Bab al-Tabbaneh district of Tripoli, Lebanon, seen from Jabal Mohsen.

The Tripoli Attack: A Socio-Economic post-mortem

On 3 June 2019, a former Islamic State member identified as Abdul Rahman Mabsout committed a terrorist attack in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Firing on a crowd of policemen during the night before Eid, the attacker killed four individuals. This incident ruptured an uneasy peace kept in Tripoli, one that had seen terrorist activity decline in the last two years. In this piece (a companion to his ongoing series on Lebanon), Edwin Tran examines the root causes of extremism and unrest in Tripoli.

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In a statement released shortly after the attack, Lebanese interior minister Raya al Hassan described the incident as a lone-wolf attack and expressed exasperation. Despite major strides in counter-terrorism activity in Lebanon, al Hassan remarked that “countries that are perhaps more advanced than us have not been able to [curb terrorism].” In attempting to address the nature of the attack, one could make simple conclusions and conjectures focused on Mabsout’s affiliation with the Islamic State.

However, it is important to frame Mabsout’s attack not as an individual event, but instead as a wider issue specific to the city of Tripoli. The city has been home to militant groups and sectarian violence for decades, and Lebanese officials have not forgotten this. Former parliamentarian Misbah Ahdab “blamed political forces in Lebanon” and cited “structural problems [that] will continue to encourage terrorism… if they are left unaddressed.” When considered from an intersectional perspective, the attack by Mabsout is not simply a trend of lone wolf terrorism or of Islamic State defiance. Rather, the attack hints at other distinct factors that are endemic to Tripoli, and are elements that should not be under-analysed.

From an overarching perspective, Tripoli is a complicated city. It is home to a wide array of ethno-religious groups that have historically vied for power and have coexisted peacefully. Its strategic position made it a significant port in Mediterranean maritime trade, and as a result, the city today is home to Sunnis, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and a significant Alawite minority. The first major currents that affected the city began with the development of Beirut in the 19th century. Commercial importance, especially in the Mandate years, shifted away from Tripoli in favour of the Maronite-dominated Beirut.

In the decades following independence, Tripoli and the surrounding Akkar region were granted little in the way of socioeconomic aid or developmental support. Throughout the 1940s-1950s many rural Lebanese flooded into the old districts of Tripoli in hope of finding work and opportunity. While the population boomed, the general socioeconomic prosperity of the city rapidly declined. Such trends were further exacerbated by the 1955 flooding of the Abu Ali river, which displaced significant numbers of middle-class families. A poverty study by the Mission IRFED conducted in 1961 revealed significant “poverty pockets and development problems in the region”, and present-day UN reports indicated that these issues have only “spawned increasing poverty, unemployed,” and importantly, “has fuelled civil strife among different sectarian and political groupings.”

During the Lebanese Civil War, Tripoli was faced by the usual issues plaguing most urban centres: artillery, gunfire, and displacement. The Syrian intervention in 1976 became a turning point for Tripoli. Alawite groups in the city became supported and directly affiliated with the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party and with the Syrian regime. As the war ended, reconstruction efforts were hesitant to provide Tripoli with funds or assistance. Instead, the bulk of the work was left to sectarian groups that had been in conflict with one another in the years prior. These included the Alawites of Tripoli, who were centred on the area of Jabal Mohsen, and Sunni militants who operated out of the Bab al-Tabbaneh district.

Such a situation has only resulted in a deteriorating situation that has seen accusations fly on all sides towards the central government and towards the various other sects. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) data reveals that in 2011, 67% of individuals living in both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh lived under the poverty line, with the remaining numbers living in even more squalor conditions. While such trends are not monolithic, Tripolitan Sunnis in general were noted as having a higher a rate of poverty than their Christian or Alawite neighbours. A 2008 report from the International Poverty Center indicated that Sunni settlements such as Tripoli had a much higher rate of poverty than Christian ones. In a field study conducted by the Carnegie Endowment, it was discovered that in the neighbourhood of Bab al Tabbaneh, there was virtually zero access to social services and infrastructure. Alawite groups in the city have also faced similar issues with poverty, and in response have made deals with groups like Hezbollah in order to achieve some level of aid.

This socioeconomic context has, unsurprisingly, resulted in conflict. Memories of Alawite-Sunni clashes during the Lebanese Civil War have only been amplified by these economic factors. Battles between the districts of Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have occurred sporadically throughout the last few decades, and both sides have accused one another for the problems plaguing Tripoli. Sunni leaders like Sheikh Khaled Hoblos have asserted that social and economic “inequalities are the main reason for the clashes in the Tripoli area.” Even more harrowing to consider is the feedback loop such violence promotes. The clashes between these two sectarian neighbourhoods often spill out into other districts, and the consistent level of conflict has correlated with a sharp decline in commerce and suitable living areas. Even basic structural integrity is compromised because of these conflicts. An interview with a Lebanese store owner named Zakareva revealed that “when rain falls, the sewage system in Qibbeh and Dahr al Megher overflows and floods the souks.” Without proper assistance from the central government, these store owners are forced to pay out of pocket, and in a socioeconomic situation like Tripoli’s, such costs can prove to be prohibitively costly.

Another key dimension that only further exacerbates the economic issues of Tripoli is the massive wave of Syrian refugee migration. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently around 250,000 Syrians residing in northern Lebanon. In particular, Tripoli has seen an influx of at least 71,310 refugees. While some Syrians have been able to find employment in construction and less formal sectors, the majority continue to live in poverty and add to the declining nature of Tripoli.

With such factors in mind, it is possible to have a nominal understanding of the socioeconomic undercurrents Tripoli faces. The city is reliant on the central government for funds, but has received a paltry sum in total and continues to face difficulty in providing social services and basic infrastructure. According to the testimony of Muhammad Abi Samra to the UNDP, “it is said that Beirut robbed Tripoli of its status… and [Triopolitans] feel that the Lebanese state… marginalised and neglected their city.” This sense of neglect is exacerbated by disenfranchised minorities that perceive one another as being the more privileged entity. The influx of Syrian refugees has only increased the burden on Tripoli, and continual fighting between these various groups has resulted in a feedback loop that pushes the general economic landscape down.

The development of the Islamic State in Lebanon is often framed on religious conditions and not on socioeconomic grievances. A report by the Atlantic Council from 2015 emphasised Sunni-Shia religious divisions as being the main driver of extremism in Lebanon. Little is focused on the socioeconomic nuances that are often times larger forces in driving people towards Islamist organisations. This is especially salient in the case of Tripoli, where Alawites make up 10% of the population and non-Alawite Shias represent an even smaller figure. As noted above, testimonies on all sides of the Tripoli-conflict have emphasised the economic conditions that have been foundational in the current conflict.

When assessing the attack by the Abdul Rahman Mabsout, it is important to understand that there is still no clear reasoning behind his actions. However, this incident is instrumental in reminding individuals of a variety of potential factors and helps highlight the ongoing challenges Lebanon faces. Socioeconomic grievances have defined the nature of Lebanese political movements and have helped organisations like Hezbollah flourish. As new problems emerge with the budget, pensions, and foreign investment, Lebanon must be ready to understand the domino effects such moves will have on places like Tripoli. Should the country fail to recognise these socioeconomic grievances, then the cycle of violence and terror decried by interior minister Raya al Hassan will only continue.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo: Bab al-Tabbaneh district of Tripoli, Lebanon, seen from Jabal Mohsen