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A wellspring of Lebanese jihadists

File - Palestinian and Lebanese Islamists protest in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Beddawi, Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEDDAWI, Lebanon: In Beddawi, Lebanese military presence ends where the flutter of Al-Qaeda’s, and now the Islamic State’s, black and white flags begin.

Located up the hill from the lone Army checkpoint, the neighborhood was rife with tension this week after reports emerged from Iraq that one of their own, 20-year-old Mustafa Abdel Hay, had carried out a suicide mission for ISIS outside a Baghdad restaurant Sunday.

The area, particularly the neighborhood of Mankoubine, has a reputation in the last three years for being a wellspring of Lebanese jihadists, the families of whom remain insulated and highly suspicious of outsiders, especially the media.

The Daily Star was greeted with hostility when it ventured there on assignment, with one man, mistaking the newspaper for Al-Jadeed TV, threatening to grenade the reporter’s vehicle.

He claimed Al-Jadeed – that sympathizes with Hezbollah – had conducted an interview with him pretending to be LBCI.

With the Army’s security plan in effect, local sentiment toward the government has hardened, giving credence, as they see it, to conspiratorial notions about Iranian influence.

Hay, better known with his nom du guerre Abu Hafes al-Lubnani (The Lebanese Abu Hafes), was one of five children. He fought among Nusra Front ranks in Homs and later decamped for ISIS in Aleppo. His neighbor, the elderly Mohammad Hajj Dib, remembers him well, and says the family was not receiving condolences to mark death.

“There’s a lot of pressure on them, they’ve isolated themselves,” he said, sitting in his living room, with a poster of the holy city of Mecca overhead.

The lack of ceremony suggests that the family disapproved of Abu Hafes’s actions in Iraq, Dib said. Many in Mankoubine make a distinction between suicide missions carried out for the sake of jihad and the killing of innocent civilians.

Dib’s family has a long history of criminal activity. His grandson, Mundhir Khaldoun al-Hassan – or Munther al-Hassan, as he is identified in his Swedish residency papers– is currently on the run from the authorities for allegedly supplying the Duroy Hotel bombers with explosives
 
Dib says Hassan was in Lebanon temporarily, only crossing paths once.

“I totally reject what Munther has done,” he said. “An act that kills civilians is barbaric.” Hassan was born in the Bzibina town of Akkar in 1990 to a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother. A statement issued by General Security said he might be moving around in two possibly rigged cars, a beige Nissan and a gray Mercedes.

When The Daily Star interviewed him, however, Dib was lamenting the arrest of his other grandson Arabi Ali Ibrahim, detained for 22 days over a personal dispute.

Hassan’s two other brothers are in Roumieh prison. Dib also has two grandsons who carried out a joint suicide operation against Syrian regime forces in Qalaat al-Hosn, fighting for the now dismantled battalion Jund al-Sham. His son Sadaam has served 18 years on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.

For Dib, the charges are an attack on his family by the authorities. “If justice and equality truly prevailed in Lebanon, then the people [of Mankoubine] would be happy,” he said.

Distrust of the military establishment spawns from perceived double standards in the Army’s crackdown in Lebanon’s majority Sunni north versus relatively lax measures in areas that support Hezbollah, referred to as the “devil’s party,” by Dib.

For Dib, these perceptions, paired with a long history of political and economic marginalization, has given rise to a host of theories as to who is really calling the shots.

“Shiites are controlling the country at the expense of Sunnis,” he said unwaveringly. “Why can they [Hezbollah] do whatever they want? Why do the laws work against the Sunnis?”

And while residents fall silent with the mention of Abu Hafes, the deaths of Lebanese fighting among rebel ranks are praised in the area. When Dib’s grandson’s Motasem and Khaldoun died in a rebel operation targeting the Abu Zeid checkpoint in Homs, he distributed sweets to neighbors glorifying them as heroes.

He had learned of their deaths when a battalion member knocked on his door and presented him with a letter, ostensibly penned by Sheikh Abu Hudaifa al-Ansari, identified senior rebel commander of Jund al-Sham.

Dib framed the epistolary tribute, in which Ansari described the pain of bidding farewell to the young man and witnessing his death.

“When the car explodes, the body parts scatter and the fires nearly reach the sky, your memories of him pass in front of your eyes like a tape recording,” it reads. “You recall his smile, his sense of humor, his gestures and his words. These moments are the hardest moments a man can fathom yet they draw you closer to God.”

The manner in which the letter is valued contrasts to Dib’s response when the death of Abu Hafes is broached. “Targeting the agents of the regime, that is acceptable to us,” he explained. “But killing the innocent in a public setting, that is a different matter.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

In Beddawi, Lebanese military presence ends where the flutter of Al-Qaeda's, and now the Islamic State's, black and white flags begin.

The area, particularly the neighborhood of Mankoubine, has a reputation in the last three years for being a wellspring of Lebanese jihadists, the families of whom remain insulated and highly suspicious of outsiders, especially the media.

With the Army's security plan in effect, local sentiment toward the government has hardened, giving credence, as they see it, to conspiratorial notions about Iranian influence.

Hay, better known with his nom du guerre Abu Hafes al-Lubnani (The Lebanese Abu Hafes), was one of five children.

Dib's family has a long history of criminal activity.

Dib says Hassan was in Lebanon temporarily, only crossing paths once.

Dib also has two grandsons who carried out a joint suicide operation against Syrian regime forces in Qalaat al-Hosn, fighting for the now dismantled battalion Jund al-Sham.

For Dib, the charges are an attack on his family by the authorities.


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