Security crackdown cuts terror attacks but dangers still lurk
Beirut - Lebanon’s recent presidential election and formation of a government have bought some stability to the country’s fractious political arena but the country remains on edge with war raging in neighbouring Syria and security agencies working feverishly to stay one step ahead of Islamist militants who appear determined to carry out attacks.
On January 21st, a joint force of military intelligence and the intelligence wing of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), arrested a would-be suicide bomber outside a popular café on Beirut’s bustling Hamra Street. Omar Assi, a nurse at a hospital in Sidon in south Lebanon, was reportedly carrying a belt packed with 8kg of explosives and metal shrapnel.
Hours earlier, another suspected bomber was arrested in the Wadi Khaled region of north Lebanon.
At the end of December, a sleeper cell was broken up in the northern city of Tripoli, where three militants were reportedly planning to launch gun and bomb attacks in Beirut on New Year’s Eve. A Western diplomat familiar with the case said the threat was the most serious in years.
Barely a day passes without reports of suspected militants being apprehended. While some of the arrests may be based on suspicions rather than hard evidence, it is clear that Lebanon remains a prime target for groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al- Sham (JFS), linked to al-Qaeda.
That there have been so few successful attacks is widely attributed to greater coordination between Lebanon’s notoriously fractious security agencies.
“The security situation is under control because the Maaloumet (the Arabic name for the ISF’s intelligence arm) works closely with Military Intelligence, which works closely with Hezbollah,” said Basem Shabb, a Lebanese lawmaker who sits on parliament’s defence committee.
“So you have a network where if a suicide bombers slips through one net he’s caught in the next,” he said.
Lebanon suffered a spate of bombings between July 2013 and June 2014, many of them suicide car bombs detonated in Shia-populated areas that are Hezbollah bastions. Most of the attacks were claimed by a group that said it was the Lebanese branch of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the former name of JFS.
Most of the car bombs were manufactured in the Qalamoun region of Syria adjacent to the Lebanese border. By the summer of 2014, Hezbollah fighters had swept through Qalamoun, restoring the area to the Syrian government.
As a result, the car bomb attacks stopped. Since then, there have been only three attacks of any significance — a string of suicide bombings in Beirut and northern Lebanon between January and November 2015 that killed 57 people and wounded 300 others.
Until recently, the ISF’s intelligence wing, known as the Information Branch, was regarded as close to the Western and Saudi-backed March 14 parliamentary coalition. Military Intelligence, on the other hand, was seen as allied to the Iranian and Syrian-supported March 8 coalition.
However, the gradual collapse of the divisions between March 14 and March 8 over the last two years has led to a more collaborative security relationship.
“Counterterrorism makes up about three-quarters of our work these days and we work closely with the other agencies to catch terrorists before they can attack,” a senior ISF intelligence officer told The Arab Weekly.
Other than tighter coordination between the security branches, Lebanon’s small geographical size and tangled sectarian demographics provide little operational space for militant cells to gather, plot and execute attacks.
Nevertheless, it is striking that there have been so few successful plots since the summer of 2014 despite the Islamic militants’ strong motivation to strike in Lebanon, given the dominant presence of Hezbollah, the relatively large numbers of Westerners living in Beirut and the deployment of international peacekeepers in south Lebanon.
While the threat of car bombs and suicide attacks persists, one recent discovery has caused particular alarm among foreign intelligence agencies.
On November 30th, the army arrested an arms dealer in the village of Majdal Anjar in the Bekaa Valley. The arms dealer was suspected of providing weapons to his brother, a top militant in the Abdullah al- Azzam Brigades, which has carried out several attacks in Lebanon.
Among the weapons uncovered was a Chinese FN-6 anti-aircraft missile launcher. The shoulder-fired weapon, which can shoot down aircraft flying as high as 3,500 metres, is thought to have come from Syria.
Although some Syrian rebel groups have possessed the FN-6 since 2013, it is the first time that an anti-aircraft missile has been discovered in the hands of extremist Sunni groups in Lebanon.
It is unclear if the terrorists had a specific target in mind but the concern in Beirut is that if more anti-aircraft missiles were smuggled into Lebanon from Syria, they could pose a serious threat to commercial aircraft using Beirut’s beachside international airport.
“This is the nightmare scenario that keeps us awake at night,” said a Western intelligence officer in Beirut.