In Lebanon's camps, rising sympathy for Islamists
Recent battles between Lebanese police and Fatah al-Islam militants anger local residents.
A two-month police crackdown against suspected extremists, and the killing of a Lebanese Islamist last week, is stirring anger among residents of this city and a backlash of sympathy for Islamic militants battling Lebanese troops near here.Skip to next paragraph
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Tripoli, a traditionally conservative Sunni Muslim city, has long been fertile ground for the growth of Islamic radicalism. And analysts and religious leaders here say that dozens of foreign militants – many of them veterans of the war in Iraq – have relocated to Tripoli in recent months, some of them joining Fatah al-Islam, a new Al Qaeda-linked faction bottled up in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, 10 miles to the north.
The presence of foreign fighters and the week-long battles between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam are giving rise to concerns that groups inspired by Al Qaeda are seeking to take advantage of Lebanon's political turmoil to establish a foothold here.
"I used to say that there was no Al Qaeda in Lebanon. And I believed that until last week. Now I am convinced that Al Qaeda is here in Tripoli and northern Lebanon," says Sheikh Omar Bakri, a cleric who runs a religious library in the Abi Samra district of Tripoli.
Lebanon's second-largest city, Tripoli has a history of association with radical Sunni groups. In the mid-1980s, neighboring Syria viewed Sunni Islamists as a threat to its secular regime and fought heavy battles against the Islamic Tawheed movement, which briefly controlled this city. Hundreds of Islamists were subsequently persecuted, arrested, and imprisoned during the years of Syrian dominance in Lebanon. The war in Iraq spurred dozens of devout young men to leave their homes in the slumlike streets of Tripoli's poorer neighborhoods to join the insurgency against American forces.
In January 2000, a small group of Islamist militants from Tripoli fought Lebanese troops during a brief insurrection in the mountains east of Tripoli. Among them was Bilal Mahmoud, then a devout 17-year-old. Bilal, known locally as Abu Jandal, was caught and jailed but released two years ago. Since then, friends and relatives say he has led a peaceful life.
Backlash against police
Last week, Bilal was shot dead by police in a street near his home in Tripoli's impoverished Tebbaneh neighborhood. The police said Bilal had threatened arresting officers with a hand grenade and was gunned down before he could throw it. But his family and dozens of eyewitnesses say Bilal was drinking juice and eating a sandwich when police riddled him with bullets. Either way, Bilal's death has triggered calls for revenge in Tebbaneh and stoked simmering sympathy for Fatah al-Islam.
"The situation is unbearable for us right now. We feel the government's knives on our necks, and only Fatah al-Islam is there to protect us," says local resident Mohammed Awad.
Graffiti on the stairwell of the Mahmoud family's dingy, rundown apartment building calls for God's blessing on Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by US troops almost a year ago.
"[Bilal] was a very religious boy and never said a bad word about anyone," says Bilal's father, Riad Mahmoud.