TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Last month, the arrest of the Islamist Shadi Mawlawi triggered deadly clashes in Tripoli. Since his detention on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, the 25-year-old has become an icon.
Mawlawi has professed his support for the Syrian uprising, and his pictures are carried at anti-regime demonstrations in Syria. Various Facebook pages and websites have popped up dedicated to the man who was largely unheard of before his arrest, and several are now under surveillance by security forces.
It was a quick leap to stardom for the nylon-bag seller who had a poor upbringing in Tripoli’s streets. His neighbors professed surprised at seeing his face on television and on the cover of a magazine, and Mawlawi himself appeared shocked at the hubbub surrounding his release.
Mawlawi is unique for his newfound fame, but there are plenty in Tripoli who sympathize with his Islamist ideology, or at least adhere to conservative strands of Islam.
And although Islamism and Salafism have taken center stage in the media, they are not new. In the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh, where some 150,000 people live below the poverty line, there has long been an Islamist presence. Lately, the neighborhood has been in the news because of its clashes with the majority Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen.
Among the faithful at Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Harba Mosque were Walid Boustani, who was imprisoned for his membership in the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam. He escaped Roumieh Prison in 2010, and recently died in Syria.
The neighborhood of Qobbeh, which resembles Bab al-Tabbaneh in its poverty, also gave birth to three well-known Islamists: Bassam Kanj, Ghandi al-Sahmarani and Abdallah Hazim.
Kanj, known as Abu Aysha, was influenced by the Sunni Islamist Tawhid Party, which had its genesis in Tripoli and was at the height of its influence in the mid-1980s. He left the country in 1985 with the Palestine Liberation Organization, resettling in Denmark, and then in Afghanistan where he was known as one of the first Arab fighters to enter Kabul in the late 1980s.
Kanj later resurfaced in the United States, and returned to Qobbeh, where he opened a manqoushe shop. He joined the Takfiri Islamist group, and died fighting the Lebanese Army in Dinnieh in 2000.
Ghandi Sahmarani, aka Abu Ramez al-Traboulsi, grew up as one of 14 children in a two-room Tripoli apartment. He became something of an icon long before Mawlawi during the Civil War, and his neighbors recount that he guarded the streets of his neighborhood at night. At some point he left his home city, and resurfaced in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, near Sidon.
There he helped to found the Salafi-influenced Jund al-Sham organization. His neighbors claimed he had connections with Al-Qaeda and Chechen rebels. Sahmarani, another son of Tripoli, died in unknown circumstances in the camp.
Finally, Atallah Atab, or Abu Hatab, fought during the Civil War and lived an impoverished life, according to relatives. They added that he robbed a jewelry store in Akkar to help fund the Takfiris. He also died in the Dinnieh fighting.
One self-professed former Islamist militant, who took his fight to Afghanistan in Iraq, is now holed up in his Tripoli apartment. Now retired and isolated from most of his family and society at large, he pins his hopes for the future on his son, who works in the United Arab Emirates.
He doesn’t like to speak of what he calls his “jihadist” activities, but it is his opinion that many who engage in militant Islamism are seeking revenge against a society that has repressed them.
The poverty in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Qobbeh, where Mawlawi also hails from, is certainly oppressive, although the reasons people adhere to Islamism are complicated and various.
At the time of his arrest, judicial sources said that the case against Mawlawi was built on the suspicion that he was helping funnel money to Syrian rebels. Also aired were suspicions that Mawlawi had Al-Qaeda links, but other sources said that these turned out to be unfounded.
Mawlawi has said that his confession to membership in a terrorist organization was made under duress.
Whatever his previous activities, upon his release Mawlawi wore a black headband professing his faith and chanted the same. His popularity is such that his home is still full of well-wishers and Salafist supporters congratulating him on his release.
He has left his job, and plans to open an office that will support the Syrian uprising. He has announced that he has committed himself to Islamist struggle, although not necessarily in a violent form.