Middle East

Lebanon: Tripoli's Poor Swell Ranks of Militant Islamic Groups

Truancy and child labor are endemic in poor parts of Tripoli. (Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN)

Umm Abdel-Rahman al-Jassem was cooking dinner for her son Mahmoud when he called her.

"'Mother, I'm injured', he told me and I could hear the bullets flying," she says in the family's three-room flat in Bab al-Tebbaneh, a poor quarter in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. "Then there were no more words, only bullets," she said.

Mahmoud al-Jassem, 25, was killed in a gun battle with the Lebanese army on the streets of the city, allegedly one of a number of northern Lebanese members of militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam.

Bab al-Tebbaneh has lost a number of sons to Fatah al-Islam, as it has to the army that has fought them for the past three months in Tripoli and the nearby Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, residents said. However, the challenge of radical Islam in Tripoli is unlikely to end with that battle, analysts say.

Poverty and a lack of opportunities are forcing many youths in Tripoli's slums to choose between drugs, crime, and militant Islam, according to local residents.

In Tebbaneh, litter and stinking puddles clutter a warren of claustrophobic alleys, while washing and black flags reading "There is no god but God" hang from every balcony.

Causes of Militancy

"We're hearing a lot about a decisive military victory over Fatah al-Islam, but no one's talking about tackling the root causes, the poverty and desperation in areas like these," says Imad Omar, who supplies micro-credit loans to Tebbaneh's poor with nongovernmental organization (N.G.O.) Al-Majmoua.

Up an unlit staircase strung with electrical cables to the Al-Jassem family flat, the names of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and "our commander" Abu Musab Zarqawi, formerly an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, are scrawled on crumbling walls.

"My son was quite religious, so I asked him if he was with any group or party and he swore to God that he wasn't," says Umm Abdel-Rahman. On May 19, the family was preparing to betroth their son to a neighbor's daughter.

Mohammed al-Jassem, Mahmoud's 60-year-old father, said all his 12 children are unemployed. "There's no work in Tebbaneh. I used to push a cart around selling sweets for 4,000 Lebanese pounds a day [$2.5]."

Residents said militant groups appeared to pay recruits decent money, funded by shadowy charities or regional powers.

"Islamic groups spreading an extremist ideology are paying a lot of money to young men to join them. Most of them aren't aware of what they are getting into and their economic situation is terrible," says 25-year-old teacher Iman al-Sheikh, a devout Muslim who taught at an Islamic school in Tripoli until it started preaching "an extremist view."

"People here are getting more militant because they feel the state isn't giving them anything, so it becomes their enemy," al-Sheikh said.

Poverty in the Tripoli Area

Tebbaneh is Tripoli's most densely populated area and one of Lebanon's poorest. Between 60 and 70 percent of residents migrated in recent decades from the impoverished rural regions of Akkar, Dinnieh, and Al-Minya, according to a 2006 report on Lebanon's "poverty pockets" by the government's Council for Development and Reconstruction (C.D.R.).

"Over half the families in Bab al-Tebbaneh receive about 200,000 Lebanese pounds [$130] a month income and live in economic deficit because their expenses exceed their income," the C.D.R. report said. Unemployment hovers at above 30 percent for men in deprived areas, it found.

"The north is very poor, there is no development and many people don't work, so this creates a fertile environment for recruiting people who have radical Islamist tendencies," said Ahmed Moussalli, an expert on Islamists at the American University of Beirut. "Although, definitely, most don't turn to violence."

On Tebbaneh's Syria Street, a large vegetable market, children carry towers of crates, man stalls, or pull carts loaded with fruit or sweets.

"Most of my friends work because our parents can't afford to keep us in school," says 14-year-old Ahmed, who left school three years ago and works an 11-hour day fixing car windows. Truancy reaches 50 percent in Tripoli's poorest areas, the C.D.R. report found.

Mushrooming of Radical Schools

Schools, mosques, and religious centers teaching radical Sunni thought have mushroomed around Tripoli in a two-year political crisis and security vacuum since the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Moussalli said.

Before Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, Tripoli was a wealthy port serving Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Bab al-Tebbaneh, one of Tripoli's seven historic gates, was nicknamed the "gate of gold" because of its thriving markets.

But the war hit industry, trade, and agriculture, and Tebbaneh was heavily shelled. "After the war, Lebanon's regions were developed unevenly and a division grew between the capital Beirut with Mount Lebanon and regions further away," said a local development worker, who preferred not to be named.

Islamists briefly ruled Tripoli during the civil war. Insurgents who rose up against the army to establish an Islamic caliphate in the northern province of Dinniyeh in 2000 mostly hailed from Tebbaneh, local residents said.

Anger at the 2003 Iraq invasion fanned the flames of militancy, but poverty was the spark, says Abu Omar, who was among scores of Tripoli's men who went to fight American soldiers in Iraq during the invasion.

"These lads would not be joining militants if they had hope, they'd be getting married, buying a house and having kids like everyone else," Omar said. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.