Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat- The suburbs in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon (85 Kilometers north of Beirut) remain shaken by the residual tremors of the battles that raged between the Lebanese army and elements of the Fatah al Islam group recently. This comes after the discovery of several apartments that members of the Fatah al Islam group had rented in quiet residential areas in which they had stored huge stockpiles of weapons.
The first impression held by the residents of Tripoli after the clashes broke out last Sunday and Tuesday was that they were confrontations between their national army and a Palestinian group (which also included Arab elements). However, that soon changed when Lebanese observers in the city of Tripoli were surprised to discover among the dead members of the fundamentalist group whom they were unaware were affiliated to it.
One of the residents of the al Zahiriyya district says it is only now, three days later, that she has come to understand the secret behind the boldness of these people who had put a blockade on the main road and were stopping pedestrians preventing them form entering the neighborhood, and generally acting as though they owned the place, she said.
As for the questions posed by the residents of Mitein Street, where the apartments bearing the arms had been located, they revolve around the likelihood of a collusive agreement between members of the group and parties from the city of Tripoli who facilitated their rental of four apartments and helped smuggle in huge amounts of weapons without anyone noticing. But the real question is: What is the percentage of Lebanese who have joined the Fatah al Islam group, giving it access into the city and embracing it?
When you inquire among the Salafist circles in Tripoli, you are told that they are divided into two groups: integrated (these are reportedly a minority) and sympathetic (these include thousands). The sympathizers do not necessarily agree with the method and course of the organization but they understand what drives it. They also concede that the number of Lebanese who have joined the ranks of Fatah al Islam has increased significantly with the escalation of the Shia opposition and the Sunnis sense of impending danger and political abandonment, especially after the opposition took to the streets and threatened to overthrow the government.
However, among these same Salafist circles in Tripoli you also hear that many are starting to ask about Fatah al Islam these days and whether it would be right to join them. Meanwhile, the organization with its coaxing words and its moral religious discourse has become a haven for many who feel provoked, not just by Hezbollah alone, but by the speedy race between the various Lebanese segments. But this begs the question: Why are the Sunnis the only ones forbidden from what everyone else is allowed to do?
What is sometimes said in hushed tones is loudly proclaimed by the founder of the Salafist trend in Lebanon, Daii al Islam al Shahal, who confirmed the affiliation of Lebanese members to the organization, which he states is the outcome of a number of reasons: “Feelings among the Sunni sect that it is targeted and marginalized, without a political mantle or regional loyalties. They are also punished severely when they commit an error. As such, they are not averse to sacrificing themselves to this sect or that both here and abroad. There are those who have joined Fatah al Islam while tens of thousands are resentful because other Lebanese groups are backed and are not held accountable or punished when they make mistakes.”
He added, “I do not believe that the number of Lebanese involved into Fatah al Islam is large, however sympathy certainly exists. The so-called fundamentalism is a reality; the Islamic trend grows and declines. Attempts to eradicate it using the Turkish and Algerian methods are fruitless and the only solution can come though dialogue, understanding and equity. Serving justice would solve three-quarters of the problem, the ideological differences only account for one-fourth of the problem. But if we vanquish Fatah al Islam, what will we do about Osbat al Ansar, Ansar Allah and Jund al Sham, and others like them? Is the solution to kill everyone or fill up the prisons?”
Al Shahal recounts how he personally interceded when Fatah al Islam announced its inception because, “we feared that they would be manipulated in Syrian hands, or that it would attack the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). We advised it, myself and others, against such actions and it appeared to be responsive. Yes, they have ideas that we do not agree upon but dialogue is essential. Osbat al Ansar was also a very difficult case; it has changed and understands better now.”
Sheikh Haitham al Said knows the Fatah al Islam leadership well and is close to them. Today, he is in charge of [a potential] ceasefire in the Nahr al Bared camp, which has witnessed ferocious battles between the Lebanese army and Fatah al Islam earlier this week. He said that the largest number of combatants is Palestinians who are loyal to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, followed by Lebanese and a range of other Arab nationals. It was repeatedly stated that the fighters included Moroccan, Iraqi, Saudi and Yemeni nationals, while the Lebanese state has recently revealed the presence of Sudanese infiltrators who had come through Syria.