In a dusty memorabilia store, a paunchy, mustachioed shopkeeper furtively lays out a headband emblazoned with ISIS’s now-familiar black-and-white insignia. It is just one of many products supporters of the militant organization can purchase in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, not more than 20 miles from the Syrian border. Here, ISIS is known as Daesh, an acronym of its Arabic name.
“I used to have Daesh flags hanging outside and in the windows, but the army started making problems after everything happened in Arsal, so I hide them now,” the shopkeeper says, alluding to fighting between the Lebanese army and ISIS militants in the northern region of the Bekaa Valley, which borders on Syria. The battles, which intensified in early August, prompted ISIS to kidnap 30 Lebanese soldiers and policemen, publicly beheading two of their captives in a televised display eerily similar to the recent deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines.
He shrugs when asked if he supports ISIS. “I sell all kinds of flags. I’d sell Israeli flags if people would buy them. People buy the Daesh flag. A lot of people support them, and their number will grow,” he says. “Right now in Tripoli, you have those against the Syrian regime and those with it. It’s just that simple.”
The war in Syria has certainly taken its toll on this impoverished and embattled city, Lebanon’s second-largest behind Beirut. But, more and more, Tripoli seems to lie in ISIS’s shadow. Although the extremist and ultraviolent Sunni group has few open supporters here, the appearance of pro-ISIS paraphernalia and graffiti, the clash last month in the Bekaa, and the fact that Tripoli’s Sunni-majority population has a historical tendency toward radicalism, have raised worries that the group might gain a foothold here and send the city into a spiral of deepening violence.
Local tensions in Tripoli follow essentially the same ethnic lines as those in Syria’s war: Sunni citizens largely support the increasingly fundamentalist Syrian opposition — ISIS being the most notoriously brutal of the groups fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; meanwhile, the Alawites of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Assad’s regime (the Syrian leader is Alawite) and its Hezbollah allies. There are frequent and bloody gunfights between Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni district of Bab el-Tabbeneh, which border each other. Fearing violence would engulf Tripoli and potentially spread to other regions in Lebanon, the army moved in, establishing a security zone within the city limits last year. That hasn’t stopped the bloodshed, though, and the situation in Arsal triggered fresh clashes at the end of August, in which an 8-year-old girl was killed.
A local sheikh and militia leader we’ll call Ahmed leans against a car outside a bakery on the Sunni side of the infamous Syria Street, which divides Bab el-Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen. When the neighborhoods clash, every alley on this street becomes a kill zone and every window a sniper’s nest. The Alawite district is just a few bullet-ridden yards away, and several ornate black flags of another jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, flutter from the walls. Nusra and ISIS have a complicated, frenemy-type relationship. Both Al Qaeda offshoots, they’ve often quarreled, but rumor has it they’ve recently mended fences, and certainly many Nusra fighters have defected to ISIS in the wake of its successes in Iraq and Syria. It’s calm in Bab el-Tabbeneh today, although the sheikh is tense after a recent stint in prison. He chooses his words carefully.
“There will always be trouble in Tripoli,” he says. “Daesh doesn’t have a lot of supporters here, but Nusra does. We’re with Nusra because they’re fighting the Syrian regime. But Daesh aren’t stupid. They’re waiting for the right moment. Nusra is wise, but Nusra doesn’t have enough money.” Young recruits tend to pick ISIS, he says, because the group is much better funded.
“Daesh are criminals,” he adds quickly. “They don’t protect anyone — Sunni, Shia, Druze, they don’t care. They have no mercy. They only want to slaughter and behead.”
But a few minutes later, one of his younger followers beckons. “I have a huge Islamic State flag in my room, if you want to take a picture,” he whispers impulsively. Thinking better of it, a spasm of fear crosses his face. “Never mind,” he says. “They’ll give me a big problem.”
Tripoli’s Christian population has been a bit skittish lately. Several churches were vandalized at the beginning of September, their walls spray-painted with ominous threats including “The Islamic State is coming” and “We come to slaughter you, you worshippers of the cross.” Crosses were allegedly burned in retaliation for the #BurnISISFlag social media movement, Lebanon’s version of the Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people have been posting videos and pictures of themselves setting fire to the group’s banner.
Father Samir Hajjar sits in the priest’s quarters of the city’s Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the buildings that was vandalized. He is measured about the incident, but admits it was worrying. “At first, we thought this could just be ordinary vandals, or the work of children,” he says. “I’ve been here 17 years, and no one bothers us. We respect our neighbors and they respect us. But this graffiti on the walls of all the churches, that’s not children’s work. They used stencils. It’s a serious matter.”
Asked why Tripoli in particular seems to be vulnerable to pro-ISIS sentiment, he frowns. “Tripoli is a wonderful city,” he explains. “It’s a city of civilization and education, a city of honorable, level-headed people. But I cannot deny that there has been extremism since the conflict of ’75. Until today, it created generations of people fueled by hate, without hope, like in Bab el-Tabbeneh and Jabal Mohsen. We can’t enter people’s hearts, but there are Daesh supporters here. We cannot deny it, because it’s right there in front of our eyes.”
“The knife reached my throat,” he says soberly. “There is fear in Tripoli now. All my life, I’ve never been afraid here. And I’m not afraid now — God will protect us — but there is a problem, and the government is split. Shia, Sunni, Druze — as I see it, the whole Arab region is breaking apart.”
The first recent incident of anti-Christian violence in Tripoli took place at the beginning of the year. In January, a bookstore owned by Father Ibrahim Sarrouj containing thousands of antique and out-of-print magazines and books was torched, supposedly in retaliation for the priest’s alleged distribution of a pamphlet blaspheming the prophet Mohammad. The bookstore has been partially restored by Sarrouj’s well-wishers, but scorch marks mar much of the ancient, crumbling building.
The priest is well into his 70s, a grandfatherly man whose kindliness gives way to indignation as he recounts the incident. “I had somebody working here in the library, and it was his first day of work,” he says. “He was putting away books in the corner, and some men entered and shot him in the groin with seven bullets from a gun with a silencer. I was in the garden, not two meters away. I heard him shout and came in, so we called the ambulance, and, thanks be to God, he is alive.
“After this, in the same evening, they called for a fatwa against me in front of the mosque, because they said I criticized the prophet,” he continues. “Later that evening they tried to come burn the library. They didn’t succeed, because the police noticed and they sent three cars to guard the library. But the second evening, five people came in, broke down the door, threw a gallon of petrol, and burned down the library.”
Asked if he’s nervous about the ISIS rumors, Sarrouj sighs. “At this moment, things are calm, the overwhelming majority of people in Tripoli do not support Daesh. Certainly, you will find their supporters. But this is because they don’t know anything about true Islam — they are not Muslims, these murderers.”
Not everybody is afraid of an ISIS presence in Tripoli. Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni cleric, holds court in his newly renovated mosque. The building was almost destroyed in August of 2013 when a bomb exploded there; one of two mosques targeted in twin attacks. He scoffs at the suggestion that ISIS is taking hold in the city, although he does admit the war in Syria has caused Tripoli’s security situation to deteriorate.
“When the revolution started, everyone in Tripoli was standing with it,” he says. “But we paid the price. They blew up my mosque because I supported the revolution. Tripoli isn’t a city in Lebanon anymore. It’s a village in Homs” — that is, the nearby Syrian city that has been all but flattened by the war.
“It’s not Daesh, but Hezbollah I worry about, because they control the army, the government, and the economy,” he continues with some anger. “I’m not even going to talk about what they’re doing in Iraq and Syria. The media is using Daesh to distract people from what’s really going on in the region. If Daesh’s ideology is to behead, bomb, and kill people, we refuse this. But if Daesh’s goal is to attack Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime, then you can call us all Daesh.”
Asked about the anti-Christian graffiti, he laughs. “Is Bashar al-Assad in a church?” he asks scornfully. “No. So why would Daesh attack churches? The graffiti was just to terrify the Christians into siding with Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrian regime. There are two types of Muslims. The peaceful ones, and those that want the world to themselves. The Shia are like that. They are benefiting from the terror of the Christians. They’re writing on the churches and saying, ‘Daesh is coming!’ so the Christians will run to them.”
Despite the sheikh’s confidence, the streets of Tripoli still crackle with tension, although that’s not extraordinary for a place constantly on the verge of violent conflict. But a new word seems to echo through the alleys pockmarked with bullet holes: Daesh, Daesh, Daesh.
Some say they’re here, some say not. One Tripoli resident, a friendly man in his 40s looking for a ride home, has his own opinion on the matter. “We don’t have the real Daesh here, but we have people who will work for them,” he clarifies. “They call these people and tell them to start trouble. It costs them barely anything, a couple of hundred dollars, maybe. It’s not like the way it is in Iraq and Syria.”
He leans in close for emphasis. “I will tell you this, though,” he says. “Everybody’s saying they’re against them now, but watch. If Daesh does come, this whole city will welcome them.”