TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Pictures of Islamist fighters in Syria proudly holding the severed heads of enemy combatants may have become increasingly common, but they have not yet lost their power to shock. For Mamdouh Elomar, however, one image in particular was even more shocking than the others: the man displaying the decapitated heads was his son, Mohammad. Elomar, 60, is a wealthy Lebanese-Australian. A short but stocky man, he has passed on his stoutness to his sons, all three of whom are boxing champions like their father. But despite his outward “Tripolitan tough guy” aura, Elomar is kind and charitable.
He recently decided to pay for a shipment of desperately needed hospital supplies to be taken from Australia to Lebanon, and clearly maintains a close connection to Lebanon, and Tripoli in particular. He came to Lebanon a little over three weeks ago to oversee the delivery of the shipment, provided by the Australian Arab Association.
“I want to make sure the help goes to the poor,” he said. “The aid is meant to go to Lebanese people ... regardless of religion or sect.”
The shipment includes brand new equipment that will be divided between public hospitals in Beirut and Tripoli, including bandages, bedding, theater equipment, wheelchairs, needles, syringes and other supplies that undersupplied Lebanese public hospitals will be happy to receive.
Elomar left Tripoli in 1973 for Australia and now resides in Sydney, the city where he raised his five children. While he speaks English, he appears more comfortable talking in his native Arabic. He now manages hundreds of employees, including two of his sons, between a business in Australia and another in Papau New Guinea.
“[Mohammad] worked for me for 17 or 18 years but then he stopped coming to work,” Elomar said. “I talked to him and he said he didn’t want to work. He used to live with me, but he took his wife and children and left. I started seeing him rarely and I didn’t speak to him much.
“Two years later, we find his photos on TV. Mohammad had joined the Syrian revolution.”
While Elomar said he wasn’t sure which group his son was affiliated with, Australian media claims Mohammad is a member of the notoriously brutal radical group ISIS. Either way, he is wanted as a terrorist by the Australian government.
Mohammad’s uncle is serving a jail term in Australia for conspiring to plot a terrorist attack, while his brother is incarcerated for physically assaulting a police officer during the 2012 Hyde Park riots in Sydney.
Before Mohammad traveled to Syria, his mother tried to coax him into returning home.
His father, on the other hand, has cut off all relations and refuses to speak with his son.
“You feel that the person is different. But if he says it’s none of your business what can you do?” Elomar asked. “Time will teach him, I can only advise him.”
Mohammad does not fit the usual patterns found in the background of foreign jihadis who have made their way to Syria or Iraq.
Growing up, he wasn’t particularly religious, nor did he study Islam or attend an Islamic school, according to his father.
Many foreign jihadis are often loners in their teens or early 20s, whereas Mohammad is 30 and was apparently never short of friends. “As a kid he used to go from school to boxing and he was likeable and had friends at boxing school,” Elomar said. Nor did he cause any serious trouble growing up, as indicated by his clean police record.
What Mohammad’s father does not mention is the Australia-based Shiekh Feiz Mohammad, whom various media reports blame for his son’s brainwashing.
For whatever reason, many youngsters with Arab roots born in countries like Australia have taken up the fight in Syria. “Our sons, the new generation, do not know how things were when we were poor and fleeing from the war in Lebanon,” he said. “I would like to say that Australia is the best country because it protected us.”
Elomar has now cut off contact with his daughter-in-law and grandkids, despite the fact that they only live a 20-minute drive away. He’s unsure if they have police protection, but he says his oldest grandson, aged 9, has no problems at school related to his father’s actions.
Still, he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to speak to his son if he ever got another chance.
“If I was lucky enough to talk to him, I would advise him to go to the Australian Embassy and turn himself in, then go back to live with his family,” Elomar said. “I would advise him not to die.”