Lebanon security forces jam prisoner mobile phones

The Lebanese government has installed technology to block mobile phone signals of prisoners at Lebanon's Roumieh prison, yet the concerned ministers have not ordered them operational for fear of reprisals from Islamist prisoners.

al-monitor Smoke rises from Roumieh prison, east of Beirut, Sept. 15, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban.

Topics covered

technology, prisoners, lebanon, jabhat al-nusra, islamists, internet, communication

Jan 30, 2014

On Jan. 28, 2014, official sources affirmed to As-Safir that technical devices installed in the vicinity of Lebanon’s Roumieh prison to disrupt the phone calls made by Islamist prisoners in Bloc B are now fully functional. These devices, which cost the Ministry of Communications $650,000, disable phone coverage and Internet connection. However, the scandal resides in the fact that no government official, to this moment, has dared to issue an order to operate these devices.

Trusted official security reports, some of which were secured by As-Safir, show that the majority of Islamist prisoners have sworn allegiance to the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, from within the prison. They have been supervising terrorist operations and recruiting militants in Syria and Lebanon while behind prison bars, through the use of secret jihadist forums on the Internet.

A Lebanese security agency recorded a phone call made between a Salafist prisoner, Abu Turab al-Yemeni, and a leading member of Jabhat al-Nusra who is outside the prison. During the said conversation, they used code words, which were later linked to one of the suicide bombings in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The real danger, however, resides in the fact that communications between Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated prisoners on the Internet cannot be monitored.

Verified security messages showed that around 27 out of 170 Salafist prisoners in Roumieh are tasked with coordinating with Jabhat al-Nusra leaders outside the prison. Their tasks revolve around recruiting militants and sending them to terrorist groups specialized in equipping suicide bombers. This is done through special electronic forums that the prisoners master the use of.

Amid all this evidence, one can’t understand why some concerned ministers avoid dealing with this issue, which can be solved by issuing orders to start operating the jamming devices. These devices are able to impede the prisoners of Jabhat al-Nusra from communicating with terrorist groups outside the prison, planning and supervising suicide bombings in Lebanon, in addition to firing missiles to Syria.

According to well-informed official sources, the failure to operate the devices is due to the fear of three ministers in the cabinet from Jabhat al-Nusra. However, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel explained to As-Safir that the public prosecution has allowed Islamists and other prisoners to use cell phones, noting that this issue falls “under the responsibility of the Defense Ministry. I am not afraid of anyone and will not justify my statements.”

For his part, Defense Minister Shakib Qortbawi said in a statement to As-Safir, “The Ministry of Defense is not responsible for operating the jamming devices,” explaining that “all matters related to prisons fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior. Our relation to the prisons is limited to trials. We do consider, however, that it is crucial to start operating the jamming devices as soon as possible.”

Despite this, trusted official sources are convinced “the ministers did not provide any convincing argument that explains the failure to issue an order to operate the devices, other than they are afraid Jabhat al-Nusra will retaliate if they adopt such a step. [The ministers] know very well how important Internet connection is for prisoners. Salafist prisoners consider the issue of Internet in prisons a red line that cannot be crossed. Anyone who dares to do so will be killed.”

Ministers involved in this issue claim they are postponing the use of jamming devices because they are waiting for the completion of some technical procedures, which will ensure these devices will not disrupt the phone coverage of prison officers, as well as residents of the Roumieh region. However, sources concerned with the issue told As-Safir, “The installment of the devices is complete. The state-of-the-art jamming devices are limited to a specific area and cannot possibly disrupt the connection of phone calls that are not listed on the technical map.”

There are concerns about the reaction of Jabhat al-Nusra prisoners in Roumieh prison to the jamming devices. Competent security agencies, however, are ready “[to confront] any reaction.” Veteran officers explain that they are ready to raid the prison building, where Islamists are incarcerated, even if this means “us losing martyrs. We no longer understand what politicians want. We continuously inform them that these prisoners have explosives, are getting ready to escape and are supervising terrorist attacks from within the prison. Yet, no one responds, and if anything serious takes place in the prison later on, they hold us responsible.”

According to information obtained by As-Safir, a group of Salafist prisoners were able to acquire military uniforms, which they will use in a collective escape operation. They are waiting for the decisive moment to implement this operation. This information was provided to As-Safir by informants and phone calls that were recently tapped.

While security agencies find it easier to tap the calls of Salafist prisoners when using cell phones, competent security agencies have recently come to the conclusion that prisoners know their phones are monitored and use this to their advantage. The real danger resides in “the conversations and messages sent and received through their own Internet forums, which we cannot monitor. This is why we stress the necessity of using the jamming devices. Our target is monitoring the Internet, not phone calls,” concerned officers told As-Safir.

Veteran officers noted the danger of these online jihadist forums. They cited reports that the emir of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Majid al-Majid, did not use a cell phone prior to his death; rather, he assigned tasks and coordinated with terrorist groups through secret online forums. It is difficult for the Lebanese security agencies to monitor these forums.

While US intelligence agencies are capable of accessing these forums, it is highly difficult to reveal the identity of a user in a jihadist forum. Even if he was identified, it would be hard to analyze the codes used in these closed forums, which are limited to a small circle of terrorist group members.

Therefore, it is currently important for concerned ministers to acknowledge the danger of prisoners using cell phones in Roumieh prison. The phones allow the prisoners to have access to high speed Internet (3G) and communicate with terrorist groups outside the prison. Competent security agencies are increasingly concerned about “the acts carried out by these prisoners, which we are unaware of. All what we are asking for is to isolate them on an electronic level, or else, soon enough, we will be hearing of a suicide attack planned by Salafist prisoners in Roumieh.”

According to sources, responsible parties in the security agencies learned that Salafist prisoners in Roumieh were preparing for an escape operation, and that they had explosives and military uniforms. The security agencies then called the concerned ministers in the cabinet to transfer the prisoners from Bloc B to Bloc D. This would ensure that they would move without having any unauthorized belongings. According to the same sources, despite the fact that this proposal spares the army from carrying out an operation that would inflict human losses on them, the ministers refused the proposal, due to their “fear of prisoners.”

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