Lebanon’s Tripoli: residents say negligent state breeds extremism

After 'lone wolf' attack on security forces, aggrieved residents hit back at associations with extremism

Lebanese security forces inspect the building where a militant attacked a security forces patrol and blew himself when confronted in the northern port city of Tripoli on June 4, 2019, on the eve of Eid el-Fitr. A militant attacked a patrol of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) in Tripoli on Monday night, killing two police officers and two army soldiers, state news agency NNA said. / AFP / Ibrahim CHALHOUB
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With its crumbling Mamluk buildings, crusader castle, colourful souq and mouth-watering oriental sweets, Tripoli has long played the role of a busy commercial hub, strategically located on the Lebanese coastline close to the Syrian border.
Beneath the city's landmark early-20th century clock tower, bus drivers wait for customers heading to the capital Beirut or the Syrian city of Tartus, while men play backgammon on cafe shady terraces.

Life quickly went back to normal after a recent terrorist attack that shocked the city, which had enjoyed a few years of relative calm.

On the evening of June 4, as Muslims across the world were preparing to celebrate Eid Al Fitr, a man threw grenades and opened fire on the police and the army in several locations across Tripoli, killing two policemen and two soldiers.

Today, the fourth-floor flat where 27-year-old Abdel Rahman Mabsout died in a shoot-out with the army is marked only by a few bullet holes in an exterior wall, a familiar sight in a country that still bears the scars of its civil war.

But despite Tripoli’s calm appearance, tensions are brewing.

Sunni residents feel they are just the latest of their brethren across the Middle East to be marginalised at the expense of Shiite factions, while analysts point to the Lebanese government’s inability to address chronic problems that foster resentment.

Though soldiers in the city look relaxed, drinking coffee in front of their many observation points, their heavy presence is a reminder of the intense surveillance the city is under since sectarian violence pitted Alawites against Sunnis in 2014.

The two communities had been at odds for decades, but fighting flared up again with the Syrian civil war. In one of the worst bouts of violence, 42 people died during four days of clashes between the army and Islamist militants in October 2014.

Lebanese Army investigators inspect the area outside a building where clashes erupted between Lebanese troops and a a former member of the Islamic State group, who had engaged in an hours-long shootout with the security forces, in Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Lebanon's interior minister said Tuesday, that a lone gunman who went on a shooting spree in the northern city of Tripoli, killing four security personnel, was working alone. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Lebanese Army investigators outside a building where clashes erupted between Lebanese troops and a former member of ISIS, who had engaged in an hours-long shootout with the security forces, in Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. AP

Suspicion of the state is high in Tripoli. Residents of one of the areas most affected by past violence, Bab Al Tabbaneh, refused to talk to The National. They fear the mukhabarat, a term used across the Middle East for army intelligence. The feeling appears to be reciprocated: people say 80 men were arrested after the June 4 attacks, which shows just how concerned the state is by the potential for incidents like this to spark much greater conflagrations.

Security authorities were quick to describe Mabsout as a “lone wolf” with a history of mental illness, but activists, religious leaders and academics say that the conditions for a terrorist attack against state institutions have been ripe for years.

The army’s brutal response against anybody labelled a Sunni “terrorist”, a slow judicial system and a lack of investment in job creation and infrastructure have perpetuated the conditions that first led to violence several years ago.

Raphael Lefevre, a Lebanon and Syria researcher at Oxford University, told The National that "some of the same factors that had caused a wave of violence targeting the Lebanese security forces in 2014 are still at play today, chief among them the growing sense that the security forces are a tool in the hands of the notables and the political parties, notably Hezbollah, and disproportionately target Sunni rather than Shia militants."

With Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group that functions as a political party as well as a regional paramilitary force, stronger than ever, Tripoli’s majority Sunni community feels increasingly threatened.

“If a simple ruler is found on a Sunni, then he’s a terrorist,” complained imam Firas Ballout, head of the religious department of Lebanon’s Sunni authority, Dar Al Fatwa, in Tripoli.

“But when they find cannons and rockets on others, then they are part of the 'resistance'. Where is justice?”

Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, in the name of the “resistance” against Israeli occupation, and its members fight alongside Bashar Al Assad's forces in Syria.

“First the Sunnis were pushed aside in Iraq, then in Syria. Now, the Sunnis of Lebanon believe it’s their turn to be killed,” said Salem Al Rafei, a prominent Salafi cleric in Tripoli who called on his followers to fight the Syrian regime in 2013. About 100 young men did so, he says.

In such a climate of mistrust, conspiracy theories are common.

All the imams that The National spoke to suggested that Mabsout, reputedly "simple-minded", could not have organised the attacks on his own, and believe that Hezbollah, Iran or Syria manipulated him.

“I think it was a message from Hezbollah to the government and to the West: you may be putting pressure on Iran, but we can mess up the situation in Lebanon,” said imam Mohamed Ibrahim, media director at the Tahrir party, which he describes as advocating for the establishment of a Muslim caliphate through nonviolent means.

Although he condemned Mabsout’s actions, he argued that the state bore a responsibility in the radicalisation process by unfairly targeting the Sunni community.

“Security forces break into houses, beat young men and torture them until they confess to anything they want,” said Mr Ibrahim.

One woman, who spoke to The National on the condition of anonymity, said that her then 16-year-old son was tortured after his arrest on suspicion of joining ISIS in Lebanon in 2014, and has been detained for the past five years without trial in an unofficial prison.

The Lebanese army did not respond to a request for comment about the existence of this detention centre and torture allegations. Human rights organisations have documented extensive cases of torture in Lebanese prisons, including against minors.

Combined with ill-treatment, years of imprisonment without trial “create and sustain the type of resentment on which terrorist groups then recruit,” says Mr Lefevre.

Today, the woman says her only hope is that her son is granted amnesty. For years, religious personalities such as Mr Ibrahim have been lobbying the government for an amnesty for about 1,000 Islamist prisoners as part of a general amnesty that would also include drug traffickers.

She says that when her son is freed, she will try her best to keep him away from extremist thoughts.

“I will brainwash [my son] back from the beginning,” she said.

Another woman whose two brothers were recently freed from prison said that there was no help from the state for ex-detainees to transition back into society. They face difficulty finding work because of their past, and have restricted access to passports, breeding further resentment.

Perceived unfair treatment may be one of the root causes of terrorism, but Lebanese authorities also point to the responsibility of extremist imams in prison who influence other inmates in overcrowded cells.

"Anybody who enters Roumieh is a potential new terrorist," a source at the military court told The National, referring to a prison that houses a high number of Islamist extremists and where Mabsout spent a year and a half in 2016 and 2017 after attempting to join ISIS in Raqqa.

Failing to make it to the former ISIS capital, Mabsout received a month's training from a moderate group affiliated to the Free Syrian Army before going to Turkey, where he was arrested and handed over to Lebanon, the source said.

According to the source, building new prisons would the best way to combat extremist propaganda in detention. Foreign donors would be needed, considering that the state is near financial collapse.

But Mr Lefevre argues that “instead of obtaining US dollars to build new prisons, policymakers could show more care and invest more in the crumbling public school system, job creation, and poverty reduction initiatives, particularly in the north of Lebanon and Tripoli.”

The UN says that poverty affects 46 per cent of people in Tripoli, compared to a national average of 29 per cent.

With political will, Tripoli’s problems would be easy to fix, says Mr Ibrahim. But he said that the cycle of violence has a high chance of continuing.

“Many young men are pushed to the brink of explosion. They become open to anti-state ideas. That’s what happened with Mabsout, and there are many others like him.”