Mankobeen, Tripoli – Sitting in the small, sparse living room of the family home, the sisters and mother of Bilal al Mariyaan, who blew himself up in twin suicide attacks on a coffee shop in Jabal Mohsin last Sunday, were still reeling from the shock that Bilal was behind the deadly attack.
“We found out from the news that it was him,” Mountaham, one of his sisters, told Al Jazeera. “He was never religious, he hated anything to do with religion. He liked going out, enjoying himself. He never prayed; he wasn’t like that.”
Both 29-year-old al-Mariyaan and 21-year-old Taha al-Khayal, the second suicide bomber, grew up in al-Mankobeen, one of Tripoli’s poorest neighbourhoods, located only a few meters away from the bombing site in Jabal Mohsin
The attack, that killed nine people and injured another 37, was Lebanon’s first suicide operation in over seven months. It was also the first time such attacks were perpetrated by residents of the area.
Al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attack, and local press reports suggest the two men were trained by the militant group in the Qalamoun mountain range on the Lebanese-Syrian border before returning to carry out the attacks.
Meanwhile, reports have emerged that over 100 men from Tripoli are “missing”, presumed to be involved in the fighting in neighbouring Syria. According to one report, at least 32 Sunni youths are prepared to carry out suicide operations across the country. There are also as many as 200 individuals, affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have returned from fighting in Syria to conduct attacks in Lebanon.
Since the start of the Syria conflict, analysts say more and more young men have been embracing an extremist view of religion and joining radical groups like al-Nusra front and ISIL, particularly in poor neighbourhoods in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli.
Steeped in poverty and with a lack of any possible employment opportunities, young men have reportedly gone to fight alongside the Syrian opposition, encouraged by fiery sermons from radical religious figures calling on them to avenge the deaths of their “Sunni brothers and sisters” in Syria at the hands of the “Alawite regime and Hezbollah”, who are fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
We found out from the news that it was him. He was never religious, he hated anything to do with religion. He liked going out, enjoying himself. He never prayed; he wasn't like that.
A report released by Carnegie Middle East Centre, a think tank based in Beirut, last month, pointed out that both al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have managed to find recruits among Lebanese young men; “some of whom have gone to fight amid their ranks in Syria and Iraq and returned to wage attacks in Lebanon”.
While local officials blame the rise of radicalisation among Lebanon’s young Sunnis on foreign intervention in the country’s affairs, analysts argue to the contrary saying that the root causes of radicalisation could be traced to domestic factors.
This is not the first time Mankobeen has been embroiled in Syria-related violence. In 2012, 25 young men from several Tripoli neighbourhoods snuck across to Syria to fight alongside the armed opposition, encouraged by sermons from a local sheikh.
At least 13 were killed in a surprise ambush by the Syrian army in Talkalakh, and at least five of those killed came from Mankobeen.
“The area is very tense, very poor, and has already been involved in the Syria conflict for a long time,” said Ahmad Moussalli, a professor at the American University of Beirut. “So the environment is conducive for recruitment.”
“It is very easy to recruit disgruntled individuals,” Moussalli said. “A lot of recruits into radical groups come from very unreligious backgrounds, this is not unusual at all.”
Coupled with the extreme poverty, there is animosity in these neighbourhoods towards the Syrian refugees, who, local residents say, receive aid from different organisations while they are offered nothing from the state.
“The situation has been like this since the Syrian conflict broke out – Syria is the problem. This is what put my sons in jail,” said Umm Ali, a resident of Tripoli “We’re barely surviving.”
According to a UN-ESCWA report in 2011, 60 percent of Tripoli’s households are deprived, with almost half of them extremely deprived.
One particular neighbourhood, Bab al-Tabbaneh, another poor area in Tripoli and a scene of deadly battles in the recent past, registered the highest household deprivation rate at 87 percent.
Such deprivation and marginalisation, analysts say, has a significant impact on youths residing in the area, making them easy recruits.
Raphael Lefevre, an analyst and author of the Carnegie report, has worked very closely on the rise of extremism among young Lebanese men, specifically Tripoli.
“Politicians across the aisle have been talking about launching a plan to revive Tripoli’s economy for years, but to no avail,” Lefevre told Al Jazeera.
“The bad socioeconomic situation in Tripoli is especially frustrating for many inhabitants given that their city has a prestigious past and benefits from the kind of infrastructure that could, in theory, revive the local economy.”
According to Lefevre, an array of factors contribute towards the rise of extremism; primarily animosity towards Hezbollah, but also a sense of marginalisation within the political sphere, leading some to seek alternative, more radical elements for security and representation.
The same also applies to the religious sphere, where the influence of the main Sunni body of religious representation, Dar al-Fatwa, has steadily been in decline.
“Currently, there are too many self-made preachers who have not undergone proper Islamic education and may be easily influenced by the extremist message,” Lefevre said, adding that the only way to counter this is for Dar al-Fatwa to take on a lead role in launching deradicalisation programmes aimed at those returning from fighting in Syria.
As long as Hezbollah is still fighting in Syria, radicalisation among Lebanon’s young Sunni men is likely to continue to grow, Lefevre said, but it will not stop there.
“I also expect those radicalised young men to start targeting other Sunnis whom they think are ‘deviant’,” Lefevre continued, listing possible targets of the Future Movement, Dar al-Fatwa, pro-Hezbollah Sunni armed groups such as the Resistance Brigades.
“These groups and figures are perceived [by radical groups] to pose a threat to the ‘Sunni narrative’ they are trying to spread in order to gain influence.”