Lebanon has been spared from the terrorism violence that has struck other neighboring countries of Syria over the past few weeks. And while the arrest of terrorist cells recently shows that the country is by no means immune to the terrorist danger, a number of factors indicate that Lebanon could be relatively more secure than Syria’s other bordering countries that have recently fallen victim.
The recent escalation in terror attacks that hit Syria’s neighboring countries began in Jordan on Dec. 18 when terrorists killed 10 people in the province of Karak, with the Islamic State (IS) later claiming responsibility.
A day later, on Dec. 19, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead by a Turkish police officer who was apparently enraged by the victory of the Syrian army and its allies in Aleppo.
Turkey fell victim again in the horrific New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul, which led to the deaths of 39 people, and which was apparently carried out on the orders of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Meanwhile, Iraq has been plagued by a series of bombings over the past weeks and days that have killed dozens of people. The latest bombing took place on Jan. 8 near a public market in eastern Baghdad and left at least 13 people dead.
The bloodshed that has engulfed Syria’s neighbors has sparked fears in Lebanon that it will be next. Earlier this month, on Jan. 3, the Lebanese army announced that it had arrested a terrorist cell made up of 11 members, in the northern city of Tripoli.
According to a Lebanese army statement, the cell was linked to fugitive Chadi el-Moulawy, who is accused of being a leader in the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra (now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). The army statement said that Moulawy had instructed the cell to carry out attacks on Lebanese civilians as well as current and former military personnel.
Moulawy, who still remains at large, is wanted for his involvement in a twin suicide bombing operation that struck Tripoli in early 2015, which targeted a crowded cafe and killed nine people and wounded over 30 others. He was charged with forming a terrorist group.
Despite these developments, however, Lebanon could be in a more favorable situation to thwart the terrorist threat compared to other countries that share a border with Syria.
One important factor is that the Lebanese-Syrian border areas are relatively more secure than the Syrian border areas with Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. The only areas in which terrorists still have a presence on the Lebanese-Syrian border are those that extend from the outskirts of the villages of Arsal and Ras Baalbek in northeastern Lebanon, across to the Syrian city of Qarah, which is located between the Qalamoun Mountains and the eastern Lebanese mountain range.
In the early years of the Syrian crisis, terrorist groups had control of much larger border areas, including strategic Syrian border cities such as Qusair and Yabrud. Lebanese movement Hezbollah, however, played a pivotal role in expelling the extremists from these towns.
According to retired Lebanese army Gen. Elias Farhat, Hezbollah’s intervention in these border regions prevented a terrorist invasion of Lebanese territories. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Farhat said, “Hezbollah launched an offensive against the terrorists from Syrian territory, and had it not done so, the terrorists would have invaded Lebanese territories just like they did in Ninevah and Anbar in Iraq.”
Lebanon has also ended the political polarization on which terrorist movements thrive. The country finally elected Michel Aoun as president on Oct. 31 after 2½ years of a presidential vacuum due to divisions between rival factions.
After his election, Aoun, who is a member of the March 8 alliance — which also includes Hezbollah and the Amal movement led by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — named rival March 14 leader Saad Hariri as prime minister to lead a national unity Cabinet.
This newfound political unity is bound to further strengthen national support for the Lebanese army against any terrorist danger, not to mention further enhance the cooperation between the various branches of Lebanon’s security and intelligence services, which are also seen as politically affiliated with either the March 8 or March 14 alliance.
But there are also factors related to the Lebanese Sunni community that, coupled with the domestic political consensus, make the country less vulnerable to the terrorist danger.
Lebanon does have a Salafist presence in cities like Tripoli and elsewhere, but according to a Lebanese expert on extremist groups who asked not be identified, Lebanese Salafists suffer from a lack of unity that make them less of a danger than one might assume. “You have some Lebanese Salafists who are loyal to Saudi Arabia and others who are loyal to Qatar, and still others who are loyal to Turkey,” he said. “There is no unified Salafist bloc in Lebanon.”
He added that because the different Lebanese Salafist groups rely on financial support from competing regional states, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, this leads to competing agendas between Lebanese Salafists instead of unity among them.
Another important element related to the Sunni community in Lebanon is that there is no significant popular base for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, contrary to the situation in Turkey and Jordan. The importance of this lies in the fact that members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have shown a tendency to be sympathetic and even supportive of extremist groups that have carried out atrocities in Syria and elsewhere. The Turkish assassin of the Russian ambassador to Ankara was heard shouting what has been described as "Muslim Brotherhood slogans" after carrying out the murder.
In June 2013, senior religious Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has millions of followers from the Muslim Brotherhood popular base and is described as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, called on Sunni Muslims to go to Syria and help those fighting the Syrian government, claiming that Iran and Hezbollah wanted to exterminate the Sunnis in Syria. According to Ahmad Moussali, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, “Framing the conflict in these sectarian terms has mobilized many followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and led them to support extremist groups, as they view the conflict in Syria as one between the Sunnis and the infidels.”
Also, Lebanon does not have any significant Sunni tribal presence, unlike Iraq. The Lebanese expert on extremist groups said in this regard that Sunni tribes like those in Iraq “have a history of playing the role of contractors with extremist groups.”
At the same time, however, this expert warns there are many in the Lebanese Sunni community who suffer from what he called a sense of “victimhood,” making it impossible to completely rule out the danger of terrorist bombings occurring in the country.
“Sunnis in northern regions like Tripoli as well as in the western Bekaa Valley region — whether rightly or wrongly — perceive themselves as victims [due to the growing power of Hezbollah and its allies],” he said. He added that as long as this sense of victimhood exists, “there will always be the possibility of a terrorist bombing happening here or there in Lebanon.”
He attributed this sense of victimhood to the “political and media rhetoric used by Hezbollah’s domestic rivals since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, which sought to portray Hezbollah as a growing Shiite power that was taking away the power of the Sunnis.”
Meanwhile, social activities and development projects have been launched in Tripoli with the aim of tackling the grievances and poverty that contribute to radicalization. The Lebanese government, for its part, launched a security plan for Tripoli in April 2014, which saw the deployment of around 1,800 Lebanese army and security personnel, and this plan continues to be in place.