TRIPOLI, Lebanon // In the main squares of Lebanon’s second city, white flags of peace have replaced the black banners of war.
As the centre of Sunni militancy in Lebanon, Tripoli has been caught up in waves of violence since war in neighbouring Syria began four years ago, emboldening militants here.
In the early days of the conflict, Free Syrian Army flags quickly appeared in militant strongholds in Tripoli. Eventually, they were followed by fighters wearing T-shirts bearing Al Qaeda’s logo and walls decorated with ISIL insignias and posters of young who had been killed after joining the fight across the border.
But after government security forces targeted the city’s powerful militias and a shift in sentiment against extremists in Syria following their barbaric tactics being used against Lebanese citizens — Tripoli, is for once, quiet.
Not long ago, ISIL flags and even baseball caps could openly be purchased in downtown Tripoli. But those same shops that peddled ISIL merchandise now sell Lebanese army flags instead.
As ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, arrived on Lebanon’s eastern border and threatened a push into the country, the army finally turned its attention to quelling potential allies of extremists in militant hotbeds like Tripoli.
In the past, Sunni militias frequently fought battles with the city’s small Alawite population (co-religionists of Syria’s president) in a microcosm of the civil war next door. The militias would deploy in the city centre, brandishing arms and erecting posters of fallen fighters. For the most part, the army did not dare to intervene.
That changed last October.
Responding to ambushes on patrols, the army launched an assault on militia-held areas. The army had fought militias in the past, but had always stopped short of dislodging the militias and occupying their neighbourhoods.
After two days of heavy fighting, the army took control of militant strongholds with ground troops backed by artillery and helicopters raining rockets. More than 40 people including 11 soldiers and 8 civilians, were killed and in the aftermath of the battle, hundreds of militants were arrested.
The battled signified the beginning of a more hardline response from Lebanese security forces towards Sunni militants sympathetic to groups such as ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra.
The militias’ actions had long embodied populist messages espoused by Tripoli’s most prominent Salafi imams.
From pulpits in mosques and in strained voices at massive street demonstrations, these sheikhs issued calls for action against Hizbollah, for Tripoli’s militias to supplant the army and provide security in the city, for fighters to head to Syria and, at times, hinted at an uprising against a state they saw as working for Hizbollah’s agenda.
Today, such dissent is not tolerated.
“If you want to vent out, Roumieh Prison is waiting for you,” said Bilal Baroudi, a prominent Salafi imam, referring to Lebanon’s largest prison where terrorism suspects and many of Tripoli’s militants are now incarcerated.
Like Tripoli’s other influential Salafi religious leaders, Mr Baroudi has been an enthusiastic supporter of Syria’s rebels and highly critical of Shiite Hizbollah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon which has deployed in Syria to prop up Bashar Al Assad. He has also railed against Lebanon’s security forces.
On August 23, 2013, the mosque Mr Baroudi presides over was one of two Salafi mosques in the city targeted with car bombs. The attacks killed 47 and saw Sunni militias take over security for much of the city, arguing that the state was unable to protect them.
The episode underscored the widespread distrust of the army and the government among Sunnis in northern Lebanon.
As anger against the state and Hizbollah grew, support for extremist groups in Syria increased.
“They consider that this kind of oppression done by ISIL is nothing but a reaction to the oppression done by Shiites and Hizbollah,” said Safwan Al Zoaby, a Salafi sheikh who has spoken out against the militarisation of the Sunni community and the attraction of ISIL.
Lebanon got its first real brush with the extremists in August when ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra took over the border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army eventually retook control of the town, but the militants took more than 40 soldiers and policemen hostage. Four of those hostages have since been executed, including two who were beheaded. And more than 20 hostages are believed to still be held by extremists in the area.
Along the border near Arsal the Lebanese army has been preparing for ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra to launch an assault and has been pounding their border positions with artillery almost daily.
“The vast majority of [disenfranchised Sunnis] think that the army is just part of Hizbollah’s militia,” said Moustafa Alloush a member of the Sunni-backed Future Movement’s political bureau and the party’s top member in Tripoli. “But when they [ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra] killed and kidnapped Sunnis, at least some of those people said, ‘well I’m not sure if I support them or not.’”
“It did not sit well with the Lebanese, whether Sunni, Shiite or Christian,” said Robert Rabil, an expert on Lebanese Salafi groups and a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Florida Atlantic University.
While the army’s actions have been severely criticised by Sunnis who feel disenfranchised, it remains perhaps Lebanon’s only inclusive, cross-sectarian institution and draws many poor Sunnis to its ranks. The beheadings of kidnapped soldiers and policemen were met with outrage across the country.
“ISIL could not succeed in convincing the people that they can remove oppression from Sunnis,” due to the way they act toward those who disagree with them, said Mr Baroudi, the Salafi cleric. “Their fight against Jabhat Al Nusra, considering Syrian revolutionaries apostates…the way they persecute is unacceptable.”
But there still remain risks of extremism in northern Lebanon and the heavy deployment of the army that is for now keeping the peace may stoke radicalisation among some.
Shadi Skaff, 35, owns a barber shop in Bhannine, about a 20-minute drive north of Tripoli. The burned out carcasses of vehicles shunted to the side of the town’s main drag point to a violent recent past: The Lebanese army stormed this town as their Tripoli operation was underway when militants ambushed a patrol, near the town killing two soldiers. As part of their effort to capture the town, the Lebanese army again turned to rocketing it from the air.
Mr Skaff, a Salafi, blames outsiders for instigating the fight and insists the town’s Salafis had nothing to do with the fighting.
“The problem is that everyone who has a beard is considered to be ISIL,” he said. “Hizbollah takes their weapons out in front of the government [without problems], but if somebody has a knife here, he will be taken by the government.”
Mr Skaff says while the men of the town were critical of the government’s relationship with Hizbollah and its failure to improve the economic situation in northern Lebanon, they had stood by the army.
But after the battle with Lebanese security forces, that mood is changing. Mr Skaff says the people of Bhannine feel oppressed and can be arrested arbitrarily for the smallest infraction. That, he says, risks driving extremism.
“Due to the oppression, even people who don’t go to prayers say ‘let ISIL come,’” he said.