Late last year, the young men of Tripoli, Lebanon began to disappear. Alarm mounted in the Lebanese city and its surroundings as dozens of locals vanished. They had been recruited, it was rumored, by the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS) to fight in Iraq.

Then, in December, these young men began to die—a few deaths at a time, on Iraq’s remote, rural battlefields. Their bereft families had little solid information, let alone official communication, about exactly what happened.

Reports of these men’s deaths prompted a spate of stories in international media about how, amid Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse, poverty and grievance were pushing Tripoli’s youth into the arms of the Islamic State.1 Yet many of these stories seem to have misinterpreted what happened to these young men—to the detriment of how we understand groups like the Islamic State, and how we understand a place like Tripoli.

The details of these men’s disappearances suggest something more complicated and ambiguous than the dominant media narrative. I spoke to some of their families, to local religious leaders, and to Lebanese officials, among others. I didn’t arrive at answers to every question. But I did come to the conviction that this story was less about poverty and marginalization radicalizing Tripoli youth, and more about these recruits’ particular vulnerabilities, and about the facilitation network that targeted them and arranged for dozens of them to reach a foreign battlefield.

That is, what happened to these young men is not so much about why they decided to go to Iraq. It’s more about who took them there, and how.

That’s because, as the story of these Tripoli youths illustrates, jihadist militancy doesn’t just naturally emerge from poverty and grievance. It requires other intervening factors—something else has to work on vulnerable young people and direct them to this particular type of organized extremism and violence.

Reductive “root causes” explanations for jihadist recruitment can imply that every poor, disadvantaged Sunni Muslim in Tripoli—or Mosul, or Raqqa, or any number of places people unfortunately now associate with extremism—might just turn into the Islamic State. But that’s not how jihadist recruitment works.

How we explain these disappearances has implications both for how we understand jihadist recruitment and mobilization generally, and for how we think of a place like Tripoli, whose residents must regularly contend with the belief that their city is a hotbed of extremism and terror. Simplistic narratives about how poor young men end up with the Islamic State give the wrong idea about jihadist militancy, and they do wrong by a city whose people are struggling just to survive, as the country falls apart around them.

A Stricken Tripoli

Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-largest city, with a population of roughly half a million people. It is also the country’s poorest—the poorest city in the Mediterranean basin, in fact, even before the start of Lebanon’s economic crisis in 2019.2 Conditions since the economic crisis have only worsened. More than four-fifths of Lebanon’s population is now living in poverty; the country’s currency has lost more than 95 percent of its value.3 Today, Tripoli is the poorest city in a country that is, in its entirety, sinking further into destitution and misery.

Although some of Lebanon’s wealthiest men hail from Tripoli—among them prime minister Najib Mikati—the city and its North Lebanon environs have long been neglected and deprived of public investment.4 Lately, many residents of the Tripoli area have chosen to flee their unlivable circumstances, whatever the risk; this year, Tripoli and its surroundings have repeatedly mourned boatloads of residents who drowned in desperate attempts to migrate from Lebanon’s northern coast to Europe.5

 Tripoli’s Abdulhamid Karami Square, also known as Nour Square, the center of the city’s protests during Lebanon’s 2019 protest movement.
Tripoli’s Abdulhamid Karami Square, also known as Nour Square, the center of the city’s protests during Lebanon’s 2019 protest movement. Source: Sam Heller

Tripoli has also long been associated, in the popular imagination, with extremism and violence. During Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war, the Islamist Tawhid Movement briefly seized control of the city, before the Syrian military intervened and crushed the group. More recently, neighboring Syria’s civil war helped inflame tensions between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in Tripoli, fueling serial rounds of bloody violence between 2012 and 2014 before the Lebanese military deployed throughout the city as part of a “security plan.” That deployment eventually restored calm, but not before Islamist militants attacked the military in October 2014 and carried out the suicide bombing of an Alawite neighborhood in January 2015.6 By one estimate, roughly 350 Lebanese left to fight in Syria and Iraq when the two countries’ interlinked civil wars were at their height.7

Tripoli’s residents enthusiastically joined in Lebanon’s October 2019 protest movement, earning the city the moniker “Bride of the Revolution.8 Eventually, that popular energy waned, though, as it did elsewhere across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic struck Lebanon, as did the country’s metastasizing economic crisis. In April 2020, the army dismantled Tripoli’s main protest camp.9 The city has since seen occasional protests that have been angrier and more confrontational, including one in which demonstrators burned the city municipality.10

Then, in the latter half of 2021, the disappearances started. Dozens of young men from the Tripoli area vanished to join the Islamic State in Iraq, it was rumored, lured by promises of ample dollar wages. Residents became increasingly distressed and vocal, particularly after two men were reported killed in Iraq in December.11 In January 2022, Iraqi authorities announced they had killed three more Lebanese men in an airstrike on Islamic State militants in Iraq’s central Diyala province.12 One report named the three men, all from the Tripoli suburb Wadi al-Nahleh.13 Iraqi national security advisor Qassem al-Araji told Iraqi state television that local authorities had been warned by Lebanese counterparts about a group of Lebanese militants heading to Iraq.14

Estimates differ on how many young men departed for Iraq, ranging between roughly thirty-five and fifty-five, depending on the source.15 In one interview published in March, Lebanese interior minister Bassam al-Mawlawi said that forty-five men went to Iraq between August 2021 and January 2022.16 Lebanese security services also interdicted some attempted recruits; of those, a number were minors whom security agencies remanded to the custody of North Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim religious authority.17

Families Speak Out Louder

The January deaths in Diyala spurred the families of several young men to speak even more publicly and directly to the media. In a number of media interviews and a press conference, these parents decried the Lebanese state’s seeming inaction as, over a period of months, their sons had disappeared; and Lebanese authorities’ continued lack of communication with these families about their sons’ fate.18 These families additionally posed new questions about their sons’ disappearances, asking how exactly the young men managed to reach Iraq. And they recounted odd, hard-to-explain details, including warnings their sons had received that security forces were preparing to detain them and that they should leave the country.19

I spoke to the parents of Omar Seif and Bakr Seif, two cousins who left Lebanon separately in December, only to be killed together in the Diyala airstrike.

Omar Seif’s mother, “Umm Alaa,” said her son vanished on December 30. He contacted her twice afterward and told her he was okay. Then, she received a message from the same number on January 27. “How are you, darling,” she texted. “Your darling is dead,” replied the person on the other end of the conversation. The person said he had found the phone in an Islamic State member’s pocket, and then he stopped communicating with Omar’s mother.

In January, Omar Seif’s mother received a horrifying text: “Your darling is dead.”

Omar had served five years in prison in connection with a 2014 attack on the military, his mother told me. After his release, he had struggled to find steady work. Still, he had been preparing for his wedding before he disappeared. “When he left, we were just about to marry him off,” she told me. “When he was in prison, he had wanted this girl, but their material circumstances hadn’t permitted it. So, we decided, okay, however we can do it—we rent him a two-room apartment, and they get married. We had asked the girl’s family to contribute to the rent, and all that.”20

“Umm Mahmoud’s” son, Bakr Seif, left his house in the morning in early December, three weeks before his wedding. He told his family he was going to see his fiancée in central Tripoli. He never returned. His parents made calls to find him the following day—he did not carry a phone—including to local security offices. Initially, the parents were told that Bakr was being held by one of Lebanon’s security services, they said; then, they were told that, no, he had actually disappeared. They found out he had died in Diyala when it was reported on the news. “I didn’t hear [anything], except from people saying to me, ‘What’s going on?,’” Bakr’s mother told me. “My children were crying, my son was crying, everyone was coming over crying.”

Bakr had just gotten out of prison in June 2021, she said, after serving seven years. He had gotten engaged and seemed happy. His family had just paid to stock a small shop he could operate. Bakr’s mother said she had told her other son upon hearing the news that her son was dead. “I believe myself, my heart,” she told me. “My heart tells me that—by God’s grace, God permitting—my son is okay. That’s what I believe.”21

Others who left for Iraq and have been identified publicly had similar profiles: underemployed young men, in their teens and twenties. Family members told media they were religious, but denied they evinced signs of radicalization before they disappeared. Many were former detainees and still faced periodic arrest and questioning by Lebanon’s security services.

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In the weeks before Omar and Bakr Seif disappeared, their parents told me, both had seemed agitated after receiving threats that they would be detained on falsified terror charges. In media interviews, parents of other young men who disappeared have said their sons received similar threats.22 Families of other men have said their loved ones fled because they feared being detained and abused.23 One mother said her son told her he was trying to come home from Iraq.24

Some news reports have linked the timing of these Tripoli youths’ disappearances to the August 2021 killing of a retired security officer in the city and the subsequent arrest of the alleged perpetrators. These reports have suggested that the Tripoli men who went to Iraq left ahead of an anticipated wave of detentions.25

Mohammad Sablouh is an attorney who has played a lead role in publicizing these cases and advocating on the families’ behalf. It was Sablouh who organized a press conference with the family of Omar Seif in February.26 Sablouh is director of the Prisoners’ Rights Center at the Tripoli Bar Association, and head of a newly established Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.27 He has come under pressure from Lebanon’s security services for his outspokenness on issues of detention and torture, and for his pointed criticism of Lebanese authorities.28 (Sablouh helped facilitate several interviews for this report.)

Area families received news of four more deaths in August, but in strange fashion: via an audio recording of unclear provenance shared over messaging apps, ostensibly featuring an Islamic State member eulogizing more young men from the area.29 News of the December 2021 deaths had apparently also come in a similar audio message.30 In October of this year, area residents reportedly received news of two more apparent deaths, this time in a text message, also of unknown origin.31

The Prevailing Narrative

After the January deaths in Iraq’s Diyala, local and international media really seized on the story of the Islamic State recruits. Outlets including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Times of London and Foreign Policy all published articles on the Islamic State’s recruitment of the Tripoli youths.32

In their reporting, international media—seemingly more so than regional and Arabic media—tended to hew to the narrative that it was poverty that had driven the young men to join the Islamic State, and, secondarily, disenfranchisement and grievance among Tripoli’s Sunnis. The Times and Foreign Policy articles (penned by the same freelancer) were especially unsubtle. “Lebanon’s deepening economic crisis and long political stagnation have recently persuaded dozens of the country’s Sunnis that their most hopeful future involves joining the Islamic State,” the author wrote in Foreign Policy.33 Some reports also contextualized the Tripoli disappearances in terms of contemporaneous Islamic State attacks in neighboring Syria and Iraq, including a bloody prison break in northeast Syria that roused, yet again, fears of the Islamic State’s “resurgence.”34

It makes sense that journalists would tie the story of Islamic State recruitment to Lebanon’s national economic collapse.

It’s not as if these journalists invented this narrative emphasis on poverty and grievance, of course. In interviews with journalists, parents of recruits also blamed poverty, in addition to pressures their sons faced as ex-convicts after detention on terrorism charges. And Lebanese security officials who spoke to the press consistently emphasized economic motivations. They repeated to journalists that Lebanese recruits had been lured by promises of dollar-denominated wages in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. One security official told AFP that the Islamic State had attracted recruits by offering, implausibly, “salaries reaching up to $5,000 a month.”35 Fears that the Islamic State had somehow returned to North Lebanon were real. And it makes sense that these journalists would situate this story of Islamic State recruitment within the ongoing macro-story of Lebanon’s national economic collapse.

And poverty and marginalization certainly seem like part of the story; I’m not suggesting otherwise. Sheikh Firas Balout, a senior official in the Sunni religious authority for North Lebanon, pointed to some of these same factors. He attributed these local men’s recruitment to “poverty and unemployment, injustice, and material enticements,” including sums of money these men would likely never live to collect. “We’ve all become poor” in Lebanon, he told me. “There’s no middle class anymore. Now it’s only the very rich and the poor.”36

Balout said, moreover, that poor young men who had dropped out of school and came from broken families were susceptible to radicals’ appeals. “They’re not mature enough to be ‘extremist,’” he said. “They hear about ‘paradise,’ an ‘Islamic state,’ ‘coming to the aid of the oppressed’—beautiful things. And these young people are affected by that.”37

Yet stories in international media that focused on poverty and grievance tended to omit some of the complicating and more confounding details in these families’ stories. Some other reporting did more to convey the uncertainty and still-unanswered questions surrounding these cases, including the warnings some young men reportedly received before they disappeared.38

There are three other main angles to this story that challenge the narrative that it was principally poverty and marginalization that drove these young men to jihadist militancy: the relevance of individual recruits’ motivations, versus the role of the facilitation network that got them to Iraq; the particularity of these young men’s backgrounds; and other strange, unanswered questions. These points have implications both for this case and for how we ought to think about jihadist recruitment and mobilization generally.

The Real Relevance of Individual Recruits’ Motivations

First and most importantly, the volume of mobilization to Iraq suggests the recruitment of these Tripoli men is a story less about the individual recruits’ motivations and more about the facilitation network that delivered them to the battlefield.

These young men’s families have asked how their sons could have reached Iraq through Syrian territory under Syrian government control, and, what’s more, arrived deep in the Iraqi interior. “I expected [Diyala] to be on the border between Syria and Iraq,” said Umm Alaa, mother of Omar Seif. “Maybe twenty days [after his death], I took a look at a map, and I said, ‘God, what is this? It’s so far from the Syrian-Iraqi border! Diyala is on the other side of the country.’”39

Still, it seems possible that some number of men could be smuggled into Syria, and then onward to Iraq. For gangs along the Syrian–Lebanese border, people-smuggling has reportedly been a main line of business recently.40 And not all these Lebanese recruits seem to have traveled to Iraq via Syria. A Lebanese security official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that men with criminal records and related restrictions on their international travel were smuggled overland through Syria, but others without prior convictions departed Lebanon via Beirut’s airport to Turkey before traveling onward.41

But just look at how many men seem to have gone to Iraq: a lot, and then apparently none. Lebanese security agencies’ estimates differ on how many men left for Iraq, but all agree that several dozen men made the trip. That’s a substantial number—a major fraction of the several hundred Lebanese believed to have left for Syria and Iraq when those two countries’ civil wars were raging, and when it was easier to join militant factions like the Islamic State that controlled territory and functioned as de facto governing authorities.42 Since that large-scale movement from Lebanon to Iraq in late 2021, moreover, the flow of men to Iraq is thought to have stopped.43 A mobilization of thirty-five to fifty-five men over several months that then abruptly ends seems less like dozens of individual processes of radicalization and mobilization, and more like the story of a facilitation network turning on and then turning off.

A mobilization of thirty-five to fifty-five men over several months that then abruptly ends seems less like radicalization and more like the story of a facilitation network turning on and then turning off.

The Lebanese security officer told me that the country’s security services detained two Islamic State-linked smugglers who confessed to arranging the young men’s movement through Syria with the help of associates in the latter country. The smugglers offered recruits some money, he said, with which some could pay off their debts. The smugglers made an additional cut themselves from the money involved. They targeted recruits they knew, he said, including through prison networks.44

If the movement of these Tripoli-area men to Iraq is a story mainly about a group of recruiters and smugglers who targeted vulnerable young men, then that means these individual recruits’ motivations are less important in explaining how this happened. These young men’s experiences of poverty and marginalization are not irrelevant to this story. But they are less relevant, relative to the significance we should accord the facilitation apparatus that seems to have targeted them for recruitment.

The work of that facilitation network is less human and knowable than the stories of these individual young men, but, in understanding exactly what happened to them, it’s that network that seems more important.

The Individual Experience of Detention

News stories’ references to more general Sunni resentment of the Lebanese government’s neglect of the country’s north and Lebanese security services’ overbearing presence locally underplay the particularity of these individual Islamic State recruits’ experiences.

Namely, many of the Tripoli-area recruits whose families have gone to the media seem to be former terrorism detainees. Large numbers of Lebanese in the country’s north have been detained under Lebanon’s expansive national security legislation—by one count, the country’s security services have detained thousands on suspicions of terror links, many without trial.45 And these arrests no doubt have a broader impact on detainees’ family members and communities. Yet the specific experience of detention is not the experience of Tripolitans or “Sunnis” generally, as seems to have been implied in some reporting. What these Tripoli men went through before going to Iraq seems traumatizing and scarring, but nonetheless particular to them, as individuals.

Lebanon’s system for trying and incarcerating terrorism suspects seems intensely flawed. Terrorism suspects are tried by Lebanon’s military judiciary. Rights advocates have objected to trials of civilians by Lebanon’s military courts on many grounds, including those courts’ lack of independence and impartiality and endemic ill treatment and torture in detention.46 Yet pretrial detention in Lebanon can also stretch for years.47 Meanwhile, conditions in the country’s overcrowded prisons are dire. They have reportedly only worsened lately, amid the country’s economic collapse.48 After serving time, inmates are ultimately released with little support for their rehabilitation and reintegration into normal post-incarceration life. Their criminal records and continuing restrictions on their civil rights mean they have very limited opportunities to legally work and support themselves. They may also face additional detention and interrogation.

After serving time, inmates are ultimately released with little support for their rehabilitation.

Many of the detainees who are put through this system may be guilty of terrorism offenses; many may be dangerous extremists, and pose a continuing threat to others. Still, this is a system that seems designed to produce worse outcomes. It’s as if it were set up to encourage further antisocial behavior and recidivism—it’s a system that gives detainees an intensely traumatic experience, then just turns them loose in society with minimal prospects for a normal, healthy and law-abiding life.

Parents with whom I spoke said their sons were deeply affected by the experience of prison. Umm Alaa told me that when her son, Omar, got out of prison in 2019, he had changed. “You felt that something inside him was gone,” she said. “There was no more happiness.” He struggled to keep jobs, she said, because could only work for ten or fifteen days at a time before the security services would take him in for days of questioning. His criminal record meant he couldn’t get a driver’s license or register anything legally in his name.49

Umm Mahmoud said that when her son Bakr got out of prison last year, it was “like he came out lost. Lost, from the suffering and hardship.” He had been arrested just before his eighteenth birthday and spent seven years in prison. When he got out, his mother said, “he no longer trusted anyone.” He kept to himself and avoided phones. He prayed at home so he wouldn’t be accused of extremism. “He was afraid,” she said. “He’d tell me, ‘I don’t want to go to jail.’” And like Omar, Bakr also struggled to make a living. “They don’t let them work,” his mother said about former prison inmates. “These people who get out of prison, what happens to them? Every day they’re pursued, detained so they can be interrogated. They make them hate their life.”50

It’s not just Omar and Bakr Seif who came out of prison damaged. Ahmed Kayyali was reportedly killed in Iraq December 2021; his family has said he was wrongly detained for two years and then released with a debilitating spinal injury. Zakariya al-Adl died alongside Kayyali. Adl had not himself been detained, according to his brother Ali, but Ali was. Ali told a reporter he had been wrongly detained and tortured and that he thought his brother Zakariya had gone to Iraq for fear of facing the same fate.51

These young men share, then, the trauma of detention in Lebanon. But that’s not really a “Sunni” grievance; rather, it’s something more personal to them and their families. It is the problem of a more specific and limited constituency than North Lebanon’s Sunnis generally, and it ought to be understood as such.

Strange, Unanswered Questions

There are also odd details to these cases that defy easy explanation and complicate any simple, causal understanding of what happened to these young men. In particular, the warnings of impending detention that these parents say their sons received remain strange and mostly unexplained.

Umm Alaa told me her son Omar came to her a week before he disappeared. “He stood at the door and said, ‘Mom, they want me. The state wants me,’” she said. “I told him, ‘What do you mean the state wants you? Nobody wants you. Don’t worry.’ He said, ‘Mom, I swear, they want me’… He started crying, crying from his chest.”52

Omar told her that he had received the warning from a local informant for the security forces. She found out later that other families’ sons had also been threatened by the same informant; the informant’s motivations remain unclear.

“I felt like there came a time when my son had reconciled with himself, and with the state,” Umm Alaa said. “But the circumstances weren’t right. And maybe someone came, at the last moment, and changed his course.” In the days before he left, she said, “it was as if someone is pulling you from one side, and someone else is pulling you from the other.”53

Umm Mahmoud said her son Bakr told her that an informant warned him the security services were coming for him. She told him that an informant wouldn’t say something like that to him. She was told separately that the same informant who threatened Omar Seif had been asking around about Bakr.54 Osama Awwad, who was killed in August, also reportedly received threats from some unspecified party. So did Awwad’s friend, Ibrahim al-Maghrabi.55

The clock tower in Tripoli’s Tall Square, with the city’s iconic Mercedes taxis below.
The clock tower in Tripoli’s Tall Square, with the city’s iconic Mercedes taxis below. Source: Sam Heller

The reports of these Tripoli men’s deaths have also been strange. The audio message that apparently conveyed the initial news of two young men’s deaths in December 2021 consisted of a eulogy purportedly recorded by an Islamic State member. Yet the audio reportedly said the men had been “killed” using a word (“maqtal”) uncharacteristic of ISIS eulogies, which would more typically say a member had been “martyred.”56 The August 2022 audio recording announcing more deaths also included a turn of phrase—a reference to placing “laurel wreaths” on the men’s graves—that some have said is inconsistent with the Islamic State’s Salafi doctrine and rhetoric.57 The Islamic State appears to have no standard means of eulogizing members who die in battle; it’s possible that other Islamic State members may notify fighters’ families by text or audio message. Still, there seems very little to establish the authenticity of these messages, and their content is odd.

A number of people to whom I spoke in Tripoli said they believed Lebanese security actors were complicit in the young men’s disappearance.58 For their part, Omar and Bakr Seif’s mothers asked why Lebanon’s government would alert Iraqi authorities that their sons were headed to Iraq, but not stop the men from leaving the country to begin with.59 “We’re accusing the state,” said Umm Alaa, mother of Omar Seif. “The state is the one that secured the route, because it wanted to get rid of [our boys] abroad. For whose goals? No one knows.”

Sablouh, the attorney, has emphasized the “question marks” surrounding the official narrative around these deaths. He goes so far as to allege that these local men never joined Islamic State in the first place. “We haven’t seen pictures,” he said. “We haven’t seen bodies. We haven’t seen anything that evidences their deaths… And for someone who knows how ISIS used to operate and who compares that with what’s happening now, he’ll say that, for sure, these young men are captives of ‘black rooms,’ not with ISIS.”60

These young men’s parents, for their part, have not received their sons’ bodies from Iraq, and have few real answers about their fates. “We know we lost our boys,” said Umm Alaa. “That’s it.”61

Against Mechanical Explanations of Jihadist Militancy

These three main angles don’t necessarily add up to answers about how these young men vanished and died in Iraq. They do, however, complicate the prevailing narrative in this case, and suggest that these men’s recruitment by ISIS was not only—or even mainly—about poverty and Sunni grievance.

Why does this matter, then? Why is it more than nitpicky media criticism? It matters because we need to challenge more reductive, mechanical explanations of jihadist radicalization and recruitment, if we are to understand either those groups or places like Tripoli. This is not just a media issue, moreover; policymakers also frequently espouse similar explanations and narratives, something that helps contribute to bad, counterproductive policy.

It is unhelpful and misleading to suggest that poverty and grievance themselves lead people to extremism. These factors can be conducive to organized militancy, certainly. But they require some other intervening factor or process to produce something like the Islamic State.

Think of these factors as potential energy. Poverty and marginalization create potential energy for jihadist militancy, but something else has to provide the spark. What’s more, that something else has to transform that potential energy into jihadism specifically, as opposed to violent crime or assorted other social pathologies.

Poverty and grievance can be conducive to organized militancy. But they require some other factor to produce something like the Islamic State.

Or, to use another simile: The idea that jihadist militancy comes out of “root cause” conditions of poverty and grievance is like the now-discredited scientific theory of “spontaneous generation.” Spontaneous generation was the belief that living organisms can emerge from nonliving matter—that, for example, maggots and flies take shape from rotting meat. They do not. Organized jihadism, similarly, does not just emerge spontaneously from poverty and grievance.

In this, I think the story of Muhannad is illustrative. Muhannad was among the minors whom Lebanon’s security services detained for attempting to join the Islamic State, then remanded to local religious authorities. He was subsequently released. I met him in Tripoli.

Muhannad told me that, at the start, a Lebanese prison inmate had contacted him online after he wrote posts apparently sympathetic to jihadist groups and ideas. They spoke over video, so Muhannad was confident the inmate was who he said he was. Then the inmate disappeared. When he reappeared online after a long absence, he spoke to Muhannad exclusively over text chat. He encouraged Muhannad to go join the Islamic State in Iraq; Muhannad said yes. Muhannad was detained shortly after. Security agencies seemed familiar with the content of his chats with the inmate. He was told later that a lawyer had spoken to the inmate, who said his phone had been confiscated a year previous.62 Muhannad’s story sounds a lot like cases of entrapment by U.S. security agencies that should by now be familiar to American readers.63

Muhannad did say he would go to Iraq, though, whoever was on the other end of that online conversation. He came from a broken family, he told me, and was on his own. He had no steady work. “I said, ‘Whatever, I’ll go. Better to be martyred on God’s path than to live here,’” he told me.64

Muhannad’s circumstances and experience had apparently primed him to join an organization like the Islamic State. But it took the intervention of his online contact to push him into actually deciding to join the group.

It’s possible to generalize from the story of Muhannad to Tripoli more broadly. Conditions in Tripoli and its surroundings are favorable for jihadist recruitment: intense poverty; a reserve of young men with limited prospects; some inchoate religiosity; resentment of state authorities. There are others like Muhannad in Tripoli. That vulnerability and susceptibility exist, if some entrepreneurial militant or outside party steps in to exploit them. But these miserable conditions are not themselves sufficient to produce something organized like the Islamic State, or something on the scale of this apparent migration to Iraq late last year.

A Lebanese security official told me he believed the economic situation was an important “contributing factor” in this case, but not the only one. “We can’t say it was just one factor” that caused this, he said. “There was more than one factor at work here.” He compared these Islamic State recruits’ desperation and hopelessness to other Tripoli residents who have boarded ramshackle, overloaded boats to Europe: “Someone says, ‘I’ll go with my kids, and we’ll die. But dying is better than life here.’”65 One young man’s mother has said that when her son disappeared, she originally believed he had left for Europe.66

Doing Wrong by Tripoli and Its People

These reductive narratives poorly serve our understanding of how jihadist groups work, but also our understanding of Tripoli and its people. They suggest that Tripoli’s residents are somehow extremists-in-waiting, or that the area’s poor, put-upon young men might get so desperate that they just become the Islamic State.

The narrative that poverty and marginalization are turning Tripoli’s residents into the Islamic State risks further stigmatizing Tripoli’s people by suggesting the area is, now and forever, a wellspring of extremist militancy. Tripoli’s residents are themselves sensitive—understandably—to characterizations of the city as somehow innately radical. Now, some residents of the city and nearby areas have been involved in jihadist militancy, obviously. Yet in other instances, the city’s “extremism” seems exaggerated. The clashes that wracked Tripoli between 2012 and 2014, for example, seem not to have been ideological in any real way. Residents have uniformly told me that fighters were mostly idle young men rallied by neighborhood strongmen, who were taking orders from higher-up political and security bosses. Real Islamist ideologues seem like they were a smaller contingent of the city’s militants.

Nonetheless, Tripoli’s residents must forever strive to shed the area’s reputation for “extremism” and “terrorism.” This is why some people I spoke to pointed appreciatively to a February visit to Tripoli by Lebanese Armed Forces commander Gen. Joseph Aoun, in which he met with local religious leaders and emphatically rejected the premise that the city is “the capital of terror.”67 This is also the apparent subtext of why many Tripoli residents were excited that their city could become the “Bride of the Revolution” during Lebanon’s 2019 protest movement: finally, they thought, they could dispense with the idea that the city is synonymous with extremism and the Islamic State.

Jihadist violence remains a real concern in Lebanon, as in other countries. Lebanon must contend with individual jihadist self-starters and small cells, as with, for example, the so-called “Kaftoun Cell” in 2020.68 But there is little to suggest that some larger jihadist organization is at work in Lebanon, even amid the country’s multidimensional collapse. There is apparently no indication this latest group of Islamic State recruits from Tripoli planned any violence inside Lebanon.69 “Terrorism,” moreover, can also sometimes provide cover for security services’ excesses and abuses.70

Tripoli’s nights illustrate its poverty: whole neighborhoods unable to afford generators just go black.

The impression one gets after spending time in Tripoli is not that the city is “extreme”—it is that it is crushingly poor, especially in some of the city’s interior neighborhoods. It’s actually possible to see that poverty at night, when whole neighborhoods unable to afford generators just go black. In February, I left an early evening coffee in the High Café above Tripoli’s central Tall Square to find the square immersed in almost total darkness. I rode back from an interview in one of the city’s decades-old, patched-together Mercedes taxis, which literally fell apart en route; the passengers walked the rest of the way through Tripoli’s Tabbaneh neighborhood as the driver stayed to figure out how to reassemble the car. People I met in the city told me drugs were everywhere; a sit-down I had with a local religious leader proceeded in fits and starts because it was repeatedly interrupted by walk-ins, agitated and apparently under the influence. Gun violence breaks out somewhere in the darkened city, people told me, on almost a nightly basis.

I was told that contributions from the Tripoli area’s diaspora, including from Australia, help support residents. But it’s difficult to see how it’s enough to sustain people. Back in January 2020, I spoke to an ex-convict at a demonstration in Tripoli’s Nour Square who said—even then, early in Lebanon’s now multi-year economic collapse—that he could afford rent, but was otherwise already buying food for his family on credit.

Tripoli does not seem like a safe, healthy place for its people. But that isn’t really because of the city’s supposed extremism; rather, it’s because the city has been neglected and left to decay for decades, and because, now, it exists inside a country that is collapsing around it.

Bad actors may try to manipulate and exploit Tripoli’s people, as seems to have happened with these young men. But Tripoli’s residents are just trying to get by, in truly impossible circumstances.


  1. Notably: Bassem Mroue and Fay Abuelgasim, “As Economy Collapses, Some Young Lebanese Turn To Militancy,” Associated Press, February 4, 2022,; “Mired in Poverty, Dozens of Lebanese Join Jihadists in Iraq,” AFP, February 8, 2022,; Anchal Vohra, “Reluctant Jihadist Pays with His Life after Fleeing Lebanon’s Grim Economy,” The Times, February 14, 2021,; Anchal Vohra, “The Islamic State Is Capitalizing on Lebanon’s Economic Collapse,” Foreign Policy, February 21, 2021,
  2. Maya Gebeily, “Portrait of Poverty in Lebanon as UN Visits Poorest Place on Med,” Thomson Reuters Foundation, November 10, 2021,
  3. “Visit to Lebanon: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter,” UN Human Rights Council, April 11, 2022,
  4. Timour Azhari and Laila Bassam, “Poverty in Lebanon’s ‘City of Billionaires’ Drives Deadly Migration,” Reuters, September 26, 2022, For one illustration of how Tripoli has been left to decay, see Abby Sewell, “Derelict Fair Complex in Tripoli in Search of a New Lease on Life—Again,” L’Orient Today, September 20, 2022,
  5. Maya Gebeily, “Funerals Held in Lebanon’s Tripoli after Migrant Shipwreck, Dozens Still Missing,” Reuters, April 26, 2022,; Sarah Dadouch and Suzan Haidamous, “In Lebanon’s ‘Forgotten North,’ Despair Drives People to the Sea,” Washington Post, October 6, 2022,
  6. Hugh Naylor, “Fighting in Lebanon Rages for 3rd Day between Military, Sunni Militants,” Washington Post, October 26, 2014,; Nazih Siddiq, “Suicide Attack at Lebanese Cafe Kills at Least Seven,” Reuters, January 11, 2015,
  7. Lebanese security official, interview with the author by phone, October 2022.
  8. Finbar Anderson, “In Pictures: Inside Lebanon’s Tripoli—the ‘Bride of the Revolution,’” Middle East Eye, November 16, 2019,
  9. “Army Reopens al-Nour Square in Tripoli, Removes Tents in Square” (in Arabic), Elnashra, April 8, 2020,الجيش-أعاد-فتح-ساحة-النور-طرابلس-وأزال-الخيم-الموج.
  10. “Lebanese Leaders Condemn Violence after Tripoli Unrest,” Reuters, January 29, 2021,
  11. Jana al-Duheibi, “More than Thirty Tripolitan Youth ‘Disappeared’… Enlisted in Da’esh in Iraq” (in Arabic), Al-Modon, December 28, 2022,أكثر-من-30-شابا-طرابلسيا-اختفوا-ملتحقين-بداعش-العراق; Bashir Mustafa, “Tripoli Families Appeal for Bodies of Their Sons Who Died in Iraq” (in Arabic), Legal Agenda, January 14, 2022,عائلات-طرابلسية-تطالب-برفات-أبنائها/; Rula Asmar, “‘Daesh’ Slips into Tripoli: We’ve Brought You Dollars!” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, January 18, 2022,
  12. Security Media Cell (in Arabic) (@SecMedCell), Twitter status, January 29, 2022,; “Three Arabs Killed in Airstrike That Targeted Terrorist Cell in al-Adheim” (in Arabic), Iraqi News Agency, January 30, 2022,–3-.html.
  13. “Three Arabs killed in Airstrike,” Iraqi News Agency.
  14. “The Ten [O’clock Show] with Karim Hamadi | Security in Iraq… The Neighborhood’s Crises, and Domestic Threats” (in Arabic), published to YouTube by Iraq News Channel HD (in Arabic) (IMNnews), February 6, 2022,
  15. Lebanese security official, interview with the author, Beirut, February 2022.
  16. “Interior Minister Bassam al-Mawlawi to ‘General Security’: No Politician Dares to Say He Doesn’t Want Elections; I Won’t Accept the Humiliation of Any Military Personnel Because of the Lack of Medical Coverage” (in Arabic), Al-Amin Al-Aam (General Security), March 2022, In an earlier interview, Mawlawi said that thirty-seven had traveled to Iraq, including ten who traveled legally. MTV Lebanon News (@MTVLebanonNews), Twitter status, January 13, 2022,
  17. Lebanese officials, interviews with the author, Tripoli and Beirut, February and April 2022.
  18. For example, see Jana al-Duheibi, “Tripoli Youth Who Joined Iraq’s ISIS Killed: Messages Scared and Incited Them” (in Arabic), Al-Modon, January 30, 2022,مقتل-شبان-طرابلسيين-التحقوا-بداعش-العراق-رسائل-روعتهم-وحرضتهم; “A Least Six Lebanese Killed in Airstrikes After Daesh Attack in Iraq,” L’Orient Today, January 30, 2022,
  19. For example, see Arwa Ibrahim and Souhayb Jawhar, “Dozens Escape Security Crackdown, Poverty in Lebanon to Join ISIL,” Al Jazeera English, February 3, 2022,; “Tripoli… The Orchestrated Conspiracy!” (in Arabic), published to YouTube by Akhbar Al Aan Documentaries, April 3, 2022,
  20. “Umm Alaa,” interview with the author, Mankoubin, April 2022.
  21. “Umm Mahmoud,” interview with the author, Mankoubin, April 2022.
  22. Asrar Shabbaro, “‘Da’esh’ Exploits the Crisis… Youth Attracted from Lebanon to Iraq” (in Arabic), Alhurra, December 31, 2021,داعش-يستغل-الأزمة-استقطاب-شباب-لبنان-العراق; Pascale Souma, “The ‘ISIS Factory’ Continues… What’s Next After Death of Tripolitans in Iraq?” (in Arabic), Daraj, August 11, 2022,
  23. Mustafa, “Tripoli Families Appeal for Bodies of Their Sons.”
  24. Duheibi, “More than Thirty Tripolitan Youth ‘Disappeared.’”
  25. Mroue and Abuelgasim, “As Economy Collapses”; Mustafa, “Tripoli Families Appeal for Bodies of Their Sons.”
  26. Political Economic Social Forum (@LebMountada), Facebook post, February 16, 2022,
  27. Lawyers’ Syndicate in Tripoli, Lebanon (@100063713883248), Facebook post, June 29, 2022,
  28. Lebanon: Rights Organizations Call On Lebanese Authorities to Cease the Intimidation of Human Rights Lawyer Mohammed Sablouh,” Amnesty International, October 13, 2021,; Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur HRDs (@marylawlorhrds), Twitter status, June 22, 2022,
  29. “Tripoli Youth in Iraq Captives or Recruits in Da’esh… Their Families Talk to LBC” (in Arabic), LBC, August 12, 2022,شبان-طرابلس-في-العراق-أسرى-أو-مجندون-مع-داعش-عائلا/ar.
  30. Mohammad Sablouh, interview with the author, Tripoli, February 2022.
  31. Via text message from Mohammad Sablouh, October 2022.
  32. Mroue and Abuelgasim, “As Economy Collapses”; AFP, “Mired in Poverty, Dozens of Lebanese Join Jihadists”;  Vohra, “Reluctant Jihadist”; Vohra, “The Islamic State Is Capitalizing on Lebanon’s Economic Collapse.”
  33. Vohra, “The Islamic State Is Capitalizing on Lebanon’s Economic Collapse.”
  34. Jane Arraf, “Prison Attack Is Latest Evidence of ISIS Resurgence in Syria and Iraq,” New York Times, January 25, 2020, On the Islamic State’s “resurgence,” see Sam Heller, “When Measuring ISIS’s ‘Resurgence,’ Use the Right Standard,” International Crisis Group, May 13, 2020,
  35. AFP, “Mired in Poverty.”
  36. Interview with the author, Tripoli, April 2022.
  37. Ibid.
  38. For example, see Rita El Jammal, “‘The New Arab’ Reveals Secrets of Enlistment of Lebanese Youth in ‘Daesh’ in Iraq” (in Arabic), Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, February 6, 2022,”العربي-الجديد”-يكشف-أسرار-التحاق-شبان-لبنانيين-بـ”داعش”-في-العراق.
  39. Umm Alaa, interview.
  40. Najla Hammoud, “Armed Clashes, Smuggling People and Goods, Protection Money, and Rapes: ‘The Masters of the Borders’ Impose Their Control on ‘the Northern Strip’” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, August 24, 2022,
  41. Lebanese security official, interview with the author, Beirut, October 2022.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Lebanese security official, interview by phone, October 2022.
  44. Lebanese security official, Beirut, October 2022.
  45. AFP, “Mired in poverty.”
  46. “‘It’s Not the Right Place for Us’: The Trial of Civilians by Military Courts in Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch, January  26, 2017,
  47. Jonathan Dagher, “Caught up in Lebanon’s Pre-trial Detention Maze,” zenith, June 17, 2020,
  48. For example, see Yasmine Minkara and Jacob Boswall, “Breaking the Chains: Time for Justice in Lebanon’s Prison System,” Triangle, May 17, 2021,; and Anne-Marie El Hage, “Is Reducing the Prison Year to Six Months the Solution to Prison Overcrowding?,” L’Orient Today, September 26, 2022,
  49. Umm Alaa, interview.
  50. Umm Mahmoud, interview.
  51. Mustafa, “Tripoli Families Appeal for Bodies of Their Sons.”
  52. Umm Alaa, interview.
  53. Umm Alaa, interview.
  54. Umm Mahmoud, interview.
  55. Shabbaro, “‘Da’esh’ Exploits the Crisis”; Akhbar Al Aan Documentaries, “Tripoli… The Orchestrated Conspiracy!”; LBC, “Tripoli Youth in Iraq Captives or Recruits in Da’esh.”
  56. Mohammad Sablouh, interview, February 2022.
  57. LBC, “Tripoli Youth in Iraq Captives or Recruits in Da’esh”; Maroun Nassif, “How Tripoli’s Youth Are Misled into Fighting in Da’esh’s Ranks in Iraq” (in Arabic), Elnashra, August 13, 2022,هكذا-يُضلّل-الشباب-الطرابلسي-للقتال-صفوف-داعش-العر.
  58. Interviews, Tripoli, February and April 2022.
  59. Umm Alaa, interview.
  60. Interview with the author by phone, October 2022.
  61. Umm Alaa, interview.
  62. Interview with the author, Tripoli, April 2022.
  63. ozina Ali, “The ‘Herald Square Bomber’ Who Wasn’t,” New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2021,
  64. Muhannad, interview.
  65. Lebanese security official, interview.
  66. AFP, “Mired in Poverty.”
  67. “The Visit of General Aoun to Religious Prominent Figures in Tripoli,” published to YouTube by TheLebaneseArmy, February 8, 2022, See also Jana al-Duheibi, “ ‘ISIS Members’ and Smugglers in Hands of Security Services” (in Arabic), Al-Modon, February 14, 2022,داعشيون-ومهربون-في-قبضة-الأجهزة-الأمنية.
  68. For example, see Radwan Murtada, “How Army Intelligence Dismantled the ‘Kaftoun Cell’” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, September 15, 2020,
  69. Lebanese security official, interview.
  70. For example, see “Lebanon: Syrian Refugee Apparently Tortured to Death,” Human Rights Watch, September 26, 2022,