Tripoli Clashes (starting June 20, 2014)

Tripoli, the largest city in Northern Lebanon, has a long history of violence between militias. Claims have been made that violence has been exacerbated over recent years by the war in Syria fostering enduring sectarian divides. Alawites are predominantly supporting the Syrian regime and its president Bashar al-Assad, whilst Sunnis are fighting in a plurality of militant organisations against this regime. Most violence occurs between the districts of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, with Sunni and Alawite majority populations respectively. The Sunni population in Tripoli outnumbers the Alawite one, with about 400,000 Sunnis to just a few thousand Alawites. Tripoli is often considered to be the ‘seat of Sunni power’ in Lebanon, since most of its Sunnis reside there. However the Sunni community is fragmented and lacks coherent leadership. This is due in part to the lack of hierarchical clerics within Sunni Islam for authority, and also the failings of both the Future Movement and Dar al Fatwa to offer cohesive leadership. This fragmentation has facilitated the rise of a plurality of active militias. Furthermore, Tripoli has been the site of origin for many Salafist-jihadist movements, and an ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Tripoli was established for 2 years during Lebanon’s civil war. Much of the ongoing Sunni-Alawite tension arose in this time, and in 1986 the Alawite Syrian regime enacted a massacre of Sunnis in Bab al-Tabbaneh. In August 2013, 47 people were killed and 400 injured during 2 bombings on Sunni mosques, though no group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

However, the violence in Tripoli is also the product of complex political and economic factors, rather than simply sectarian anger producing a microcosm of the war in Syria as is frequently depicted. There is a long standing feeling of political neglect in Tripoli, which has been a marginalised part of Lebanon. Arguably this lack of political representation allowed for the establishment of the Emirate in 1982. Claims have been made that even in the present, the members of Parliament for Tripoli engage little with the people of the city to end this ostracisation, this in turn fosters anti-statist movements. The media seemingly does not help the dominant sectarian narrative, almost exclusively depicting Tripoli through the lens of security issues. These security fears which give an inaccurate depiction of Tripoli are furthering its political and social exclusion from Lebanon and are inhibiting Tripoli's economic growth which relies on tourism and visits from outsiders.

A recent study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) demonstrated the deteriorating state of poverty across Tripoli. Bab al-Tabbaneh district was one of the most deprived, with about 87% of families living in deprivation. Population increase from Syrian refugees has worsened the situation, particularly in respect to the job market. Given the poverty, and lack of government aid, many people rely on political and religious organisations and networks to pay their bills. Many people in the districts are struggling illiteracy and unemployment, and are involved in petty crime and substance abuse. Recruitment for militant groups in Tripoli is primarily from those young and disenfranchised people who, according to locals, are “flocking” to these groups which provide both purpose and social support. Many people involved do not understand how the conflict with the Alawites started or what perpetuates it. There is no widespread support of ISIS in the city, although some do sympathize with the group. An interviewed 19 year-old claimed to support them due to beliefs that they would provide a job, peaceful, islamic life and freedom of movement. However, others state that displayed ISIS flags are more an expression of Sunni dissatisfaction with the government, which is perceived to have abandoned the Sunni population.

Unspecified politicians have been blamed for instigating clashes to send political messages and to leverage political power. This appears to also include unspecified Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, who are against al-Assad’s regime, especially due to its ties to Iran. Some NGOs are working to resolve long term tensions.However evidence also suggests that many active NGOs fail to properly understand what is driving youth into these groups, or are failing to properly access those who are vulnerable and likely to join.

The Lebanese army has been highly active in conducting raids and arresting suspected militants over the past year. In April 2014, a new security plan was implemented to address the ongoing clashes. This plan involved 1,800 soldiers conducting 40 raids at the start of the month, detaining suspects and seizing weapons. UNHCR assessment cites large success leading to arrests across the North regarding terrorism related charges, though this success has had little impact on general crime. There have been no major clashes between the districts since its implementation However, this initial operation was announced in advance and this seemingly gave time for many militants in Tripoli to prepare and flee before arrest. This security policy was welcomed by many locals, with reports of people having inter-district celebrations, thus also demonstrating that for many there is no desire for violence between groups.

The Lebanese army is limited by the sectarian dynamics of the conflict. It is reluctant to undertake any policy that may favour either side, and reflect a view on the Syrian conflict, which would likely exacerbate the situation.

Summary of Outbreaks of Violence Since June 2014:

Tripoli natives with Salafist views, Shadi Mawlawi and Osama Mansour, appeared to have taken leadership in light of a power vacuum created by the security policy. They were repeatedly linked to outbreaks of violence in Tripoli over 2014 and 2015. It has been suggested that they have affiliation with both ISIS and al-Nusra Front. However, a report in early October from local sources, states that they ended their military activities and did not wish to be linked to attacks against the army.

Despite the security plan, violence continued to sporadically erupt over the following year in the form of attempted and successful bombings. Though there have been no major incidents since January 2015, raids are frequent as are sporadic shootings and attempts to use explosives. Grenades are frequently tossed at security forces and locals, though this rarely causes casualties. Many IEDs have been used in Tripoli, however they are generally found and dismantled by the army. One bomb detonated inside the car of a Lebanese army officer in July 2015, but this caused only material damage.

There were a series of outbreaks of violence during early August 2014. On August 03, 8 Lebanese soldiers were killed when their post was attacked by gunmen affiliated with Mawlawi and Mansour. Another 8 were wounded in a similar attack the following day.  One person was killed and 7 were injured in a bombing on August 07.

October 2014 marked the beginning of clashes between Bab al-Tabanneh militants and the Lebanese army in Tripoli. This was prompted by a series of raids and arrests across northern Lebanon conducted by the Lebanese army during that October. These culminated in the arrest of Ahmad Salim Mikati, a Tripoli native. Mikati was charged with attempting to recruit people into an armed group trying to establish an ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Lebanon. It was this incident that then sparked further conflicts when armed groups attacked Lebanese army soldiers as retaliation, provoking LAF pursual into Bab al-Tabanneh. Forty two people were killed and 150 wounded during 4 days of fighting between the Lebanese army and the militants. Of the dead, 23 were militants, 11 were soldiers and 8 were civilians. It seems unclear quite how the fighting ended, as militants seemed to ‘disappear,’ prompting suggestions of a settlement arranged with the army. Militants in the battle appear to have been led by Mawlawi and Mansour, however, they were not caught or killed in the October violence. A report published in early November suggested that they were injured from the fighting, and were hiding in a civilian area of Tripoli which would have made army pursuit too risky. Later that month, it was suggested that they had managed to flee Tripoli and were inside the Palestinian refugee camp, Ain el-Helweh. However, in April 2015 Mansour was killed in Tripoli during an operation by security forces.

On the 10th of January 2015, 9 people were killed and 39 were injured in a double suicide bombing  in the Jabal Mohsen district. The attacks were claimed by al-Nusra Front, to ‘avenge’ Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon. Neither of the bombers had previously been flagged by Lebanese Intelligence as an extremist threat, nor were they known locally for holding extremist views. Both bombings targeted the same cafe which bordered the predominantly Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh. Two days later Roumieh prison was raided by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in connection to the bombing. It transpired that prisoners had access to phones and internet which had been used to to help organise the attack. The army’s Intelligence Department claimed to foil more suicide attacks planned in the wake of the Jabal Mohsen January bombings. The two individuals arrested were part of the militia group led by Mansour and Mawlawi. In late January, 28 people were charged for the attack, though very few were actually in custody. Mansour and Mawlawi were both among those charged but not held.

 Implications:

The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh has seen an increase in violence since spring 2015 with the involvement of Salafist-jihadist groups. Despite Mawlawi’s alleged presence in the camp, it is still unknown whether he has engaged in this violence. Regardless, his presence there is a cause for camp security concern..

Given the political ties from elements of the conflict in Tripoli in relation to Syria there is an ongoing danger that events in Syrian conflict could lead to violent repercussions in the city.

[Last updated in January 2016]