TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Azzam Sami sifted through stacks of T-shirts and unsold World Cup flags that lined his Tripoli-based toy store before settling on two distinct black flags.
“This one became popular in the ‘70s,” he said, as he pointed to the flag with the shahada, one of Islam’s pillars – “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger,” embellished in Arabic script.
“And here is the Al-Qaeda flag,” he continued, unfolding a second standard displaying the seal of the Prophet Mohammad. Not limited to Al-Qaeda, it’s a flag that has been used by Islamists from many different groups for years, but it has gained much wider international recognition since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) adopted it as its banner.
While the first Islamist flag, or al-raya, is a ubiquitous sight in Tripoli – where it is hung from street posts and across storefronts to show piety and Sunni pride – the second is far less common.
Yet the ISIS-affiliated insignia is increasingly appearing outside some shops around Tripoli and is being donned by protesters at Islamist rallies in the city, a potential signal of the radical group’s growing reach and level of support in Lebanon’s second-biggest city. Others, however, insist it is merely a symbol of Sunni unity and pride.
From behind his desk, which is framed by plastic hula dancers, action heroes and board games, Sami explained that the flag became popular as a symbol of Sunni strength after deceased leader Osama bin Laden started using it in the ‘90s.
“People liked Osama bin Laden because he was strong,” he added. “They like whoever is strong.”
Sami said that because of a lack of education, economic opportunities and political leadership, Tripolitans were all too eager to rally behind symbols of power.
“Today, if you stomped on a German flag in some Tripoli neighborhoods, people would come and beat you up,” he said, shaking his head, referring to fervent local pride over the European country following its fourth football World Cup victory last week.
The sale of flags in Sami’s shop serves as a barometer of local allegiances in Tripoli.
“Before, 100 percent of what I sold were from the Free Syrian Army,” he said, gesturing to a clutch of green, black and white FSA headbands gathering dust. “Now it’s 10 percent.”
Sami said he had not noticed an uptick in sales of ISIS-affiliated items since the announcement of the caliphate last month, adding that business was relatively slow. He emphasized that in his opinion, the group’s adopted symbol was more prominent during times when Sunni Tripolitans felt they were being discriminated against for their religion.
But Sami’s shop is far from the only place people can go to for ISIS gear.
At his small wooden stand in Tripoli’s ancient bustling souks, Wissam was busy selling stickers, flags and headbands with the ISIS appropriated insignia alongside Islamic DVDs and prayer beads.
“They’re selling well because it’s Ramadan,” he said. A screen above Wissam’s stand, recently removed, previously treated passers-by to images of bin Laden.
Some of the ISIS-affiliated paraphernalia now being sold in Tripoli shops is printed at Soufi Print, which produces everything from Mercedes Benz banners to the German tricolor. The company’s website openly advertises Islamist flags and gear, along with personalized ashtrays and mugs. Although it does not include the ISIS-affiliated emblem in its public catalog, the manager said the shop did sell the flag with the seal of the Prophet.
The manager, who asked not to be identified, insisted that such flags were not symbols of terrorism but “things from the Prophet.”
He said he was not concerned about terrorists or their sympathizers purchasing the flags and using them for other reasons. “We’re a business,” he shrugged. “It’s no different than selling the Brazilian or the German flag.”
But although ISIS’ flag may be just a harmless symbol of religiousness or Sunni pride, in some corners of Tripoli it is a clear indicator of changing political opinions.
A young, bearded jewelry seller elsewhere in the souks said he taped the Prophet’s seal outside his shop last year when he “wasn’t in support of the Islamic State,” explaining that “I put it up for Muslims.”
Now, however, he supports ISIS because they practice “true Islam.”
On the counter in his shop, he has mounted a crude ISIS logo, apparently printed from the Internet, in a frame with a girlish bow at the crest.
“ ISIS goes into an area and purifies it,” he said.
He said that while there were currently no organized ISIS elements in Tripoli, “there are people who support them, who love them.”