Over the past few months, Tripoli — the capital of Lebanon’s northern governorate — has served as a passageway and a base for jihadist sheikhs returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. These sheikhs are also mixed with some young jihadists who are targeting the Syrian regime.
The French daily Le Figaro reserved its second page for Syria, calling it the new "land chosen by Jihadists." George Malbrunot, who visited northern Lebanon, returned with a series of interviews and observations about Tripoli, which is the last stop for many mujahedeen before they head to Syrian cities.
Sheikh Saad Eddin Ghia, one of Malbrunot's interviewees, said, "Before dawn, I cross the river dividing the two countries, disguised as a peasant. When it gets dark, I return and leave my gun in a Syrian hideout."
Ghia, who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is joined by one hundred Lebanese Salafists, as well as 300 to 400 non-Syrian volunteers who sneak in to Syria to fight those supporting President Bashar al-Assad, several sources said.
At the end of April, the wall of silence came crashing down. Abdul-Ghani Jawhar and Walid Al-Bustani, two prominent Lebanese figures, were reported dead in the "holy war."
These are not the only ones martyred in the revolt against Assad. Dozens have been killed before, including three Tunisians, two Jordanians and two Egyptians.
In February, fighting in Homs claimed the lives of five Tunisians from the city of Ben Guerdane in southern Tunisia. Before entering Syrian territory, they left their passports and Tunisian phone numbers with their comrades so that they could inform their parents if anything happened to them.
Other dead jihadists include one French national, one Belgian and one British. Last March, Lebanese General Security let five French nationals into Lebanon. It followed them to northern Lebanon, arrested them and handed them over to French security services.
With Qatari support, the Libyan fighters of the war against Muammar Gadhafi make up the largest brigade of fighters in Syria, along with the Lebanese, the Saudis, the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis. There are also a few Algerians and three Pakistanis stationed in the village of Jarjanaz in the Idlib province near the Turkish border. These fighters do not mingle with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), only its Salafist elements. Today, most of them are present in Idlib’s mountainous regions. They are warmly welcomed by the deprived population there, which is neglected by the central authority.
"Libyans are working as military consultants for our military," a Syrian Salafist fighter told the French newspaper via Skype.
During the siege of Homs, foreign mujahedeen fled from the city and retreated to Al-Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. But since Walid al-Bustani was killed, Syrian Salafist fighters will only accept Lebanese fighters or Palestinians from the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
Through his actions, the commander of Fatah al-Islam reveals that Syria has become a major attraction for fundamentalists. Walid al-Bustani escaped from prison in Beirut and took refuge near Homs. However, his behavior soon shocked the population. "He took two Christians hostage," remembers Sheikh Ghia, saying, "He demanded a ransom that their families could not afford. A priest and the Free Syrian Army intervened, which relieved some tension, and then al-Bustani killed two soldiers." A group of dissidents liquidated him immediately.
Other similar incidents have occurred, demonstrating the escalating tension between the mujahedeen on one hand, and parents and non-Islamist revolutionary fighters on the other. In Daraa, dissident Haytham Manna said, "Residents expelled Jihadists after a Kuwaiti carried out a car bomb attack, killing three of our young men.”
Those fighters do not follow any leadership, and their agendas are different from those of the FSA. “Our differences are ideological,” says Sheikh Saad Eddin Ghia. “Jihadists deem the FSA to be infidels, since they oppose re-establishing the Caliphate. Things will not improve between us and the FSA. Eventually, it will come down to them or us. As chaos escalates, the regime will be weakened and so will the FSA. In the end, the people will join the jihadists.”
This scenario hardly reflects reality. According to Haytham Mannah, many people of different sects have lived side by side for a long time. He says, "They will not allow Jihadists to establish themselves here. Besides, Syria is not like Iraq, where the invader forced people toward unity. Furthermore, there is no purely-Sunni area to protect them.
However, the jihadists are organizing a jihad for the near future. “In Iraq after the 2003 war, al-Qaeda’s local branch bore all of our expenses. In Syria, chaos prevails among the militants. Jihadists want to lead the battle, which is wrong,” said Sheikh Ghia, who swore that he will never join them again. They do not respect UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan. The desperate Syrian people have been dealt a series of heavy blows, and they must be well aware by now of what kind of help the international community is offering them. The jihadists are the fiercest enemies of the regime. The car-bomb attacks resulted in heavier recruitment across the border and brought in large sums of money from supporters.
The network funding the jihad in Syria has been around for a long time. Tripoli is home to 40 Salafist mosques, and those mosques attract and distribute aid delivered by humanitarian Gulf organizations. Among these organizations are the Eid Charity Foundation, the World Association for Fighting Against Aggression headed by Saudi national Safar al-Hawali and assisted by Walid Tabtabi from Kuwait and Abdul Rahman Al-Naimi from Qatar. Money has never run short, but some of it just vanished along the way. “When I visited Afghanistan in 1997, I received $5,000 from the Saudis as a down payment. Afterwards, I received a monthly salary of $800. In Syria, if you carry out a suicide attack, you get a larger amount. Normally, jihadists receive $200 per month, so some of them storm Alawite houses in pursuit of more money,” said Sheikh Gueye.
Sometimes, Lebanese messengers deliver money from the Gulf to Syrian Salafists in Tripoli. Other times, local messengers take care of logistics. Such was the case for Sheikh Bilal Duqmaq, a former taxi driver who currently works in real estate. “We want money and we want to liberate our friends who are imprisoned in Damascus,” said Duqmaq.
Some of the countries that have allied with the Syrian opposition are becoming more concerned about the jihadist threat. Before he started fighting against Assad, Abdel Ghani was an expert in explosives. According to French military intelligence, he was behind the attack on French troops affiliated with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). For the past few months, US officials have warned of the emergence of a jihadi axis linking the Lebanese city of Tripoli to Iraq’s Anbar province via Syria.
When Damascus released a number of Islamists after the revolution, it helped this axis expand. “The Syrian revolution is taking a dramatic turn. We can no longer say that we are not aware of anything. Al-Zawahiri has been urging jihadists to fight in Syria, not to mention US Air Force Lieutenant-General General Clapper’s statement that blamed al-Qaeda for all the attacks that have been taking place since December,” said a Western diplomat in Damascus.
Ban Ki-Moon is also convinced that al-Qaeda is behind the recent suicide attacks in Damascus.