TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Tucked into the narrow corner store in Tripoli’s Gold Souk, the 20-something-year-old employee speaks a mile a minute, constantly jumping from one topic to the next.
He speaks about religion, sectarianism, justice and his time in Australia.
“People there are really interested in jihad,” he says. On his visits there, he said, Australians of Lebanese and Arab descent who have never visited the region often ask him about life in the Middle East.
The employee, who asked that his name not be used due to the way authorities might interpret his political views, sports a neat beard, and says he is “23 or 24.”
He is also one of the last members of his family still in Lebanon. The rest are now living in Australia with a large community of Lebanese from the northern city of Tripoli and the surrounding areas.
Outside his shop, he has posted the Islamist emblem once popular with Osama bin Laden. The symbol, called the stamp of the Prophet, has most recently been adopted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
“When I see people with this stamp, I feel at ease,” he said.
“All of my family is in Australia and I want to go there ... But I also want to go to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,” he told The Daily Star.
The Australian government estimates that around 150 Australians are fighting with opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, including radical groups like the Nusra Front and ISIS. Many of these fighters are of Lebanese descent.
The link between Lebanese Australians and regional terrorism was thrown into relief by the arrest of dual-national Hussam al-Sabbagh last month, and by highly disturbing photos posted online by Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian ISIS fighter of Lebanese descent, which circulated on social media this week.
Sabbagh, who was born in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and reportedly moved to Australia in 1987, was arrested last month and stands accused of running a 250-strong militia aligned with Al-Qaeda.
Sharrouf, who was born in Australia to Lebanese immigrants, posted a photo of his young son, no older than 10, clad in ISIS garb holding a severed head. “That’s my boy!” the caption read.
Previously, he posted photos of fellow fighter Mohammad Elomar smiling broadly with a bloody head in each hand. Like Sharrouf, Elomar is also the Sydney-born son of Lebanese immigrants.
The involvement of Lebanese-Australians in violent regional conflicts raises obvious national security concerns.
But perhaps more importantly, scholars, security analysts and community leaders are trying to understand why young Australians of Lebanese descent are risking their lives in wars abroad rather than building a life down under.
Scholars and activists say that social and economic exclusion that Australians of Lebanese descent experience in Australia may play a key factor in their radicalization.
Moustapha Alloush, a former Tripoli MP, says that much of the Australian-Lebanese Sunni community hails from the regions around Tripoli. Poorly integrated and with little education, these groups remain close-knit in Australia.
“They are still isolated,” he said. “It’s like they are still living in their village in north Lebanon.”
Many have few economic prospects, according to scholars.
“The effects of disadvantage and marginalization represent a promising explanation for the disproportionate Lebanese-Australian involvement in jihadism,” wrote scholars Andrew Zammit and Shandon Harris-Hogan in a paper earlier this year.
Keysar Trad, a Muslim community leader in Australia, agrees. Trad, who was born in Tripoli, came to Australia at a young age and has experienced first-hand the difficulties young Muslim immigrants face.
“There are number of catalysts working together to entice youths to these warzones, these include: Feeling marginalized and disempowered in Australia; inability to integrate into the workplace because they are denied opportunities – they are shortlisted out of interviews because of their names,” Trad wrote in an email.
Zaky Mallah, a young Australian man whose parents hail from Tripoli, confirmed that ISIS enjoyed wide support among young people disenchanted with life in Australia.
“We have many who support ISIS in Oz,” he said, also by email.
Mallah was charged and acquitted for terrorism-related offenses in Australia nearly a decade ago. He traveled to Syria at the beginning of the revolution. While many accused him of fighting, he says he was recording footage for his YouTube channel. Mallah has publicly condemned ISIS, and advocates cooperation with Australian authorities.
While it remains unclear whether radicalized Australian-Lebanese pose a direct threat to Lebanon’s security, there are signs this transnational dynamic may undermine the country’s stability.
The jewelry seller in the Souks said he had lived in the same neighborhood as Sabbagh before his arrest and had spent some time with him.
“I have known and seen that some of the support for the extremist groups in Tripoli and in the North comes directly from private money in Australia,” Alloush said.
“Many of them don’t know where their money is going to ... They think that they are supporting the Sunni population,” he added.
Moreover, Lebanon may be a stopping point for some Australians who want to fight in Syria and Iraq, Mallah said.
“Australians who want to join rebel groups, they use their Australian passports to travel as normal citizens. Then they may find a group to fight with in Tripoli, for example,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that the government was following up on the issue of Australian fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“We look forward to expanding our cooperation with counterterrorism partners, including Lebanon, particularly on the issue of foreign fighters,” the spokesman told The Daily Star.
Alloush, however, said there was little that Australian-Lebanese fighters could do to worsen the grim situation in North Lebanon.
“I’m already at sea. What do I care if I get wet?” he sighed.