Lebanon’s open battle against terrorism

Sunday 12/06/2016
Great risks remain

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.