Lebanon’s open battle against terrorism
BEIRUT - With the absence of a serious international strategy to dismantle threats from the Islamic State and the unwillingness to find solutions to end wars in Syria and Iraq, Lebanon is facing the challenge of preventing the infiltration of terror groups and dismantling militant sleeper cells.
The wave of bombings and suicide attacks that swept Lebanon in 2013 and 2014 prompted Beirut’s various security services to redouble efforts, define an anti-terrorism strategy and, most importantly, coordinate among themselves and with foreign and Arab intelligence services.
The efforts were rewarded, with the country being relatively stable while the war next door in Syria rages unabated for a sixth year and the region witnesses the rise of extremists. However, great risks remain and security services are fully aware of the multiple threats facing the country.
A fresh crackdown on suspected Islamic State-linked militants in recent weeks led to the dismantling of five networks planning bombings in Beirut and its Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, the northern region of Akkar and in eastern Lebanon.
State Prosecutor Judge Samir Hammoud said members of three networks arrested in May gave “serious confessions” about plans to target politicians, diplomats and civilian gatherings, including nightclubs and a church, to inflict “a maximum number of casualties”.
Hammoud tied the “limited” number of suspects detained to the fact that “their operators and financiers are outside Lebanon (in Syria)”. However, he said, the ongoing investigation was meant to “extract the maximum information possible to chase other networks”.
The security services are wary of “attacks to be carried out by terrorist cells during Ramadan, targeting mosques, Shia worship places, public iftars and Ramadan night gatherings at restaurants and coffee shops, which will also attract hundreds of football fans during the European championship”, a security source said.
The source said the dismantling of a terrorist cell and the arrest of five of its members in Akkar, as well as the shutting down of a cell whose members had explosive belts and weapons in Anjar in eastern Lebanon, was part of a “pre-emptive plan to foil such plots which aim at dragging Lebanon into a cycle of violence and sectarian strife”.
Confirmation that the networks were affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) came from Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who said security forces thwarted three attempts by the terror group, sparing the country much bloodshed.
ISIS, al-Qaeda-linked Abdallah Azzam Brigades and al-Nusra Front had claimed responsibility for a string of bombings in areas under the control of Hezbollah in the eastern Bekaa valley and the Beirut southern suburbs as well as the Iranian embassy in Beirut during 2013 and 2014.
The Lebanese Army has frequently clashed with ISIS and al-Nusra gunmen holed up on Lebanon’s north-eastern border since spring 2014, when they were driven from the Qalamoun region in Syria by advancing Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah.
“After the losses Lebanon suffered due to the 2013-14 terrorist attacks, the security services realised the need for coordination among themselves and with friendly intelligence services,” said Nizar Abdel- Kader, a retired general in the Lebanese Army.
He said the “intelligence efforts and performance” of the Lebanese security services allowed the formation of “a data base that was enough to put a plan [in place] for discovering dormant cells and facing infiltrations through the borders (with Syria) and Beirut international airport”.
As a result, he said, the security services succeeded in “almost completely” dismantling all of the cells of Abdallah Azzam Brigades, whose “operation room” was in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh at the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon and other terror networks in various Lebanese regions.
“The success in following up all those who planned and executed the various terrorist crimes and bombings was an achievement by itself that even countries which enjoy greater security capabilities could not achieve,” said Abdel-Kader, referring specifically to Egypt’s anti-terrorism efforts.
ISIS will, however, keep trying “every single hour” to infiltrate Lebanon but the “alert of the Lebanese services and the battles in Syria are weakening the terror group’s ability to do that,” he noted.
Defeating ISIS is out of reach with “no serious plan to liquidate it and no serious solutions in sight for what’s going on in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq”, the retired general said.
The random camps housing a huge number of Syrian refugees across the country are Lebanon’s weak point since they could be infiltrated by both the Syrian regime and the opposition but planting “informers” in the camps proved to be very helpful.
“There is a considerable number of Syrian informers deployed in the refugee camps who are giving most of the tips about suspected people and their movements as well as those who pretend to be refugees,” the Lebanese security source said.
Their tips and other information they provided led to many arrests and “security achievements that spared Lebanon security disturbances”, he said.
Despite its successes, Lebanon needs Arab and international support to continue its open battle against terrorism as well as financial aid to handle the burden of hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees.