TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Entry to Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Saqi area, where citrus orchards, bamboo fields and small manufacturing facilities abound, is not an easy task. The large and mostly deserted stretch of land connects the highway on the Abu Ali roundabout to Tripoli’s Maritime Base.On the highway outside, the Army’s armored personnel carriers are stationed next to each of the narrow entrances to Saqi. Soldiers carry out hourly patrols and perform searches on almost every vehicle heading in.
But veteran Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter Abu Ahmad, who considers Saqi a childhood playground and the perfect location to exercise his favorite pastime, hunting birds, is an expert on dodging the military’s tight grip and smuggling fellow hunters and guests inside the thicket.
Previously unheard of, Saqi gained notoriety shortly after the unrest in Syria erupted almost two years ago. It rose to fame as the location where the youth of Tripoli are allegedly trained to join the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“How can we carry out training here when the Jabal [Mohsen] is located right above,” Abu Ahmad says, pointing to the hills towering above the Saqi area. “It’s just inconceivable; the Jabal Mohsen guys or the Army can track any activity here.”
The killing last month of a group of Lebanese fighters, all from north Lebanon, in a Syrian army ambush in the border area of Tal Kalakh, raised questions over the recruitment and training done across the north of those heading to Syria to join the uprising.
A senior intelligence source did not deny that training and recruitment were happening, confiding that these are taking place but still “very discretely.”
In Tripoli, emerging Salafist sheikhs like Salem al-Rafei and Bilal al-Masri, who are highly influential in the city’s underprivileged quarters, do not hide their belief that fighting alongside Syrian rebels is a religious obligation, yet they completely deny the existence of training camps or official recruitment of fighters.
“When those youngsters see that Hezbollah are defending the Syrian regime and fighting alongside Assad forces, they feel compelled to travel to Syria to support their oppressed brethren,” says the long-haired sheikh.
But according to Masri, joining the battle in Syria was an “individual” rather than “organized” act.
“All those youth who head to Syria do it on an individual basis. There is nobody convincing them to go or doing the recruitment,” he says. “There is no need to recruit Lebanese fighters to fight in Syria; Syrians are strong men and do not need any help.”
Despite rumors that the Al-Qaeda-inspired Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is in charge of recruitment and training in north Lebanon, Masri’s argument is repeated everywhere in Islamist circles across Tripoli and among Bab al-Tabbaneh’s residents.
Echoing Masri, Salafist official in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Sheikh Chadi Jebara maintains that the group killed in Tal Kalakh were “religious youth” who were “demoralized by what’s happening in Syria.”
“The Tal Kalakh youth were all very, very young. The eldest was Hasan Srour and he was 21,” Jebara continues. “They were all enthusiastic and passionate but they don’t have experience in fighting otherwise they would have avoided the ambush or felt a betrayal.”
But the intelligence source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the mere fact that the men traveled in a group demonstrates that some kind of coordination had taken place between concerned parties in Lebanon and Syria.
“There are liaison officers in charge of channeling weapons and fighters into Syria,” the source says. “Traveling in groups into a war zone is not an individual act.”
Hasan Srour’s body was repatriated to Lebanon over the weekend. According to Jebara and several Bab al-Tabbaneh residents, he was the only one who had traveled back and forth to Syria and took part in battles there and guided the ambushed youth into Syrian territories.
Srour’s family and friends in Bab al-Tabbaneh are eager to show pictures of him in Syria handling AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. His younger brother Hassan survived the raid and is currently held in captivity by Syrian government forces.
Jebara argues that north Lebanon was clear of training camps due to the heavy presence of security forces across the governorate.
“There are no training camps in Tripoli and in north Lebanon in general,” says Jebara. “But in border villages with Syria, in the province of Akkar, where the frontier is highly porous and lands are entwined, a few camps might exist.”
The senior intelligence source also rules out the presence of training camps in north Lebanon, saying that while some kind of theoretical training is happening, full-fledged training camps where fighters are formed are nonexistent.
“There are no traditional training camps in Lebanon, where for example shooting exercises are carried out,” the source says. “In addition,” he continues, “north Lebanon’s geography, a plain, makes it very easy to locate any training activities or the establishment of camps.”
The source explains stripping and assembling weapons and preparing explosives is the kind of training Lebanese fighters might be receiving.
“Unlike shooting exercises or field training, such techniques could be taught in a house or a depot and therefore remain highly covert,” he adds.
Fighter Abu Ahmad laments the fact that Tripoli’s youth lack serious training in terms of fighting techniques and the handling of weapons.
Abu Ahmad, who retired from the Lebanese Army only a couple of years ago, confides that he spends long hours teaching the youth how to handle an AK-47. “Not all of them get it,” he sighs.
The fighter says that old-timers like him, rather than the youth, take the lead during fighting with Jabal Mohsen. “Those kids cannot handle a gun but are eager to go fight in Syria!” he bellows. “No wonder they never return with so little experience.”