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.
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.
"He was only 24 years old," cries Nawfal, Bilal's grandmother, sitting in a corner of the small room. "What good were those 24 years? He spent so many of them in prison," says the elderly woman in a voluminous full-length black dress and white head scarf as she rises to offer a tray of chocolates to visitors.
Islamist becomes a 'martyr'
"But we are celebrating here. This is a party, not a funeral. See, we are offering sweets. Bilal died a martyr, and we are proud of him," she sobs, as tears trickle down her wrinkled cheeks.
Riad Mahmoud continued the notion of a celebration for his son, picking up his glass of cola and clinking it against those of his guests.
"Salaam, salaam," he says, conferring peace on his visitors.
Local residents say that the Army and police have not returned to Tebbaneh since the shooting, fearing acts of reprisal.
"The government is worse than the Syrians. They are killing and arresting us all," says one man who claims to have spent 10 years in a Syrian prison for fighting with Islamists against the Syrian Army in 1985.
Since the crackdown began, as many as 200 people have been rounded up on suspicion of forming militant cells, arms dealing, and having connections to Al Qaeda.
Most of them have been released, but more than a dozen people are still in detention, and one prominent cleric remains in hiding.
But Sheikh Bakri says that the wave of arrests and harassment risks pushing young men into the arms of radical Islamist groups.
"The government must release the detained and stop the arrests or people will be forced to join Fatah al-Islam," he says.
Although the bulk of Fatah al-Islam is holed up in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, they have an unknown number of militants and sympathizers operating elsewhere in Lebanon. Two of them, residents of Tebbaneh, blew themselves up last week when cornered by police.
Another Tebbaneh resident, Mahmoud al-Jassem, led a small Fatah al-Islam cell in Tripoli. He was killed during a fierce gun battle with Lebanese security forces in Tripoli on May 19.
"Poor areas like Tebbaneh always welcome extremist groups," says Sheikh Ibrahim Salih, a prominent cleric in Tripoli. "The Islamic extremists don't have to go to Tebbaneh, Tebbaneh goes to them."
In a grim warning, Abu Hurreira, a senior commander in Fatah al-Islam, said last week that the group was prepared to "blow up Beirut and every other place in Lebanon" if the army carries out its threat to storm the camp and crush the militants.
"In addition to the supporters of the organization, Fatah al-Islam has bases and sleeper cells in all the Palestinian refugee camps in the various regions of Lebanon, and they are on alert [to launch] a harsh response. They await a sign from us."
On Monday, Lebanese police said that a tip from a captured Fatah al-Islam fighter led them to a Beirut hotel where they arrested a Saudi national.
Police described the unnamed man as a "terrorist mastermind" who was found with 10 different passports, lists of targets, and maps.