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Young people who want to join the Islamic State to flee poverty

Young people who want to join the Islamic State to flee poverty

Young people who want to join the Islamic State to flee poverty

Ahmed he is still a teenager but, instead of studying, he spends every day at work.

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He lives in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, in the north of the country, one of the poorest places in the Mediterranean. Despite the hours he puts in, he only earns a few dollars a week. He needs to support his sick mother, but his grueling job barely allows him to earn enough to feed them both.

That feeling of hopelessness led him to look for a way out. At an internet cafe in Tripoli he began chatting with a man who told him he was a recruiter Islamic Statethe radical Sunni Islamist militia that for a time controlled large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq, and which has committed atrocities and acts of terror in the region and around the world.

“I was studying the sharia (Islamic law), and day after day they told us about jihad,” Ahmed says. “They told us about Iraq and the Islamic State (IS) group. We loved IS, because it was famous. A man in prison contacted me and said: ‘I’m going to send you there’.”

Slim and quiet-spoken, it’s hard to imagine Ahmed as a fighter or why he would want to be part of a group that has committed such terrible crimes.

“I wanted to join the Islamic State and be a mujahideen because I couldn’t cope with the crisis here,” the young man replies. “That way I would get closer to my God and live comfortably, and not always worry about the cost of living.”

The mother of Bakr Saif, one of the Lebanese who has joined the Islamic State, holds up his photograph.

Ahmed had made a decision. He told the recruiter that he wanted to sign up, leave Lebanon and travel to fight with the group in Iraq and Syria. But, within a few hours, the police arrested him. Lebanese army intelligence officers interrogated him for five days before releasing him. This made him regret his choice, but he still hasn’t found a solution to his many problems.

It makes me want to commit suicide. I owe money I borrowed to buy furniture for my room, but I can’t afford to pay it back. We don’t know what will happen in the future,” she says.

In the back streets of Tripoli, hope is in short supply. Also electricity, water, fuel, medicines and jobs. It is believed that around a hundred young Lebanese have joined the Islamic State in the past year. But it’s not just about adhering to the extreme ideology that the group represents. They are also trying to escape the extreme poverty of a country in crisis.

Many, because of their religious affiliation or family background, have fewer opportunities to prosper. This fight for survival it has caused some young people to take desperate measures.

no opportunities

Nabil Sari is a prominent Tripoli judge. He has dealt with cases of this type before.

“They don’t have job opportunities, they don’t have study opportunities. And some of those who joined IS that’s why they repented and tried to contact their families to return, but now they can’t.”

The Islamic State is far from the power it once was in the Middle East. For a time he controlled a strip of land that he designated as a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Most of the group was defeated in a bloody battle at the Syrian city of Baghouz in 2019.

But the few who were not killed or imprisoned continue to attack targets in areas they once controlled. And, earlier this year, information started coming in about Lebanese participants in those attacks.

Wadi Khaled, where many of the missing men lived, is a tough neighborhood mired in poverty. Children spend the day playing with makeshift toys in dusty alleyways. Because of the crisis, many do not have the opportunity to go to school.

Tripoli is one of the poorest places in the Mediterranean.

Tripoli is one of the poorest places in the Mediterranean.

“The government doesn’t come here,” explains Mohammed Sablouh, a lawyer who represents the families of several of these young people. “Look at these areas of poverty. Nobody cares. The country is not doing its duty to its citizens. And this impoverished class will be used and recruited for IS.”

Bakr Saif disappeared a year ago. He was weeks away from getting married. Although he had been arrested and had spent time in prison, he was building a future with his fiancée. He did not tell his mother Umm Saif that he planned to leave.

“He told us that he was going to see his fiancée and that he would return at noon,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears. “She left and she never came back.”

“We listen to the news on social media,” continues her father, Mahdi. “It was on all our phones. We couldn’t believe it. And then they all started screaming and crying“. Umm Saif pauses and wipes her eyes. “She was happy, she was preparing for her wedding and she was happy. She had been released from prison. He was a very nice guy. Respectful. Polite. You may think I’m saying that because I’m her mother, but this is the truth.”

a sinister voice

Less than a month later, Umm Seif received a voicemail. A sinister computer-altered voice told him that his son had died fighting for IS in Iraq. Strangely, he described him as “killed” rather than “martyred”, the term a genuine IS message would normally use.

Bakr’s parents do not believe the voicemail, nor what the Lebanese authorities have told them about his fate. They believe that he never left Lebanon and remains hidden and in custody somewhere in the country.

Bakr’s father, Mehdi, shows his son’s apartment. It is clean and tidy, but empty, and it looks abandoned. The gold-wrapped chocolates that Bakr bought for his wedding remain on display, uneaten.

Bakr Saif's parents say their son was about to get married when he disappeared.

Bakr Saif’s parents say their son was about to get married when he disappeared.

The Iraqi army claims that Bakr left Lebanon and traveled there to join the Islamic State. They claim that he participated in an attack on a military base in Diyala that killed 10 soldiers. Days later, nine IS members were killed in an airstrike by Iraqi forces. Half of them were Lebanese.

Iraqi forces claim that Bakr was one of them. They insist that they are completely sure of your identity because they perform DNA tests on the dead to confirm it.

Cannon fodder

Iraqi Army General Yahya Rasoul Abdulla refers to these men leaving Lebanon to join the Islamic State with harsh words.

“My message to the Arab world, and specifically to the Lebanese youth, is that this terrorist organization is using them as cannon fodder. You can ask the Iraqis who lived under the control of the Islamic State: they killed people, raped women, enslaved them, destroyed heritage, destroyed all the infrastructure, even destroyed the tombs of the prophet. Don’t be the fuel of their wars, don’t be used by them,” says the general.

He adds: “The Iraqi army is everywhere. Wherever this organization goes, in the desert, in the mountains, in the valleys, we will hunt them down and kill them.”

Iraqi General Yahya Rasoul Abdulla.

Iraqi General Yahya Rasoul Abdulla.

Since the peak recorded earlier this year, the numbers joining the Islamic State have begun to decline. The stories of those who left are now well known in Tripoli, and that makes the prospect of following them less attractive.

But while Lebanon continues to fight its financial crisis and its politicians stall on forming a new government months after the country’s elections, life doesn’t get any easier. And in this way, Islamic State recruiters continue to swarm in the hope of attracting a new generation of disenfranchised Lebanese youth.

Source: Elcomercio

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