The Jihadist Threat to Lebanon

Lebanese security sources have revealed that jihadists have infiltrated Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps while they wait to see what happens in Syria.

al-monitor A woman walks past Palestinian Fatah members carring their weapons as they take part in a parade to mark the 65th anniversary of Nakba, at Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near the port city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, May 15, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

al-qaeda, takfiri, syrian, palestinian, jihadists, islamists, infiltration, fatah

May 22, 2013

Many officers do not deny that the Lebanese security services do not possess documented information on the numbers and locations of the “organized takfiri networks” in Lebanon. The head of one of those security services told As-Safir that “monitoring and information-gathering on terrorist networks cannot be precise, since they are located within the Palestinian refugee camps, especially in Ain al-Hilweh.”

On the other hand, another officer with close ties to terrorism-related issues, said that “the only serious [jihadist] faction in Lebanon at the present time are the Ziad al-Jarrah battalions of the Abdallah al-Azzam Brigades. They are the most experienced organization, and they’re located within the Ain al-Hilweh camp.”

The officer went on to say that “intelligence and reports concerning this organization remain confidential so far, and cannot be handed over to the media.” Another officer in the security services said that “security forces recently uncovered some informers who were providing us with fabricated, misleading information. Despite this, there are technical means through which we can monitor [these groups]. But it remains difficult, due to this group’s location within the camp.”

Officers are agreed on a general theory: as long as the military situation is not decisively settled in favor of one party or another, the situation in Lebanon will remain open to all manner of possible outcomes.

Before the fighting in Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen, and Ain al-Hilweh resumed in recent days, As-Safir interviewed a number of officials working in the security services. It seems clear that they have relied, at the time, on the model of Tripoli before the clashes resumed. As one put it: “There is information about the Syrian Army beginning to get bogged down in Qusair. If it succeeds in achieving military progress, then the Tabbaneh-Jabal Mohsen axis will be set aflame immediately.” But these clashes, according to the officers, remain intermittent even as “the danger that we’re afraid of lies in the day when Lebanon will be declared an arena of the jihad.”

Those involved in handling terrorism-related issues start from the Syrian model during the Iraq war, when fundamentalist groups declared “the obligation to support [fellow Muslims] and expel the American occupier.”

At that time, these groups depended on Syria to serve as a necessary way station to the battle in Iraq and put on hold any battle with the Syrian regime. What keeps these security officers preoccupied today is “the fear that Lebanon will belatedly turn into an arena for jihad. And the longer it is delayed, the more the terrorists benefit from their stay here: training, observing and planning.”

The security threat to Lebanon at present lies in the difficulty of gathering precise intelligence on the current organizations, in addition to logistic constraints that preclude [the security forces] from taking preventive security measures before there is an explosion.

A source in the security forces well versed in the Ain al-Hilweh model was quoted as saying that “through experience in the field, the camp has come to constitute a shelter for Salafist Takfiris. The largest radical Islamist group [in Lebanon] is located within its bounds: Osbat al-Ansar, which was founded in 1994. It has shown signs of expanding, attracting followers and becoming a comprehensive organization.” Since the occupation of Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq, the group adopted a strategy based on the principle of “aiding the mujahedeen,” accumulating a vast degree of experience in the realm of terrorist activities.

Cadres of al-Qaeda, according to the source, are coming to Lebanon with the intent of receiving training in the camp. Osbat al-Ansar sought to send a large number of fighters to Iraq, including the group’s emir, the Palestinian Ahmad al-Said (Abu Muhjin). He cultivated a strong relationship with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Osbat al-Ansar was a significant factor in supporting [insurgent] fighters in Iraq in the logistical realm. Osbat al-Ansar’s most prominent figure, according to the source, is the Palestinian Saleh Qablawi (Zarqawi’s deputy) who provides an example of “the extent of Osbat al-Ansar’s planning in advancing its adopted policy, in conjunction with its growing strength in the Ain al-Hilweh camp. There it has become a force to be reckoned with, and enjoys absolute control over the camp.”

Despite Osbat al-Ansar’s decline in the realm of terrorist activity, following the killing of Zarqawi and its poor relationship with [his successor] Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the security source still considers it a clear model for the development of similar groups in a manner that threatens [Lebanese] national security, particularly at the present time.

The source says that “the decision to open up a takfiri-style battle in Lebanon is tightly bound up with the military situation on the ground in Syria. ‘Zero hour’ for the fundamentalist groups will be determined when the result [of the fighting in Syria] becomes clear: if it is in their interest, they will move to Lebanon. If not, then they will look on the Lebanese arena as a center to take revenge for [their] defeat. This is the main security challenge.”

The source asserts that “talk about similar affairs must remain within the framework of hypothetical scenarios that remain contingent upon the subsequent course of events.” He noted that “confirmed information in our possession states that the fundamentalist groups stem from [citizens of] various nationalities who moved to Ain al-Hilweh to escape prosecution. Some of them are still lying in wait, what’s known as ‘sleeper cells’.”

He says that “as of today, no intelligence reports speak of the existence of plans to carry out terrorist activities in Lebanon, at least during the present time. This is for a number of reasons, most important of which is the absence of guiding leadership, since the main weight of [the group’s] military might and leadership is involved in the battles now taking place in Syria.” As for information pointing to the existence of officers and soldiers from the Free Syrian Army in Lebanon, in addition to groups affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, the source explains that “there is no fear from them at present. They lack serious training and sufficient experience. But their growth and development have raised suspicions, as did that of Osbat al-Ansar, and as is now taking place with the Abdallah Azzam Brigades in Ain al-Hilweh.”

On the other hand, the officer closely involved with terrorism-related issues states that preventative measures currently being pursued by the Lebanese security forces are not “at this level of fecklessness or complacency, as there are many steps that we [will be] taking in turn.”

The most prominent of these measures, according to the security officer, lies in “the execution of monitoring and intelligence-gathering operations against suspicious persons. But the difficulty has manifested itself after the exodus of displaced persons from Syria. Despite this we are focusing on the areas that have served as fertile breeding grounds for extremist ideas.”

Specialized units of certain branches of the security services are subjecting the Palestinian camps to precise surveillance, especially Ain al-Hilweh. “The policy of cooperation and information-sharing among the various security agencies” is intensifying, in his words, and “they are engaging in joint security missions.”

The officer says that certain security units are focusing on “developing their technical capabilities, particularly in the realms of communication, IT, and improving the capabilities of their officers. This is being down by subjecting them to intensive training employing the most modern technologies. As a result, the level of professionalism in intelligence-gathering has risen noticeably.”

The officer indicated that Lebanese security “is based on rapid and direct information-sharing various intelligence agencies across various countries around the world.” Yet this dangerous expression does not resound in his remarks: “No regional state is preventing fundamentalists from leaving their country. They know them well, but they do not [seek to] come into contact with them. When they set a date for their departure, they [their host countries] leave them to do so [without hindrance]. Here lies the danger we are now experiencing. They are flocking to Lebanon, just as they headed to Iraq from Syria.” If Lebanon had not hitherto been a priority for the takfiri organizations, due to several logistical reasons pertaining to the war in Syria, the officers’ security concerns are limited to two: the moment that the belated “Zero Hour” arrives and the appearance of lone-wolf takfiris, like Abd al-Ghanny Jawhar.

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