Originally published in The Daily Star
In a dimly lit office in the heart of Tripoli’s troubled Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, a man in his 40s with slicked back hair and intense eyes sat behind a sturdy wood desk and watched a television set playing an American action movie with Arabic subtitles. The door’s office slid open and another younger man walked in. “That Bazzi guy was shot!” he said excitedly. The movie-watching man’s gaze didn’t stray from the television as he answered back, “eh.”
“Who did it?” the second man exclaimed. Breaking the television’s hypnosis over him, the man glared at his curious neighbor.
He answered with one word, uttered with what appeared an intense disgust: “Dawaesh,” he said using the Arabic word for members of Daesh, or ISIS.
On Sept. 9, Fawwaz Bazzi was shot near Bab al-Tabbaneh and later died from his wounds.
Bazzi was a long time Bab al-Tabbaneh resident and was well-liked, according to locals who knew him. He was a Shiite.
Bazzi’s alleged killers are likely linked to the Nusra Front rather than ISIS – but regardless of the group’s name their violent actions emit a chill up the spine of the local population.
Bazzi’s murder is just one of a number of recent incidents in and around Bab al-Tabbaneh that has residents fearing that radicals are gaining a more prominent foothold in this resilient merchant neighborhood. Tripoli residents and officials have followed the bread crumbs of these crimes back to the emergence of an armed group led by two young militia leaders: Chadi Mawlawi and Osama Mansour.
Mawlawi first gained public notoriety after being arrested by security forces in May 2012, at the age of 25, for providing an Al-Qaeda linked group with intelligence – charges his family denies. Following his arrest, Tripoli’s Islamists flooded the streets in protest against his detention. They undertook a sit-in in the Abdel Hamid Karami square that lasted until Mawlawi’s release – said to be secured thanks to the involvement of then Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Mansour, whose aliases include Abu Omar and the “Beardless Salafi,” was born in 1987 but his young age hasn’t kept him from gaining notoriety in Bab al-Tabbaneh, as his militia in the Starco area during clashes carried a reputation for not answering to politicians. His group was formed by 25 or so fighters and based itself out of the al-Tartousi Mosque in Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Zqaq Abdel-Halim area.
Both young men are around 27 years of age and were raised on radical Salafist interpretations of Islam. Mawlawi’s influence came from particular readings in a book store run by his uncle, a Salafist sheikh. Mansour’s father was also a Salafist sheikh and raised Osama in the Al-Harra al-Barraniyeh neighborhood – an area known for its aspirations at developing an Islamic emirate.
Mawlawi allegedly spent time fighting with the Free Syrian Army, whereas sources say Mansour joined up with Jund ash-Sham.
Military Investigative Judge Nabil Wehbe announced Thursday he was seeking the death penalty for Mawlawi and Mansour for their role in an August bombing that wounded 11 people. The target is believed to have been an army post just 30 meters from the blast site. Nine other individuals have also been named in connection to the bombing; eight are already in prison while the ninth, Mansour’s brother, is also fugitive.
Also Thursday, Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the army was hunting a “terrorist” cell in Tripoli.
“We are working on chasing its members without falling into a battle that would lead to shedding innocent people’s blood,” he told Sky News Arabia.
“But if the peaceful solutions fail, we will refer to a military solution,” he warned.
While the pair have made media appearances and met with at least one politician from the city, they are still roaming free and labeled as fugitives.
“Both are Tripoli natives but neither are originally from Bab al-Tabbaneh,” said former MP Mustafa Alloush, who suspects he received a warning on his life from the group when a car drove by his house and flashed its bright lights at the officers stationed in front. “They came in [to the neighborhood] and got youngsters to join what started as a small group.” Alloush said that this group has since grown to encompass “tens” of members, including non-Tripolitans and multinationals – Syrians or members of other nationalities.
The armed gang created by Mawlawi and Mansour, while widely labeled by locals as “Daesh” or ISIS, the pair are said to have pledged allegiance to the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.
Two former MPs from Tripoli backed up this assertion and other evidence extracted by the duo’s Facebook profiles seem to indicate the same – though some intelligence sources fear the duo may have some sort of affiliation with the more radical and secretive ISIS.
Mansour’s Facebook photos include one of him standing armed and donning a black balaclava in front of an Islamic flag with “Jabhat al-Nusra” written at the bottom. Mawlawi’s Facebook photos include a photo of the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sitting with his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This group has gained enough notoriety that former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Ahdab recently requested a controversial meeting with the pair. Ahdab told The Daily Star that his meeting was an attempt to help Tripoli avoid another armed confrontation and to cool tensions in the troubled city.
“It’s possible they are Nusra but they are definitely not Daesh,” said Ahdab, adding that no other political figures in Tripoli had been making any attempts to tackle the issue at hand. Ahdab shares little else about his meeting with the pair. “It went very well but I’m not in a position to talk about their demands.”
When Lebanese security forces launched massive crackdowns on street leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh this past April, locals claimed that Mawlawi and Mansour fled to Syria – likely via the Akkar border. April’s crackdown led to the imprisonment of many influential leaders in Bab al-Tabbaneh including Saad al-Masri, Ziad Allouki, and, the most powerful of them all and former leader of a battalion that at one time included Mansour, Hossam Sabbagh – himself accused of having connections to the notorious Nusra Front.
In the absence of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s gang leaders emerged a vacuum that was later filled by Mawlawi and Mansour’s ruthless faction. Their group entered the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque, at the time overseen by Salafist Sheikh Kamal Boustani, and threw him out. Locals claim Boustani sought to keep the peace and avoid an armed confrontation despite commanding a few dozen armed men of his own.
The gang now uses the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque as a base for their operations. Mawlawi and Mansour’s armed group also deploy gunmen around the area after nightfall and enforce a strict set of social rules that has left many locals nervous over their influence.
A militant in a rival militia who claimed to support the Lebanese Army and oppose the infiltration of radical Islamist factions said that Bab al-Tabbaneh currently hosts between 50-70 members of this armed group with another 40 in the neighboring Mankoubeen area. While other sources put these figures on the high end, most residents agree that young disenfranchised youths are flocking to groups with extremist ideology.
“Don’t go to Bab al-Tabbaneh anymore,” the rugged, battle-hardened militant said with concern. “It’s not safe!”