese areas where maybe cars are being rigged and jihadists are being prepped,” the security source said.
“These areas have a certain element that forces us to work within them differently ... we are alert as we fear painful attacks on all levels as Lebanon is now under the threat of imminent danger.”