Tripoli: Salafis Make Their Move

Sunni Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal (2nd L), one of the founders of the Salafist movement in the city, sits near a flag of the Islamist Tahrir party among others blocking a road to demand the release and improvement of prison conditions for Islamists held in Lebanese jails, after Friday prayers in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, 18 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Nader Fawz

Published Monday, May 21, 2012

The repeated security breaches in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli raise questions about who’s in control of the security situation on the ground. There are no definitive answers to these questions, but the growing influence of Salafi forces is visible.

The Salafis and Islamists took control of Tripoli’s neighborhoods while the army stood idly by. This is what the city’s residents, Islamist or otherwise, are saying.

Early last week, army vehicles crossing Abu Samra bridge passed by a checkpoint set up by some fighters. Once there, they greeted the fighters and continued on their way, as if the armed men controlling it were part of the state.

Later, they arrested a group of fighters with thick beards, long robes, and machineguns. Two hours later they released them.

Some Salafi sheikhs draw attention to these facts and insist that the army and the soldiers (that was before the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed by the army yesterday) are “not enemies.”

These are the facts on the ground in Tripoli. A reality considered by the Salafis to be the “minimum” of what it should be. Sources close to Salafi sheikhs say that they aim to keep control of the city.

Some put the crisis in the north as a sectarian issue, an attempt to put an end to the “victimization of the Sunnis.” But the more important reason behind the political turbulence is Tripoli’s geographic position in relation to “Syrian revolution.” Lebanon’s second largest city is in effect the backyard of the mobilization in Syria, specifically that of Homs.

The equation is clear. The security of Tripoli depends on the security of Homs and vice versa. For the “revolutionaries” in Homs, Tripoli is the most important city. It provides them with arms and supplies, and possibly even fighters. The Salafis and Islamists do not say so openly but this can be deduced from what is being said in their circles.

The “northern suburbs” project, to oppose Beirut’s “southern suburbs” where Hezbollah is headquartered, conceals a number of ideas promoted in the parlors of Salafis and others in the city – that Tripoli must be turned into a buffer zone for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Transforming the city into a backyard for the fighters in Homs requires a lot of energy from the Salafis. First, they must think of how to neutralize dissenting voices. Putting it differently, they must purge the city of their enemies.

The Salafi groups that represent a mere 5 to 7 percent of Tripoli’s population, according to officials from the Future Movement, are looking for a decisive solution. But such a move required a consensus among the Salafi groups.

Implementing the Plan

For several weeks, it looked as if these groups were preparing for a move that would serve as the launching point of their plan. They needed a leadership figure that is all-embracing, strong, and influential.

The ideal candidate for such a role was none other than Sheikh Salem al-Rafei. Observers of the situation in Tripoli indicate that his weekly Friday sermon is evolving and becoming very popular.

His followers are increasing as he becomes a better orator. His special charisma sets him apart from “the charlatans” whose words are quickly forgotten by the audience.

In addition to the symbolic figure, there is another group of leaders on the ground. They do not appear in public, participate in meetings, or speak to the press. They are the field command that will “implement the plan.”

According to available information, the command is made up of three persons with security backgrounds and military abilities.

First, there is the publicly known leader from the Future Movement, Amid Hammoud, who keeps denying his involvement in what is happening on the ground. But those in the know indicate that he is involved with one of his relatives in the distribution of “combat provisions” in parts of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli.

The second is a high ranking officer from the FSA confirmed to be in Tripoli by the Salafis and their adversaries. Groups from the FSA are operating openly in Bab al-Tabbaneh and it is known that they participated in escalating the fighting with the Alawi district of Jabal Mohsen.

The third and most important of the field commanders is Abu Yasser al-Souri (see box below).

Under this strong tripartite command, which should be able to take control of many of the fighters, there are more experienced leaders that are mentioned in Salafi circles. One of them is Hussam Sabbagh who had coordinated the groups which were supposed to assist Fatah al-Islam during the siege of Nahr al-Bared in 2007.

Rallying and Rehearsing

With the symbolic figure and the field command in place, the plan required the right moment to be launched, according to observers.

The crux of the field work, which saw a rehearsal in Tripoli recently, would be dividing the city into different parts. During the most recent clashes, armed groups succeeded in sectioning the city into four areas centered around Nour Square, where the Islamists began an open-ended sit-in.

The rehearsal achieved its goal. The fighters took control of the whole city for a one and a half hours, without any intervention from the Lebanese army.

Connecting the Dots

Observers say that security and judicial indicators suggest a link between a number of events.

They include the interrogation of the detained Jordanian national, Abdel Malek Abdel Salam, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, and the extradition of a Syrian and several Lebanese from Syria to Lebanon involved in the kidnapping of seven Estonians on 23 March 2011.

The observers say “the ransom from the Estonian kidnapping operation was used by a Jihadist organization – more specifically al-Qaeda – to prepare the terrain for a number of groups in the Syrian revolution.”

They add that the sponsor of the three events is a Qatari. “He is also active in supporting Salafi groups and members of the FSA in Tripoli.”


The Experience of Abu Yasser al-Souri

Abu Yasser al-Souri is the most capable organizer among the Salafis in Tripoli. Al-Souri is originally from Syria but has the Lebanese nationality. People who know him well say that his “vast” experience makes him “the most dangerous organizer of armed groups in Lebanon.”

His battle history attests to this. He fought with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) against the Syrian regime in Hama in 1981. When the Syrian military put an end to the MB, he fled to Tripoli where he found refuge in the Tawhid Movement, which he used to continue his activities.

A person who knows him personally says that “after the defeat of the Tawhid in Tripoli and the strengthening of Syria’s grip on the city, he left to Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Saida. He remained there until the Syrian regime took control of all Lebanese territories, so he left Lebanon.”

Al-Souri returned to Lebanon following the Syrian army’s withdrawal in April 2005. Until today, “he remains in Tripoli, semi-legally.” He is active in aid to the poor and “opened an office for Islamic social services, called al-Bashaer Association.”

According to experts, he is fit to lead the Salafi fighters and coordinate their actions during the takeover of Tripoli. He will most likely be leading a group of FSA fighters who could have the last word in the city according to politicians and security officials in Tripoli.

If he succeeds in his mission, Abu Yasser al-Souri would create “a ruthless army capable of winning any battle in Tripoli,” one observer warns.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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