FEATURE-North Lebanon fertile ground for Sunni militants

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, June 13 (Reuters) - The challenge Lebanon faces from Sunni Islamist militancy is likely to persist even if the army wins a battle against al Qaeda-inspired fighters in the north of the country, Islamists from the area say.

The Fatah al-Islam militant group is reviled by many Lebanese, but its ideas resonate with hardline Sunni Islamists, raising the possibility of more violence, they say.

Clashes in the south between the army and Jund al-Sham, another Sunni militant group, show that Fatah al-Islam already has sympathisers ready to take up arms in solidarity. More may be recruited to such groups thanks to the spread of Sunni Islamist thought, especially in and around the northern city of Tripoli, which has long been a cradle for all types of political and militant Sunni Islam.

Fathi Yakan, a prominent Islamist from Tripoli, said hardliners may take up arms against the state "out of fear that their turn will come" after Fatah al-Islam.

"If they find that Fatah al-Islam is in trouble now, then these might act, perhaps they will cooperate with it, or even support it," said Yakan, leader of the Islamic Action Front -- one of the biggest Sunni Islamist groups in Lebanon.

"For this reason, the situation is getting more serious," said Yakan, listing the full range of Sunni Islamist schools of thought in Tripoli. They include the Salafi school that is linked to the Wahhabi beliefs followed by Osama bin Laden.

Salafi Muslims believe they must follow strictly the practices of the Prophet Mohammad and his closest companions.

Aiming to fight the United States and Israel and spread its vision of Islam, Fatah al-Islam does not have a big Lebanese membership, Yakan said.

"But it might have some emotional reach," he said, especially in north Lebanon, which is the heart of conservative Sunni Islam in the country's diverse sectarian map.


Fatah al-Islam is led by a Palestinian but scores of Lebanese fighters have been killed or arrested in the fighting -- Lebanon's bloodiest internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The group, thought to number a few hundred when the fighting began on May 20, has also drawn fighters from Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.

But the Lebanese contingent highlights a home-grown problem, said Tripoli cleric Ibrahim Saleh, drawing parallels between Fatah al-Islam and a previous militant challenge to the state.

In 2000, 40 people were killed in a battle near Tripoli between the Lebanese army and a militant group called Takfir wal Hijrah. "The phenomenon repeats itself," Ibrahim said.

"What is happening is the reaction of the oppressed caused by an atmosphere of suffering, a sense of inferiority," he said, linking the appeal of militancy to poverty but also to what he saw as bin Laden's rising appeal among marginalised youth.

Scores of Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon have joined anti-U.S. insurgents, including al Qaeda, in Iraq, many of them dying there. Many of the Lebanese jihadists are from the north.

"Everyone sees north Lebanon as fertile ground for any Islamist idea, even if it is hardline," said Azzam Ayoubi of the Jama'a Islamiya, a group is inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.


Just as Takfir wal Hijrah, led by a veteran of the jihad against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had recruited in the north, so Fatah al-Islam had been able to draw Lebanese into its ranks, Ayoubi said.

Although many Salafi clerics in Lebanon do not advocate violence, they have little control over their followers who can be easily drawn to militancy, he said. "This is the problem with the Salafi trend," Ayyoubi said.

Salafism in Tripoli and other parts of Lebanon had grown with the spread of free Islamic schools for memorising the Koran. The schools are run with cash from Gulf Arab countries.

"They don't cost much, you only need a flat. Children are signed up from the age of six," Ayyoubi said. "This is the means through which this thought spreads." While most people in Tripoli do not hesitate to state their support for the army in its fight with Fatah al-Islam, one young man with the beard and long robe of a Salafi gave only a wry smile when asked for his views.

"No comment," he said.