Ana Maria Luca

Shadi al-Mawlawi: from hero to terrorist

How a young man from Tripoli became one of the most wanted terrorists in Lebanon

Shadi Mawlawi after his release from detention in 2012. (AFP/STR)

Few people knew who Shadi al-Mawlawi was before his arrest. He worked for his uncle, who had a small business in Tripoli: they distributed plastic bags to shops. Then he turned to Salafism and the Lebanese General Directorate of the General Security had to put quite an effort in bringing him in.


In May 2012, Syrian refugees and anti-Assad regime activists were pouring into Tripoli’s neighborhoods and many Lebanese Sunni families opened their doors to help and shelter them. Mawlawi, a 25-year-old from Bab al-Tabbaneh, was lured out of the neighborhood under the pretext that he needed to cash in some aid for his little girl, who reportedly suffered from hemiplegia. His arrest was caught on tape by the foundation’s surveillance cameras.


Two-and-a-half years later, Shadi al-Mawlawi had become one of the most wanted terrorists in Lebanon. He is wanted for his alleged Islamic State (ISIS) and/or Al-Qaeda connections and for his alleged involvement in Tripoli bombings as well as attacks on the Lebanese Army along with a young fellow Islamist from Bab al-Tabanneh’s Syria Street, Osama Mansour.


In October 2014, the duo fled from Tripoli and Mawlawi reportedly took shelter in Ain al-Hilweh, the Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon, where Lebanese authorities have no jurisdiction. Apart from a January statement on Mawlawi’s Twitter account that he had traveled to Lebanon’s eastern border town of Arsal to join ISIS in order to avoid a new battle with the Lebanese security forces in the Palestinian camp, news of the pair’s whereabouts and plans is scant and uncertain.


Security forces reportedly detained Mawlawi’s wife and four-year-old son on their way from Ain al-Hilweh back to Tripoli. At the beginning of February, Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq announced that Mawlawi was still in Ain al-Hilweh. Mansour’s whereabouts are still unknown.


The hero from Qobbeh


On 23 May 2012, Shadi al-Mawlawi was released from prison. A cheering crowd waited for him in his home neighborhood; men carried him on their shoulders into Minister Mohammad Safadi’s office.


While Mawlawi was in prison for ties to a “terrorist organization,” his brother, Nizar, gathered a few hundred young men from Tripoli’s neighborhoods and they set up camp at the southern entrance of the city. Black flags bearing the words "God is Great" were planted alongside the flag of the Syrian revolution.


"We will not leave until my brother is released," said Nizar al-Mawlawi at the time. Mawlawi’s arrest also led to another round of clashes between Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and Allawite Jabal Mohsen.


Many residents perceived Mawlawi’s arrest as an attempt by the Syrian regime to control Lebanese security institutions and curb the solidarity of the Lebanese with the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad. The fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh turned once more on the Allawite Jabal Mohsen, where leaders of the Arab Democrat Party — the Syrian government’s proxies — lived. A total of nine people were killed, including a soldier hit by sniper fire.


Mawlawi was released after a week and returned home after a group of Tripoli politicians and clerics negotiated his release. Sheikh Salem Rafei, Salafist cleric and head of the Muslim Scholars Committee, was among them.


I didn’t even know of Mawlawi before that,” he told NOW. “I only knew that a man from Tabbaneh had been arrested for helping the Syrian revolution. And we wanted to know why the authorities let Hezbollah participate in the Syrian war but did not let the Sunni youth help the Syrian revolution. Regardless of who Shadi Mawlawi was, he should not have been arrested then,” Rafei said, adding that the young man’s arrest sparked protests because many people identified with him.



The simple Islamist


“Shadi Mawlawi was a simple man,” Rafei continued. “The authorities were deliberately looking to turn someone aggressive, to use them to scare people. Mawlawi is a young man, just like other men his age, and he was active and excited about politics. But he had never crossed the line, as they say.”  


Regardless of what Mawlawi had been before his arrest, what he may have done after his release is what placed him on the most-wanted list in Lebanon. In March 2013, Mawlawi was officially charged with belonging to Syrian Al-Qaeda, offspring of Jabhat al-Nusra, together with nine other people. He was accused of planning to “conduct terrorist acts in Lebanon and smuggle weapons and explosives between Lebanon and Syria.” Mawlawi claimed he was innocent and asked for Lebanese authorities to indict Hezbollah members for fighting in Syria.


This is when his fight with the Lebanese Army began, according to sources in the neighborhood.


“He’s shit,” a Lebanese activist from Tripoli who fought in Syria shouted when asked whether Mawlawi was a supporter of ISIS or the Nusra Front. “It’s the army and all the media reports that made him important,” he said angrily. The activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, also said that security forces exaggerated Mawlawi’s importance in order to make people believe he was a real threat.


Former Lebanese MP Moustafa Alloush also said that both Mawlawi and Mansour lacked the education and charisma to raise a genuinely threatening militia, as some security sources reported they had to the media. “They gathered nothing. Twenty people maybe? This is nothing if you think that Tripoli has 600,000 people in it,” the activist said. “They are tools; simple tools who serve other interests.”


Future MP Mouein Merhabi says that Mawlawi’s story is not unique. Many young men from Tripoli’s poor neighborhoods make at most $200 a month, and for a little bit more money some would do “the dirty job for anybody,” he said. “There is no hope for more; they can’t have any ambitions, and they have no access to free education. With this atmosphere, all these ideas circulating, some of them decide that it’s better to go to heaven.” As for Mawlawi, Merhabi said: “I don’t understand why they can’t catch him. If they were able to arrest him once, they should be able to arrest him again, shouldn’t they?”



Breaking bad


Over the years, Mawlawi’s name has been associated more and more frequently with security incidents in Tripoli. The 5th of December 2013 found Shadi and his brother leading protesters in an attempt to attack the LAF barracks in Qobbeh. The Lebanese Army then imposed security restrictions during a round of fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen residents.


After a bombing that allegedly targeted an LAF patrol in August 2014, Mawlawi’s name started to circulate in tandem with Osama Mansour’s. In October 2014, the instruction judge asked for the death penalty for all those accused. Mawlawi was among them, as some of those arrested had accused him of organizing the attack that left one dead. When security forces tried to move into Bab al-Tabbaneh and Qobbeh to arrest Mansour and Mawlawi, residents raised barricades between them and the army posts in Tripoli.


Mawlawi was not much of a warrior himself, Alloush said, and neither was Mansour. “They disappeared even before the fighting started,” he said. After their flight from Tripoli, Lebanese authorities also linked their names to the January twin suicide bombings in Jabal Mohsen. The 28 people arrested after that incident, which left nine dead and scores wounded, immediately led to Mawlawi and Mansour, the alleged recruiters of the suicide bombers.



There will be others


While the hunt for Mawlawi and Mansour continues, there is still a sense of frustration in Tripoli towards the security forces, according to Rafei. “I remember that the Muslim Scholars Committee went to Tabbaneh to stop any conflict between these young people and the security forces. We asked them to help these guys (including Osama Mansour) get out of Lebanon — to Turkey or Syria — until their problem was solved, just like the authorities helped [Allawite] Ali Eid and Rifaat Eid [after the Tripoli mosque bombings] in 2013, and people from Britel recently, leave Lebanon,” he said. “Unfortunately, the authorities did not cooperate and insisted on arresting them.”


The deteriorating economic situation in northern Lebanon and the weight of the Syrian refugee crisis do not bode well for Tripoli's future, Carnegie Middle East visiting Scholar Raphael Lefevre told NOW. “This economic situation provides the context in which a number of unemployed young men radicalize in areas like Tabbaneh, Mankoubeen, Bab al-Ramel or parts of the city's old souks,” he said. “There is little likelihood of large-scale fighting in the short-term future but the situation is definitely going to remain unstable in the medium and long-run.”


Lefevre also said that the government’s security plan managed to stop the already traditional rounds of fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, but that the series of arrests of heads of militias in Tabbaneh had also left many fighters jobless, frustrated, and vulnerable to extremist messages.



Amin Nasr and Myra Abdallah contributed reporting and translating.


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

Shadi Mawlawi after his release from detention in 2012. (AFP/STR)

The authorities were deliberately looking to turn someone aggressive, to use them to scare people. Mawlawi is a young man, just like other men his age, and he was active and excited about politics."

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