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Hanging Out with the Sunni Warlords Who've Seized Control of Tripoli

Lebanon's religious vigilantes are trapped in ghettos with their guns.

by Aris Roussinos
07 February 2014, 7:00am

Ziad Allouki

I was strolling around the marketplace with Ziad and his bodyguard when they caught the Alawites. "How many are they?" one shouted. "Three," a fighter called back. One of Ziad’s men made a slow descending whistle in disbelief. “Boss,” pleaded a teenage fighter, “Can I shoot them?” “No, no, no,” said Ziad, ever the voice of reason, “not on camera.” Instead, the Sunni fighters surrounded the interlopers to warn them off ever coming back to Tripoli's Bab al-Tabbaneh district. “You know who this is? This is Haj Ziad. Go and tell your boss that we’re letting you go this time, for Eid.” The Alawites walked away briskly, grinning at their good fortune. Ziad turned to me. “These men are spies from Jebel Mohsen, they sent them here to spy on us. But because it’s Eid, because it’s the holiday, we let them go.” And if it wasn’t Eid, I asked, what would have happened then? “If it wasn’t Eid,” he said, “then we would begin a new war.”

The conflict between Tripoli's Sunni area Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen goes back a generation to the Lebanese Civil War. Hafez al-Assad – whose regime ruled Syria at the time – and his local Alawite allies crushed a Sunni rebellion, culminating in the 1986 Tabbaneh Massacre in which hundreds of Sunni men lost their lives. Syrian troops only pulled out of Lebanon in 2005, and now that Hafez’s son Bashar is facing his own bloody rebellion within Syria, a new generation of Tripoli’s disenfranchised Sunnis are flocking to the black banner of Islamist revolt. Fighters who survived the 1980s are now grey-bearded commanders of their own militias. They win over young recruits by claiming solidarity with the Syrian rebels next door and with the promise of power and respect that only comes, here, to those toting automatic weapons.

Ziad Allouki is a controversial figure in Lebanon, not least for his willingness to send his men to fight against the Lebanese army whenever they encroach upon his tiny fiefdom. A butcher by trade, Ziad has established total control of Tripoli’s medieval market of Suq al-Qamar, a den of narrow winding lanes and alleyways ideal for guerrilla warfare. When he sits sipping coffee on a plastic chair in the middle of the suq, surrounded by his rifle-toting teenage retinue, grown men kneel before him, kissing his hand and demonstrating their fealty. “There is no government here, no government,” Ziad told me, “so I provide security for my Sunni Muslim people.”

The failure of the Lebanese state to disarm militant groups has allowed commanders like Ziad to flourish in the vacuum. With the Lebanese government essentially subordinate to the Shia militant group Hezbollah, whose presence in Syria is slowly turning the war’s tide back in favour of the Assad regime, Tripoli’s working-class Sunnis feel estranged from their own state, with young fighters eagerly declaring how ready they are to fight against their own army.

In his office in a small workshop, beneath a black banner, Abu Rami – a wiry, intense 30-year-old commander – fiddled with his pistol as he spoke. “I have 12 fighters, and for me they live or die. Abu Omar here,” he said, waving his weapon at a thick-bearded young fighter who’d already shown off his bullet wounds from a night-long battle with the Lebanese army, “he will turn himself into a bomb and explode himself as soon as I give the word.” The fighter nodded along dispassionately; presumably they’d discussed this before. “This is a message to Obama, to Britain, to France. Stop funding the Lebanese army, because they are liars. France gives them heavy machine guns and they test them on us, here in Tabbaneh. We are human beings, not dogs. We are Muslims, but this is an army of Syria – Bashar created this army. All of the officers are Shia or Christians or Jews, and some Sunnis who are paid off by the regime. Look, you are sitting now with us and we are not hurting you, we receive you like guests. And they call us extremists, call us terrorists! Let the army fight Hezbollah then, they are the real terrorists, planting sleeper cells around the world and causing explosions here in Tripoli.”

Just two months earlier, a car bomb outside Tripoli’s main Sunni mosque killed 42 worshipers, raising sectarian tensions to their greatest height since the end of the civil war. Since then, Lebanon has been plagued by a series of tit-for-tat car bombs across Beirut and the volatile Bekaa valley, with prominent Sunni and Shia figures – and unfortunate civilian bystanders – paying the price for Lebanon’s descent into chaos. Tripoli’s Sunnis blame both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah for carrying out the mosque attack, and castigate the army for its inability to protect Sunni civilians at prayer. But if the army is incapable or unwilling to defend Tabbaneh, commanders like Abu Rami and Ziad Allouki will gladly take their place, with angry teenagers flocking to their sides to fight beside them.

In the old stone building that functions as his secret base, beside the double mattress on the floor and the giant CCTV screen in the corner, Ziad’s men chose rifles from the wardrobe, along with black vests emblazoned "Security: Mahmoud Bey Mosque". They strapped on their webbing, patting down their magazines just so, and checked themselves in the mirror before heading out. It was Friday, and Suq al-Qamar’s ancient mosque would be filling for noon prayers. In an effort to reassure the locals of both their security and his ability to provide it, Ziad would lead a handful of fighters as they patrolled the market’s alleys, setting up a protective cordon of yellow police tape and gun-toting teenagers at the entrance to his fiefdom. Shopkeepers shouted out their blessings to Ziad as he passed their stores. “What are you protecting the mosque from?” I asked him. “From explosives or any bomb from Syrian murderers, or any guys who want to put a bomb here. This mosque is Muslim Sunni.” The mosque, bearing the flag of the Free Syrian Army, its entrance plastered with martyrdom notices for local fighters who'd died in Syria, was – within the terms of this conflict – a juicy target. “I’m worried,” said one shopkeeper, coming up to Ziad, “it’s Friday, and there are too many people here. If someone wanted to blow something up, it would be today.”

In a gift to lazy journalists, the frontline between the two warring communities is commonly held to be the broad thoroughfare of Syria Street, which divides low-lying Tabbaneh from the Alawite hilltop of Jebel Mohsen above as it snakes its way to the border, some 30 miles away. In fact, Syria Street is firmly in Sunni hands and the real dividing line is a narrow street running parallel, though with a sadly less resonant name. On each side of the sectarian divide, every building within view is pockmarked with bullet holes and rocket-propelled grenade scars from clashes that now occur on a weekly basis. Every window in every building on the frontline has been repurposed as a sniper position, with heaped-up sandbags or breeze block defences. From time to time, a sentry will use them to keep tabs on the enemy in their own sniper positions a street’s width away. Army checkpoints and the recurrent patrols of rumbling APCs are deployed to keep the two sides from massacring each other outright. In the midst of all of this, small boys play with BB guns beneath the bullet-scarred walls and painted al Qaeda flags, shouting "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," as they wave their plastic rifles in the air. “We want to go up there to Jebel Mohsen,” one scrawny Sunni kid, about six or seven years old, told me. Why, I asked. “So we can fuck their sisters.” His brothers, busy dealing grenades and pistol bullets to passing customers from a dark alley corner, both laughed and ruffled his long hair approvingly.

A couple of Ziad’s fighters took me on a tour of their entire world, a claustrophobic warren of alleys and shops a few hundred square metres in extent. Army APCs marked off the boundaries. “To go any further would mean arrest,” they said, so they stood a short distance from the soldiers and pointed at them, while the soldiers affected not to notice the militants a few metres away carrying their rifles openly in the street. The fighters took me through an archway and up a flight of stone stairs to a sort of flat-roofed ruin overlooked by Jebel Mohsen. “There,” he said in broken English, “Alawites, Bashar al-Assad. No good.” He stared at the bullet-riddled tower blocks overlooking us before shouldering his rifle and firing a few rounds in the vague direction of the Alawites. A headscarved housewife scowled at us as we scurried back down the stairs before Jebel Mohsen returned fire. We walked back to Ziad slowly through the suq, the soldier on top of his APC feigning interest in his smartphone, pretending not to have heard the shots directly overhead just a few seconds earlier.

Ziad was in an ebullient mood. We’d been hanging out for a week. In all that time, he’d carefully steered us towards scenes that would display his power and largesse, and he seemed to remain under the impression that we were somehow in a position to supply him with heavy weaponry, or at the very least donate him our body armour. As soon as he reached his chair in the shuttered marketplace, he placed down his narghile pipe and insisted we follow him to our car. His men opened the rear doors and piled in with their weapons, politely indicating we join them once they were comfortably seated. “Where are we going?” I asked Ziad. “Just for a drive, it will be nice.” We got in, our companions’ rifle muzzles disomfitingly gravitating towards the back of our heads as we jolted along the potholed road. As we passed army checkpoints, Ziad gave the soldiers a slow regal wave from the front passenger window, which they returned. “The army don’t care, Ziad,” I said, “You and your men just drive right past them and they don’t do anything.” Ziad smiled. “They’re aware of our power and therefore they avoid getting into clashes with us. They tried us before and we did what we had to do.”

Sheep getting slaughtered for Eid

We parked up at a beachfront villa and the fighters jumped out beaming happily. It was a stormy day, and grey waves lashed cold spray at them as they posed for future martyr photos with the most pimped-out weapons. Under the looming black clouds, they set bottles full of water against a nearby sandbank and took up position, taking potshots with the different assault rifles, cheering each hit and commiserating each near miss. It was fun, and Ziad was in a buoyant mood as he fired his M16, hitting the target with each shot. “So you see,” he laughed, “sometimes we like things that come from USA!” A cloud burst above us and we scampered into the unfinished villa for shelter from the rain, chatting idly and smoking, enjoying our day at the seaside. “We do this once a month,” explained Ziad, “practicing sniping, practicing for the fighting.” One of Ziad’s friends, another major commander, turned up in a people carrier and the two warlords kissed and hugged each other warmly. I asked him about the situation with Jebel Mohsen. “If the army weren’t there, we would finish this war tomorrow.” How though? Would you get rid of them all? “No, no, no,” he said, “nothing like that. We would just reduce their numbers, to teach them a lesson.”

It was Eid, the feast of sacrifice, and the streets of Tabbaneh were awash with blood as men chose the fattest sheep from those tethered on display and butchers slit their throats. Small boys watched their death throes with wide eyes as they cradled their new toy Kalashnikovs. Little girls in party frocks munched pink candyfloss and skipped across the pools of blood. Ziad had a more impressive sacrifice planned, and a crowd had gathered by his butchers’ shop by the time the truck trundled up, the white bullock in the back bellowing and straining against its leash. They dragged it from the truck and as it sank to its foreknees, its rear legs hoisted to a wall by a metal chain, a man strode forward and cut its throat with a deep sawing motion, the men and children again all chanting "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar" and filming its death on their smartphones. Within minutes, the bull had been carved up, bagged into kilo chunks and distributed to the crowd, Ziad hacking the bloody meat into portions with a cleaver. “About one hundred families here will eat from this cow,” he said, “the government give nothing to the poor people here, to the families. No government, no government here.” In some ways, you’re the government here, I suggested. “It is not exactly how you say,” he replied, “I am in charge to help my people here, to help my Sunni Muslims."

The Lebanese flag is nowhere to be seen in Tabbaneh, but the markers of pan-Sunni identity are everywhere. From the FSA flags fluttering from every corner, to posters of bin Laden, Zarqawi and al-Khattab, or the framed picture of the "Sunni martyr" Saddam Hussein in Ziad’s shop, a combative, defensive sense of Sunni-ness has enveloped Tabbaneh’s urban poor. The black flags of jihad and of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham fly high over Tabbaneh, and a vast banner facing Jebel Mohsen eulogises a local boy made good who blew himself up at a checkpoint for Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. While most fighters in Tabbaneh seem ideologically aligned with the relatively moderate Salafist fighters of Syria’s Islamic Front, many observers have claimed a growing sympathy for al Qaeda ideology in Tripoli. When the Al Nusra front’s Emir al-Jowlani gave his first interview to al Jazeera and remarked that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria had given his own group – now in the process of rebranding itself as al Qaeda in the Levant – inroads into Lebanon, Tabbaneh’s streets were lit up by a display of celebratory gunfire. When al Qaeda suicide bombings against Shia targets in Beirut cause mass casualties, the Sunnis of Tabbaneh hand out sweets and fire long automatic bursts to express their pleasure. But then there are few enough reasons to be happy in Tabbaneh.

Tripoli was once a prosperous city, the main trading port for greater Syria, but as tiny Lebanon was carved away from Syria with independence in 1943, Tripoli lost its market as Beirut prospered. A mostly Sunni city, many in Tripoli feel closer ties to conservative rural Syria than to glitzy, cosmopolitan, decadent Beirut. There are no champagne-fuelled beach clubs in Tripoli – just poverty, and a growing sense that the sputtering conflict with their equally impoverished Alawite neighbours is just another front of the bloody war next door. “Muslim Sunnis in any war, in any area, any country, we are brothers,” explained Ziad, “We take our orders from God. Everyone here is ready to defend himself. Everyone you see here has a gun in his house, everybody here has an AK-47 or an M16, everybody here is armed. So if any fighting happens we can immediately go and defend ourselves.”

When clashes do break out, they have a carnival feel. One day, the army arrested two Alawites they suspected of planting the car bomb outside the mosque, and Alawite snipers began firing at targets on Syria Street in response. Shopkeepers rushed out with their Kalashnikovs, gawping boys laughing and cheering as their fathers and uncles took potshots or fired long bursts at the hated Alawites on the hill above them. Commanders we’d met a few days earlier as small businessmen now positioned their fighters on street corners, and called in reinforcements on their mobile phones as their sons reloaded their weapons for them. Young lads took turns leaping from behind cover and emptying their magazines at unseen targets as their mates filmed them on their smartphones – videos that would later be uploaded to the Tabbaneh Facebook page.

The Alawite return fire was more disciplined, single aimed shots, often with heavier weapons. The army kept driving past in their APCs, and the Sunni fighters shouted at them to do something. Eventually, some commandos in full American uniform deployed from an APC to escort some women to safety from their house on the frontline. When they came under fire from Jebel Mohsen, the soldiers retreated quickly, slamming the heavy armoured doors behind them as they drove off again, spraying long bursts of heavy machine gun fire at Jebel Mohsen in a last parting shot. With the army’s inability to prevent clashes made clear, both sides resumed combat once again, spectators bringing babies in their arms to watch the fun, until the sun set and the streets fell quiet, but for the occasional sniper’s shot.

In a district where men struggle to feed their families, the arsenals of costly automatic weapons and bulging plastic bags full of ammunition possessed by every household seem anomolous. I met a Sunni weapons dealer and small-time commander in his family’s flat to ask how poor men could afford such expensive tools of war. “The politicians are the ones handing them out, they are giving them to their groups,” he said. “If we had the money we wouldn’t buy guns, we would buy food and clothing. They hand out the weapons and from time to time they send people to check we haven’t sold them for money for our families.” He showed me handfuls of bullets, their case heads painted emerald green, and told me they were made in Iran, supplied by the Syrian regime to Jebel Mohsen, and then sold by the Alawites to their Sunni enemies in a lucrative, ongoing trade. “They give us weapons so the people of Lebanon can keep killing each other. If it goes on like this, soon we will see a different Lebanon. You will see it like it was in 1975. With the permission of God, we are prepared to go to war, and if we live, we live, and if we die, we die.”

I went to Abu Rami’s office to say goodbye, and walked into a meeting of commanders. One of them had donated a PKM machine gun to the Syrian rebels, and was enraged to discover that the middleman, another commander, had sold it for his own profit. Rami, a beefed-up Lebanese-Australian acting as enforcer for his brother, Tabbaneh’s overall warlord Saad Masri, was delivering a stern lecture to the other commanders, as the aggrieved donor nodded and stroked his long beard with satisfaction.

I sat in the corner quietly, drinking sweet coffee from a thimble-sized plastic cup and smoking. Abu Rami stared at the floor sheepishly, nodding in acceptance of the verdict. When the meeting concluded, Rami picked up his pistol and tucked it into the waistband of his expensive jeans, hugging and kissing the other commanders and leaving with his bodyguards. Abu Rami breathed out, lit a cigarette, ordered more coffee and began to relax. He started teasing Abu Omar and the two fighters sat giggling like schoolboys. A truck drove past from the Hizb-ut-Tahrir office on the corner, fluttering ISIS flags and blaring nasheeds. I asked Abu Rami what he wanted to say to the world. He looked at me, coldly, suddenly serious. “Five hundred journalists have come here and no one does anything. Five or six people are killed in Tabbaneh by the army every month, and no one does anything. Everyone is against us – the government, the Tripoli MPs, Hezbollah, Hariri… We have no bread, we have no clothes for our children, no electricity, no money, the rain leaks into our homes, so don’t ask us any more why we are fighting. We are suffocating, we are ready to kill the army. We are ready to explode.”

Follow Aris on Twitter: @arisroussinos

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