How does Jabhat al-Nusra operate in Lebanon?

Islamist experts claim that Jabhat al-Nusra is a bigger threat to Lebanon than the Islamic State.

al-monitor Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra man a checkpoint on the border crossing between Syria and Jordan in Daraa, Dec. 26, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Khassawneh.

Topics covered

syria, lebanon, jabhat al-nusra, islamists, islamic state, hezbollah

Oct 29, 2014

It is no longer a secret that Jabhat al-Nusra is in Lebanon, especially following the recent battles in Tripoli. This has been admitted by various Islamist and political parties in Lebanon after elements of the organization were described as unorganized "ansar," or "followers."

Islamists in Tripoli say that the battle ended with a “settlement” that drove out the insurgents to unknown places and let the army into Bab al-Tebbaneh. Islamist sources said, “The settlement was the product of the Association of Muslim Scholars in collaboration with certain politicians,” while the army denied the existence of any “settlement” and emphasized its continued pursuit of terrorists.

With the disclosure of the existence of Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, questions arise about the identity of the "emir" of this republic. Sources answer such questions by saying, “There is no emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, as the front relies on the cluster cell method, whereby groups that do not know each other operate through a system that leads and dominates them. This seemed obvious in the Tripoli battles, which involved a tactical and professional withdrawal as well as logistical work and a major organizational capacity, all of which report to a central leader.”

What about the Islamic State (IS)? The data confirms the existence of IS elements in Lebanon, but not as many as the Jabhat al-Nusra elements. Moreover, these IS elements are weaker and less organized. The sources said, “The developments in Qalamoun gave Jabhat al-Nusra the reference in the leadership of operations, be it [in Qalamoun] or in the barren lands, while the IS elements were at the disposal of Jabhat al-Nusra.”

According to the interpretation of the Islamist sources, Jabhat al-Nusra and IS want to protect the Sunnis in Lebanon. They do not want the Sunni areas to be exposed to Hezbollah. The sources concluded that “as long as Hezbollah has as an illegal militia in Lebanon, there will be another side (Jabhat al-Nusra) that we have to live with to avoid the biggest explosion.” The sources rejected circulating the term “Islamic emirate,” and asked, “How can 20 or 30 people establish an Islamic emirate in the north when they are not able to control one street?”

Despite the army’s arrests, the sources said that “as long as the Syrian crisis lingers, all possibilities remain on the table, especially in Tripoli, because all messages are being conveyed through Tripoli.”

The head of the Islamic Tranquility Committee, Ahmad Ayoubi, established a link between the absence of any new battle and “the extent of awareness of the political and military leaders.” He raises the question: “Will we insist on leading the army to battles that directly serve Hezbollah and disable the army from reaching settlements while putting it at a serious crossroad, or do we have to be aware that the developments in the region are turning into a reality for Lebanon that we have to cope with?”

The battles exploded after the arrest of the "Aasoun" group. According to Ayoubi, "Up until the end of the Aasoun confrontations, things were normal, but the army decided under pressure to conduct raids and open a confrontation with the armed groups." Ayoubi said, “The arrest of the Aasoun network is theoretically true, but in practice led to a confrontation that allowed the fighters to withdraw safely.”

He placed the current events in the context of “the conflict between Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra in both Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah is currently fighting against the Syrian opposition in Syria, as well as a direct confrontation with al-Nusra, which plunged Lebanon into direct clashes. Al-Nusra now has the power to create major altercations in Lebanon.”

Ayoubi did not rule out the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra being linked to the events in Tripoli, calling for the surveillance of this group’s data and positions. He said, "At least we have a pro-Nusra tendency expressed by these groups, but I think that it's bigger than oral advocacy,” adding, “Al-Nusra is present in Lebanon but does not make the decision in internal battles, while Hezbollah wants to drag the Lebanese army into a battle with supporters and members of al-Nusra in Lebanon, in the belief that it will destroy their plan. However, it is clear that Hezbollah is quite late to abort this plan.” He noted their plan is "to find a balance to prevent attacks on Sunnis."

The retired Gen. Khalil Helo does not rule out the possibility of new clashes erupting between the army and the militants. However, he believes that “they will not be the same as the ones that occurred in Tripoli, because the militants’ capabilities would weaken in the event that one of them escapes.”

“Al-Nusra and IS follow three battle tactics: terrorism — by rigging cars, killing civilians and slaughtering them in front of cameras; the guerrilla war it is currently fighting in Syria; and the classic war such as in Kobani,” he explained.

According to Helo, “The armed groups in Lebanon turned out to be using guerrilla war and operating independently from each other, and each group has its own field decisions, funding and weapons. … What happened in Tripoli indicates a classic war that they cannot go into since they would need to mobilize around 300 to 400 members and achieve some kind of penetration, such as in Mosul and Kobani, which is impossible because the Sunni community does not embrace this kind of people, unlike what some media are promoting.” Helo wondered, “If al-Nusra has other sleeper cells, why isn’t it mobilizing them yet?”

Helo believes that it is likely that there was an escape, “since in the military, there is no such thing as a complete security blockage.” He gave the example of theNahr al-Bared battle, where a major escape occurred, during which half of [the militants] were killed or arrested, while the other half fled to Syria. The same happened in Fallujah.

The escape of the militants with or without a “settlement” is possible. However, Helo asked, "Where are their weapons and ammunition? What about the ones who were arrested and who will give information on the whereabouts of the others?" Helo said, "The escape would not allow them to rewrite the same scenario as in Tripoli because they have lost a significant portion of their abilities, and today’s fear of new cells outside of Tripoli came from Tripoli's [recent battles]."

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