Army and Islamists square off in northern Lebanon
By Misbah Al-Ali
Tensions have been steadily rising in the northern city of Tripoli ever since the Lebanese Army began implementing its security plan in April, drawing the ire of Islamists who say arrests have been random and unjust.
“We are keen on civil peace ... but there is a feeling of oppression overcoming Islamist activists as they are detained in prison for long periods of time without evidence or proof,” Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, told The Daily Star.
“It is unacceptable that every individual who goes to Syria is interrogated and thrown in jail while other political parties in Lebanon have publically intervened inside Syria and are fighting and slaughtering without a word of blame aimed at them,” he added, referring to Hezbollah’s role in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Lebanese Army’s intelligence unit has conducted a number of raids and arrests since April, putting an end to around 20 rounds of violence between opponents of Assad in the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh and rivals in largely Alawite Jabal Mohsen districts. The crackdown has prompted the Committee of Muslim Scholars and Salem Rafei, imam of Al-Taqwa Mosque in Tripoli, to call for Sunnis’ rights to be safeguarded.
Security sources in Tripoli told The Daily Star that tensions have been further heightened with the recent re-emergence of Sheikh Husam al-Sabbagh, known as Abul Hasan, into the spotlight.
A prominent Salafist figure, Sabbagh is also believed to be an Al-Qaeda member, and many arrest warrants have been issued for him since 2007. He holds an Australian passport and has played a prominent role in the Syrian conflict fighting alongside the Nusra Front rebel group.
He was also one of the leaders who disappeared from sight when the security plan began. Although the Army has been conducting raids, confiscating weaponry and apprehending dozens of wanted suspects in Tripoli neighborhoods, many of the prominent militia leaders involved in the recent fighting disappeared before they could be apprehended.
Salafist sources in Tripoli said approximately 100 men had gone to Syria and possibly even Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front in a bid to evade arrest.
Security forces are reported to be taking this information seriously, as these individuals – none of whom exceeds 20 years of age – are potentially ticking time bombs if they return to Lebanon to undertake terrorist operations. More than one Salafist preacher, however, pointed out that they would most likely to die in the fighting.
A Tripoli MP who chose to remain anonymous told The Daily Star that the security forces’ decision to issue arrest warrants against a large number of militia leaders and reopen files of their previous offenses was hugely problematic.
The MP cited Bab al-Tabbaneh’s militia commander Ziad Saleh, better known as Ziad Allouki, as a prime example.
“Militia leaders – including Allouki – agreed with security and judicial forces, under the patronage of a number of politicians, to turn themselves in in exchange for the settlement of their files,” he said.
“But soon after, Allouki was surprised to find that his charge was not limited to opening fire and taking up arms, but that other files and old complaints were also opened. This made everyone who turned himself in feel as if he had been deceived, and also embarrassed politicians who sponsored the agreement, as well as their families and loyalists, especially in Bab al-Tabbaneh, which is exceptionally sensitive.”
According to the MP, the situation exploded quickly and without warning after the arrest of Ibrahim Idlibi and Mahmoud Darwish, who are close to both Sabbagh and Rafei. Darwish in particular was surprised at the tone and attitude of the security officials, who have become much firmer.
“There were protests once again and protesters carried ISIS and Nusra Front banners and chanted very sectarian slogans, and things would have returned to the way they were if it wasn’t for the intensive contacts that took place to remedy the situation,” he added.
The MP said the agreement with security services also stated that Lebanese Salafists who were active in Syria would not be apprehended as long as they stayed out of the limelight, with particular reference to Sabbagh.
However, as soon as ISIS began gaining ground in Iraq and rigged cars, and as terrorist cells returned to Lebanon, security forces began tightening their hold on the Salafists, who say they were angered because they have not been involved in any security incidents in Lebanon apart from the conflict between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
However, the MP stressed to The Daily Star that the city had grown weary of violence and terrorism, taking a jab at recent comments by Rafei in which he suggested Sunnis in Lebanon may choose the same path as Sunnis in Iraq, who have rallied behind ISIS to try to overthrow the government.
“ Tripoli is not Kandahar or Fallujah [Afghan and Iraqi cities, respectively], and Lebanon is not Afghanistan or Iraq or the [Syrian] Raqqa province,” he said. “We have to safeguard civil peace and the insistence of Tripoli’s residents on life is a safety valve.
“Whoever sees otherwise – his adventures will only bear illusions. There is no going back in terms of the security situation in Tripoli.”
Rahim also bemoaned the media frenzy that occurred whenever a Sunni religious figure was arrested, and highlighted the fact that Idlibi and Darwish were released only two days after their arrest due to a lack of evidence.
Commenting on the recent level of communications held between the committee and security forces, he said the most significant problem was the media’s exaggeration of the issue.
“There are tendentious rumors about the ties between us and between the security forces, the biggest example of which is leaking that an arrest warrant is out against Sheikh Rafei, and that relations with the security forces are bad,” he said.
“All of this information has no relevance to the truth as dialogue is open and strong and we seek to preserve civil peace as much as we can.”