Has the ‘radical threat’ in north Lebanon been exaggerated?

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Lebanese army vehicles carrying Lebanese soldiers are deployed on the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on April 2, 2014 in the first stage of a plan aimed at quelling deadly Syria-linked violence in the city. AFP/Ibrahim Chalhoub

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It is almost unbelievable that the “bogeyman” in the north was taken out after two limited security and military operations. Is it possible that the threat of an Islamic emirate in the north was neutralized this easily? Who exactly fought in that battle and who didn’t? Did the armed groups deploy their full capabilities and fail, or do they continue to pose a threat?

Anyone who reads intelligence reports and leaks by security officers will not believe the outcome of the recent battle in Tripoli and Minyeh. The reports speak about hundreds of fighters equipped with the latest weaponry, awaiting the zero hour to begin their assault in the north to turn it into an Islamic emirate.

For months now, the security services did not stop leaking scenarios to this effect, through senior officials, led by army commander General Jean Kahwaji himself, in which they spoke about plans to isolate the north from the rest of Lebanon and give the militants – in Lebanon and Syria – access to the sea.

These scenarios were corroborated by threats made by the emirs of the armed groups, who claimed thousands of fighters were gearing up to take the fight to the heart of Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the capital itself. This is while bearing in mind that this intel had not come strictly from local agencies, but was also being circulated among international intelligence services as credible information.

But do the armed groups really have the ability to turn things upside down in Lebanon and take out the country’s security services? This question has remained without an answer throughout the past few months. However, recent facts emerging from the field have shown that the number of fighters who fought against the army in the north did not exceed a few dozens, at best.

It is important here to make the distinction between fighters who do not stand their ground during battles and real ones who do not retreat. Surprisingly, the number of militants who fought until the end did not exceed 20 in Bab al-Tebbaneh, and less than that in the old souks, according to sources from the militants’ side. And interestingly, the army did not lose a single soldier in the fighting in Bab al-Tebbaneh.

In Minyeh, where the number of actual fighters led by Sheikh Khaled Hoblos does not exceed 30 (out of 300 armed men), the army lost 11 soldiers, including three officers. Then, the real battle took place there with trained fighters, bearing in mind that the largest number of army casualties were killed in ambushes. Yet despite all these losses, what happened there was a “picnic” compared to the extent of exaggeration in relation to the militants’ capabilities.

Tripoli was portrayed as a hub for terrorists, and the ensuing battle was given a rare political cover, as evident from the attitudes of the Future Movement and the absence of any voices inciting against the army.

Even the Saudi media was encouraging the army to press ahead with its operations. But why did Saudi Arabia decide to accept the elimination of the militant groups at this time in particular?

Is it because these groups have grown in a way that now threatened the presence of the Future Movement in the north? Or are the reports about the involvement of Future Movement MP Khaled Daher in encouraging soldiers to defect, and other possible military developments, true, necessitating these groups to be sacrificed? Finally, why was no role given to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s security advisor, retired Colonel Amid Hammoud, even though the man had a prominent role in many clashes that took place previously in the city? Were Shadi Mawlawi and Oussama Mansour scapegoated in lieu of Khaled Daher?

The irony this time is that not one area in the north or Lebanon rose up in solidarity with Bab al-Tebbaneh. There was no mobilization and sectarian inflammation against the army. But would things have proceeded this smoothly if imams in Bab al-Tebbaneh, such as Ayman Kharma, Mazen Mohammed, Khaled al-Sayyed, or Omar Aziz – all influential names in the slum – had declared jihad? According to sources, this alone would have rallied at least 200 fighters on the militants’ side. So why did this not happen? Where were the 300 fighters who the security reports said are part of the group led by Sheikh Houssam Sabbagh?

There are many questions like these, but the answer to them is simple. “There was no religious cover given from the Muslim Scholars Association, nor political cover from the leading parties in the city,” according to sources. The same sources say that the clerics did not side with Shadi Mawlawi, Oussama Mansour, and Omar Mikati because they were the ones who initiated the attack against the army, and because it was Mawlawi who kidnapped the soldier first, forcing the army to respond with a military operation.

What happened was that the group under the command of the three men attacked a Lebanese army patrol near the Abu Ali Roundabout, though the army did not respond until after a soldier was kidnapped. The army then laid siege to the souks area, and shelled it with heavy weapons to force the militants to accept a ceasefire deal.

In addition, the sources say that the three men and their fighters had crossed all lines. In what was a precedent, Mansour had expelled the radical cleric Kamal al-Bustani from the Abdullah bin Masoud mosque. Bustani is a brother of Walid al-Bustani, a leader in Fatah al-Islam who was executed by the Free Syrian Army in Talkalakh in Syria in April 2012.

This is not to mention the “tolls” they have been extorting from merchants in the souk as “protection money,” and other practices under the pretext of implementing sharia. Amid all this, these militants have come to be loathed, and everyone washed their hands clean of them.

Sheikh Khaled al-Sayyed, a prominent cleric in Bab al-Tebbaneh, told Al-Akhbar, “The radical threat is a staged drama that has been exaggerated for certain sides to reap its fruits.” Sayyed, who previously handled negotiations to hand over the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque to the clerics, said that the group led by Mansour and Mawlawi had crossed the line by the Lebanese authorities’ standard, stressing that the people of Bab al-Tebbaneh rejected the group’s practices. However, Sayyed said there were criticisms against the government and the army, which he said dealt in a heavy-handed manner with what he called an “anomalous situation,” pointing out that most injuries were among civilians because heavy weapons were used indiscriminately by the army.

“Heroes in Lebanon do not die and do not get arrested,” one resident of the city quips. The man then predicts the fate of the wanted trio as follows: Mawlawi will be arrested by the first intervention regiment at a checkpoint, and Mansour at a checkpoint of the 11th Brigade. As for Mikati, he will be injured in a clash with someone in Bab al-Tebbaneh, the Tripoli resident says.

In the north, “heroes” rarely die. They are given a leave of absence until there is a need to put them to use again. They thus remain embers under the ashes, ready to start a fire again whenever a favorable wind blows.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter: @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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