On January 25, a video surfaced on jihadi forums in which a man in Tripoli in northern Lebanon calling himself Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari announced the creation of a Lebanese branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Salafi rebel group currently active in Syria in Iraq.
Ansari’s group, called the Islamic State of Lebanon, praised the Abdullah Azzam Battalions, a separate Sunni extremist faction, for “striking the Shiites” during a recent attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut and bombings in Beirut’s Shia-populated southern suburbs. It also criticized the Lebanese Army, calling it a “crusader army supported by Hezbollah” and demanded that Sunnis should leave it.
Ansari may hope that this pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISIL, will help him gain access to resources and unify Tripoli’s jihadi scene around his leadership. Given that he is using a nom de guerre, it is difficult to say how much support he commands locally, but what is clear is that Tripoli’s jihadis are gaining strength every day.
The Rise of Jihadism in Tripoli
The austere branch of Sunni Islam known as Salafism has a long history in Tripoli. It was first introduced as a religious doctrine by Sheikh Salem al-Shahhal in the 1950s. It then spread as a conservative way of life in the early 1980s when the Islamic Unification Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami), a Sunni political party, briefly ruled Tripoli. But it became truly influential when the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon gave Salafi preachers and activists space to operate more freely.
Today, “establishment” Salafis in Tripoli such as Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, the son of Salem, Salem al-Rafei, and Nabil Rahim—all of whom are connected to political actors in the city—have a growing number of followers. Sources in the official Lebanese Sunni body for religious affairs, Dar al-Fatwa, tell me there are only around 3,000 Salafis among Tripoli’s 500,000 inhabitants. But even if these Salafis are a small minority, they are a vocal one.
A particularly worrying trend is the rapid growth of a militant jihadi current on the fringes of the broader Salafi movement. Many jihadis were sent to prison in 2007–2008 for belonging to Fatah al-Islam, an extremist organization then active in the Palestinian refugee camps outside Tripoli. But the war in Syria—and especially Hezbollah’s involvement—has revitalized the jihadi movement in Lebanon.
When some leaders of the Salafi movement called on their followers to join the battle against the Syrian regime in April 2013, many young men came to enlist in Tripoli. A prominent local Salafi cleric recently told me that some 200 Tripoli Salafis actually went and fought in Syria, adding that “the crisis in Syria definitely strengthened the local Salafi-jihadi current.”
Seeking Legitimacy in Bab al-Tabbaneh
Some of those jihadis returning from Syria are now involved in clashes between the impoverished Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, an adjacent Alawite neighborhood that is ruled by the Damascus-backed Arab Democratic Party (ADP). The jihadi influx has strengthened the militias of Bab al-Tabbaneh, as the veterans bring valuable urban warfare expertise and equipment back home from Syria. Recent reports confirm that sophisticated new weapons have been spotted in the Sunni neighborhood, including mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The fighting between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in Tripoli is related to the Syrian conflict, yet it is also deeply local. Many Sunnis recall the violence visited upon Bab al-Tabbaneh by the Syrian regime during a December 1986 crackdown. In recent years, there have been clashes on and off ever since Hezbollah’s takeover of Beirut in May 2008. They intensified in August 2013, when ADP members were accused of involvement in bomb attacks against two Salafi-controlled mosques known for their opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
For many Lebanese fighters, joining the struggle against the ADP in Tripoli is a way to gain local legitimacy and to help the Syrian rebels in their own way. “We are fighting for the Syrian revolution—but from home,” the head of a powerful Sunni militia in Tripoli proudly told me.
Widening the Confrontation
But as they emerge as increasingly powerful figures in the struggle between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, the Lebanese jihadis are also beginning to expand their list of targets beyond the ADP militia and Alawite areas.
In recent weeks, the Lebanese Army has taken a more proactive role in trying to contain the Tripoli clashes. This brings it into closer contact with the jihadis, who now turn their guns on the “atheist” army and the Lebanese state itself.
“The army is a Hezbollah stronghold—it is digging its own grave by taking a more prominent role in Bab al-Tabbaneh as this will only accelerate the entry of the ISIL and the Nusra Front in Tripoli,” a prominent Tripoli jihadi confidently explained to me a few weeks ago.
He may have been right: ever since, attacks against the army have multiplied. The latest took place on January 22, killing two soldiers and injuring eight others. Other state institutions may also be targeted on a wider scale in the weeks and months ahead, since many jihadis refuse to admit any distinction between the conflicts in Lebanon and Syria. “Lebanon, and Tripoli in particular, are mere provinces and villages for Damascus—it has now become clear that the Lebanese state is part of the Syrian regime,” warns my jihadi source.
It is this change in thinking, from viewing Lebanon as a transit point for the struggle in Syria to considering its state institutions as legitimate targets, that may in due course fuel the rise of the much-feared Islamic State of Lebanon.
Don’t miss Raphaël Lefèvre’s previous articles about the Alawite community in Jabal Mohsen: Power Struggles Among the Alawites in Lebanon, Part I and Power Struggles Among the Alawites in Lebanon, Part II.