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Sidon: another Lebanese flashpoint

Following incidents in Tripoli and Arsal, members of a terrorist cell in Sidon, the capital of the Lebanese south, were arrested by the Lebanese army, thus foiling another attempt to escalate the security situation.
Lebanese army soldiers are seen through a shattered car window as they secure the area near a mosque complex, where hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was believed to be sheltering with his supporters, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 25, 2013. The Lebanese government will try on Tuesday to secure the country after the deadliest violence since the start of a two-year conflict in neighbouring Syria that has pushed Lebanon's myriad militia to clashes.Gunfights between the army and Sunni Mus

BEIRUT — Security sources in the south revealed to Al-Monitor that a terrorist cell's planned attacks on Shiite and army targets in south Lebanon's capital, Sidon, were thwarted after the Lebanese army arrested members of the "Sidon Cell" on Oct. 29, as part of a pre-emptive operation that spared Lebanon a new security blow. The sources said that the cell had planned its attacks for Nov. 4, when Shiites commemorate Ashoura.

During the investigations, members of the cell admitted that they planned to target the Fatima al-Zahraa Mosque in the mostly Shiite town of Haret Sidon. The group also planned to target the army's intelligence center in Sidon’s port and assassinate several sheikhs, including Sheikh Maher Hammoud, the imam of Sidon's Al-Quds Mosque known for his religious moderation and condemnations of radicalism. The group also planned to assassinate Hezbollah officials and members of the group's arm in Sidon, the Resistance Brigades, and also carry out suicide attacks and burn down Shiite-owned shops.

Several members of the cell once belonged to the group of the fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who, following his attack on the Lebanese army in Abra in the Sidon suburbs in 2013, was sentenced to death. The Abra incident killed 18 Lebanese soldiers and wounded 100 more. In the wake of these events, Assir's movement was dismantled and he escaped. The cell's members were attempting to implement Assir's previous plans.

Investigations uncovered a connection between the Sidon cell and the terrorist groups that led the recent battle against the Lebanese army in Tripoli, mainly Ahmad Salim Mikati’s group. The groups had coordinated actions, and their members traveled between the south and north to meet and plan. The investigations further showed that terrorist cells in Akkar are communicating with radical groups based out of the Palestinian Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.

In addition to the stirring strife, the security sources said that the group's master plan was to distract the army from the Tripoli battle to reduce the military pressure on the northern city.

Why is Sidon such a delicate and heated city? Geographically, it is the gateway to the Lebanese south, the most populous area of Lebanon and home to mostly Shiites. Consequently, if the radical groups control Sidon and block its access to Beirut, they would isolate the south and prevent Shiite citizens from commuting to the city. Besides, Hezbollah wouldn’t accept such a move and would interfere to open the way. This would lead to a Sunni-Shiite clash that could spill over to other regions. For that reason, the Resistance Brigades, supported by Hezbollah, are present in Sidon.

Moreover, the Sunni side of Sidon has a particular demography. It is surrounded by Shiite regions, mainly Haret Sidon, and other Christian regions like Maghdouche and the villages of east Sidon. The city also has a popular Sunni base in the inhabited complexes of Wadi al-Zini and Rmeileh, reaching Iqlim el-Kharroub. In addition to the Lebanese diversity, Palestinians have been present in Sidon for a while. All these demographic factors constitute fertile ground for tensions.

The most particular aspect of the city lies in its security situation. Sidon is home to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh, which shelters around 80,000 Palestinians, as well as several radical factions that have played a part in security incidents in the city and its suburbs. This camp is outside the state’s control, just like other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, and it is viewed as a chaotic space lacking security — a shelter for those escaping justice, like Assir. Investigations have shown that many dangerous fugitives have hidden out in this camp for a while, such as the terrorist Naim Abbas, who was arrested by the army in February 2014 as he was considered No. 4 on its most wanted list, and Mikati, who was arrested during the latest Tripoli battle.

Moreover, after the Abra battle and Assir’s escape, Sidon gained another security particularity. Although the regulatory structure of Assir's group was destroyed, its ideology remains. The segments of society that felt targeted in Abra awaited the chance to resume their activity, further garnering public support in Ain al-Hilweh and Sidon. People affiliated with Assir were proven to be involved in terrorist acts, including the November 2013 bombing of the Iranian Embassy.

Sidon has yet another unique security characteristic. It is a mandatory route for UNIFIL, which is deployed in the south per UN Resolution 1701. Any security mishap would disrupt the implementation of this resolution and would receive international attention, as all supply and commuting operations of UNIFIL pass through Sidon. Any attempt to control the city would be very costly, impractical, laborious and time-consuming for the UN mission.

Politically, Sidon is divided, although it is a Sunni city. It is home to March 8 supporters, mainly the Popular Nasserist Organization led by Osama Saad, and former Sidon municipality head Abdel Rahman al-Bizri, who is close to Hezbollah. On the other hand, Sidon is home to March 14 advocates like the Future Movement and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya. This gives rise to contradictory stances regarding any large-scale military act in response to the security chaos.

With the latest Sidon arrests, the southern city joined the list of Lebanese cities that escaped the grip of terrorism thanks to the Lebanese army’s efforts and its readiness to deter any attempt to shake security and stability. However, Lebanon will remain threatened as long as annihilative radical ideologies keep spreading like fire in the Middle East, finding pawns to implement their schemes in Lebanon.

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