Two weeks before he was supposed to get married, Bakr Seif told his mother he was going out to see his fiancee and would be back for lunch. When he did not show up by nighttime, his mother called the fiancee, who said he had not been to visit her.
That day, Dec. 8, was the last time Seif’s mother saw him. Last week, he was among nine people killed in an Iraqi army airstrike targeting suspected militants in eastern Iraq. At least four of them were Lebanese, all from this small, impoverished village near the northern city of Tripoli.
As Lebanon slid deeper into economic misery over recent months, dozens of young men have disappeared from the country’s marginalized north and later surfaced in Iraq, where they are believed to have joined the Islamic State group. The migration has stoked fears of a new wave of radical recruitment, taking advantage of frustration and despair fueled by the economic meltdown and sectarian tensions.
Many Lebanese have plummeted into poverty as the local currency has collapsed, the value of salaries and bank accounts has evaporated, and prices have soared. Even before the crisis, Tripoli was Lebanon’s poorest city — and things have only gotten worse with scores of young, seemingly unemployed men in the streets.
But it’s not just poverty driving some young men to join IS. Tripoli and its surrounding areas are also a center for many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, who resent what they say is neglect from the government in Beirut. Security forces have targeted Sunni youth in crackdowns over militancy, and activists have said for years that thousands have been detained without trial because of suspicions of militant links.
Seif’s mother believed her son was being detained by the Lebanese intelligence. But five or six days before he was killed, he called, the first she’d heard from him since his disappearance. He wouldn’t say where he was, telling her only, “I have been wronged, I have been wronged,” without explanation, she said.
Seif had spent seven years in jail on suspicion of “acts of terrorism” and was released in June without trial. The family maintains his innocence and opened a grocery for him to work in, since no one else would employ him after his release.
“He was living in constant fear. He used to tell me, ‘I trust no one but my family,'” his mother said.
IS’ top leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed in a U.S. raid on his safehouse in northwest Syria on Thursday. Experts believe that while his elimination may cause some short-term disruption, the group can replace him and continue its campaign of violence in Iraq and Syria.
The numbers of Lebanese apparently joining IS is nowhere near the hundreds who went to neighboring Syria to join rebels there, including ones linked to al-Qaida, at the height of that country’s civil war. Since that war waned several years ago, the flow of Lebanese to join dried up.
The migration to join IS in Iraq appears to be new. Lawyer Mohammed Sablouh, who heads the Center for Prisoners Rights, said it is believed that between 70 to 100 young men disappeared from the Tripoli area in past months, though the exact number is not known.
They were from the poorest districts in and around Tripoli, and some may have been lured by the promise of jobs, not realizing they were joining IS, he said. Others were afraid of being swept up in crackdowns.
“These men are being manipulated by dark forces led by those who benefit from the revival of Daesh and want to harm the image of Tripoli,” Sablouh said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Besides the deaths in Sunday’s strike, at least two other Lebanese have been killed in Iraq since December.
Tripoli has been the scene of militant violence in the past — the most serious in 2014, when militants inspired by the Islamic State group carried out attacks against the Lebanese Army.
Disappearances of young men began to rise in late August, not long after a former military intelligence member, Ahmad Murad, was shot and killed in Tripoli.
In the subsequent search, the military said it arrested an IS cell that included six militants involved in Murad’s killing. It appears the capture of the cell led other IS cells in the north to go on the run.
Remnants of IS have been waging a campaign of frequent hit-and-run attacks in Syria and Iraq ever since the group lost its last shred of territory in Syria in March 2019.
They recently launched two of their boldest operations yet.
On Jan. 20, about 200 IS militants attacked a prison in Syria’s northeastern city of Hassakeh and were joined by rioting inmates. It took more than a week for Kurdish-led U.S.-backed fighters to fully regain control over the prison in fighting that killed nearly 500, including several hundred militants, according to Kurdish officials.
On Jan. 21, IS gunmen in Iraq broke into a barracks in a mountainous area in Diyala province, killed a guard and shot dead 11 soldiers as they slept.
On Sunday, Iraq’s military carried out airstrikes on an IS cell it said was behind the barracks attack, killing nine militants, including the Lebanese.
Iraqi officials said four Lebanese were killed. Families and the mayor of Wadi Nahleh, Fadel Seif, said they were five — Bakr Seif, his cousin Omar Seif and three friends, Youssef Shkheidem, Omar Shkheidem and Anas Jazzar. The extended Seif family is the largest in the village.
“There are several factors making the youth flee, and the main one is lack of jobs,” the mayor said.
Omar Seif’s mother said he disappeared on the last day of 2021 and called her days later from a number she didn’t recognize. She informed Lebanese authorities, who told her Omar was in Iraq, using an Azeri telephone number. “I said, he is dead (to me). I did not raise him in order to send him to Iraq or … Syria or any other place,” she said.
On Sunday, she received a call from another unknown number, telling her her son had been killed.
Omar’s mother said he had long been harassed by Lebanese security officials. He spent years in prison, even while still a juvenile, also on terrorism suspicions, she said. After his release, he was repeatedly detained for short periods, when police would beat him up and give him electrical shocks, she said.
“Prison destroyed us. It burned our children, our reputation and dignity. It burned our money. Even his father died while he was in jail,” she said, speaking in the sitting room of her small, ground floor apartment with peeling walls, as friends and relatives dropped in to offer condolences.
She said Omar could not live a normal life or work because authorities officially revoked his civil rights, meaning he could not vote or get a government job.
“When a young man who is between 15 and 30 cannot get married or buy anything or enter a restaurant to have a meal like all people, of course he will choose death and will be an easy target.”