Lebanon cracks down on prison 'terrorist command centers'

A large security operation has begun inside Lebanon's central prison to dismantle the organizations that have taken control of the prison and spread their influence across the country — including planning and orchestrating terrorist attacks.

al-monitor A general view shows Roumieh prison, in Roumieh, east of Beirut, Jan. 12, 2015. Lebanese forces stormed the country's largest prison on Monday where Islamist militants are detained, security sources said, as authorities searched for those behind a double suicide attack on the weekend. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

terrorist organizations, telecommunications, security, roumieh prison, prisons, prisoners, lebanon, cellphones

Jan 13, 2015

The state imposing a security plan on its own prisons is a very bold step indeed, even if this plan is filled with conflicting ironies.

In theory, prisons serve a penal-reformative-social purpose. However, in practice in Lebanon and in most countries (including those in the "First World") the ugliest and most bloody model of prison administrations has prevailed, with Alcatraz and Guantanamo [in the United States] as two of the many examples.

In Lebanon, a reversal of roles has taken place, with prisons becoming the most dangerous terrorist command centers in the region. A small number of prisoners have assumed the roles of "emirs" of terrorism and torture. From here they issued fatwas directing inmates of other prisons to commit murder, executions, car bombings and suicide attacks. These are emirs who supervise groups of men and issue orders to perpetrate crimes; threatening presidents, ministers, judges, officers, as well as politicians and clerics; emirs who head kidnaping operations, ransoms, car thefts, drug deals, and other types of criminal rings.

In Lebanon, the roles have been reversed: the state, in all its prestige, duties, authority and institutions, has become the prisoner while some inmates have assumed the role of an actual state. They have rules, an organizational structure, “agencies,” communication networks, advanced technologies, “hot meals” and independent courts.

This abnormal situation has grown in scope over many years in Roumieh prison, particularly since 2008. The judiciary, inoperative and negligent in its duties, combined with corrupt security agencies and decrepit political and ethnically inciting realities on the ground, have all led to a distorted reality which has never before been seen in Lebanon.

Prisons are overflowing beyond their capacities as the number of inmates has exceeded three times their intended capacity. Rooms meant to be shared by five now hold 20 or more prisoners. Services have been degraded with the situation deteriorating to the point where ordinary inmates are being treated like subhumans as the private sector establishes its own presence and management structure from within the prisons. Meanwhile corruption, which is stronger and cannot be shaken or broken, has spread to infect even some security and judicial circles.

As court dates drew closer, leadership figures intervened and hearings were delayed; with some inmates fearing liberty because outside prison they would become the target of surveillance and monitoring, at best, and lose the privileges and state protection enjoyed inside.

Over the course of four years, Roumieh has witnessed 10 escape attempts; most of which failed. One in particular nearly succeeded when a group escape plan was executed to breach walls with homemade explosives. Buildings were torched on numerous occasions and the doors to all the cells in Block B were unhinged and opened. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) have made the “Liberation of Islamist prisoners” a central goal; and the deal to free the Azaz kidnappees and Maaloula nuns nearly fell through when the “liberation” condition was put forth on the negotiating table.

Now again, the same story repeats itself in the negotiations to free the 25 kidnaped soldiers. Even more than that, Roumieh prison and its immediate surroundings have been transformed into a security fortress because of the recurring threats to target it with truck or car bombs, or even a large scale operation that includes the use of booby-trapped motorcycles, cars and trucks driven by suicide bombers.

Still, for years the question remained: Why has the state failed to activate the sophisticated mobile phone and Internet jamming equipment that cost the Lebanese treasury over $650,000? This is particularly pressing, considering that IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda detainees possess technologies not available to local security agencies which is enabling them to communicate, on a daily basis, with al-Qaeda-affiliated forums in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Chechnya and the Gulf. Does this communication include direct communications with Jabhat al-Nusra emir Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

The reasons given by one military detainee for his involvement in the smuggling of dozens of cellphones to Islamist prisoners more than two years ago was clear indication of the level of influence wielded by some emirs. They even control promotions and military transfers as they take advantage of the prevailing corruption that facilitated the reprehensible job performed by the “studies and concessions mafia” in Roumieh prison nearly 18 months ago.

The absence of any political decision making led to the perpetuation of this aberrant situation in a prison designed for 1,200 people, not the 3,000 currently crammed inside; among whom are hundreds of truly dangerous detainees. The question, for years, has remained: When will the state take the initiative to prevent a great explosion?

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk is remembered for defining, in his first post cabinet formation statement, three main priorities for the prison situation. Among them was the rectification of the situation in Roumieh Central prison. He has however, set a zero hour for that task on many occasions, including at the height of the battle in Arsal and the capture of the Lebanese soldiers by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. As a result, the timing of action became tied, in one way or another, with the progress of negotiations. This is particularly the case since the adopted plan entailed the spilling of blood. As such, the political and security cost for such a decision was too much to bear for all previous interior ministers or security commanders.

It was also noteworthy that Machnouk decided to disregard the qualms of some ministers from the Future Movement, as well as the political center, and issued instructions to internal security forces to prepare a comprehensive plan that included all options and possibilities. He further asked that the implementation be confined to the Information Branch and the Fohood’(Lebanese SWAT team) under his direct supervision.

In doing so, the interior minister benefited from the political umbrella afforded him by the Supreme Defense Council and Prime Minister Tammam Salam and decided to keep the timing of the plan a secret for fear that any leak would lead to a preemptive uprising that would thwart the implementation of this very dangerous and sensitive operation.

The Jabal Mohsen bombing then occurred, leading the interior minister to decide that now was the opportune time to implement his plan, especially since a review and analysis of communications revealed that the bombing last Saturday evening was set in motion from Roumieh prison Block B.

When he exited the security meeting held by Salam at his residence in Mousaytbeh the night before last [Jan. 11], Machnouk emerged to inform those concerned that dawn on Monday (6:30 a.m. on Jan. 12) would be the zero hour. Consequently, army command was informed of the operation (and a command center formed under the leadership of Gen. Shamel Roukoz).

The operation was indeed set in motion at dawn, “without violence and in a first class, professional and meticulous manner,” as the interior minister described it: 190 officers and members of the Information Branch and the Fohood succeeding in transferring 866 inmates from Bloc B to a new maximum security building with cells equipped with metal doors.

Machnouk​ told Al-Safir that the inmates were transferred to the new building with nothing but their clothes, with all contraband, including cellular phones, left behind. The minister added, “Bloc B will undergo complete renovation within a period of three months and the prisoners will be returned there afterwards.”

Machnouk said that if a single cell phone were to be smuggled into the new building, then “the officer or soldier responsible would have his head cut off.”

The interior minister stressed the importance of maintaining current procedures and affirmed that the Internal Affairs section of the security forces would give priority to Roumieh prison and disallow, henceforth, the repeat of trespasses similar to those that led us to the situation we were in prior to yesterday’s operation.

Machnouk also indicated that he had submitted a report before the Council of Ministers concerning the state of affairs in Roumieh and other prisons, saying, “I explicitly informed them that the Interior Ministry would no longer tolerate prisons remaining in their current state (overcrowded with close to 8,000 inmates, while their capacity did not exceed 2,500.”)

Machnouk further requested that $60 million be allocated for the implementation of the new prisons plan and asked the government to provide half that amount while he would personally secure the rest through his internal and external connections.

As a result, the Council of Ministers instructed the ministers of interior and finance to agree on the matter and submit a proposal in that regard to the Council.

Machnouk also told Al-Safir that national cohesion was the foremost means to confront terrorism “to safeguard the country first, and then we can squabble to our hearts’ content.” He stressed the need to continue the dialogue (with Hezbollah) and stated that the priority today was for the implementation of a security plan in the northern Bekaa Valley.

The jamming of cellular and internet communications was the most effective element of the operation, particularly considering that Jabhat al-Nusra and IS had always threatened to react violently if that were to occur, threatening to kill the kidnapped soldiers. In fact, Jabhat al-Nusrayesterday quickly referred the fate of the Lebanese prisoners to its so-called “Judicial Committee,” following a tweet on the Qalamoun Reporter’s account mere hours after the prison operation began, saying, “Surprises relating to the fate of the prisoners of war that we are holding [are to be expected].” The account later publishing a photo of the soldiers lying on the ground with five Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen aiming their weapons at them, along with the slogan “Who will pay the price?”

Al-Safir’s reporter in Damascus, Abdullah Suleiman Ali, said the Roumieh operation had destabilized Jabhat al-Nusra Front because it was incapable of retaliating for losing the prison card that it held; potentially leading it to play on the emotions of the kidnapped soldiers’ families by threatening to take revenge upon them and push their families into taking to the streets and object to what was transpiring in Roumieh.

The Roumieh “Emirate” collapsed as a result of the Lebanese state’s decision to proactively combat terrorism. However, as the interior minister said, the objective lay in preserving this achievement, particularly through instituting measures to oversee the officers and men in charge of guarding Roumieh prison. This is to ensure the serious implementation of the plan, its continuity and effectiveness, because it is no secret to anyone that any form of complacency or neglect, if it were to occur, would transform the new (temporary) building into a new command center for terrorist acts.

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