In Lebanon, an extremist storm gathers force

Mistreated youths emerging from the Lebanese justice system are "ticking bombs", writes Mona Alami.

Lebanese Christians mourn over the coffins of relatives who were killed in suicide attacks in the village of Qaa. (Joseph Eid / AFP)
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The Christian town of Qaa in Lebanon was rocked last month by eight suicide attacks, resulting in 13 deaths. The bombings come after a long lull in terrorist incidents and against a backdrop of a heavy crackdown by intelligence services.

In the early hours of June 27, the town was hit by four suicide bombers. The attack was followed in the late evening by four more suicide bombings. “We believe the attackers came from Syria,” a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Lebanese army said.

Qaa sits cordoned off by the Syrian army on one side of the border and by the Lebanese army on the other. Behind the mountain area of Jurd Qaa, extremist organisations such as ISIL still run amok.

The army has been cracking down on terror cells across Lebanon. In April, a cell was captured in the Wadi Khaled region in Northern Lebanon’s Akkar, according to Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a member of the Salafi community in Tripoli.

In June, another cell was apprehended in the northern area of Kherbet Daoud. Its members had launched several attacks on the Lebanese army and assassinated Badr Eid, the brother of a former pro-Syrian Alawite MP in 2015. Both cells were taking their orders from ISIL.

The most recent confirmed ISIL attack took place last November, when two suicide bombers targeted a busy shopping street in Beirut’s southern suburb of Bourj Al Barajneh, killing 43 people and wounding more than 239.

Local experts believe the Qaa attack was orchestrated by ISIL, which has yet to admit to the bombing.

Areas such as Tripoli, Akkar in Northern Lebanon and Ersal and Majdel Anjar in the Bekaa have been flashpoints for jihadi activity in recent years. Terror organisations have proliferated since the beginning of the Syrian crisis and the subsequent involvement of Hizbollah in the conflict.

Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian rebels, and many of the jihadists who went to Syria originate from Northern Lebanon and the Bekaa.

A cleric from the Mankoubin neighbourhood, an area of Tripoli from which dozens of residents fought in Syria, estimates the number of Lebanese to have waged jihad across the border at more than 1,000.

“Last year, there was a real fear of Lebanese fighters returning home, but increased border control has led to the arrest of dozens of militants and prevented others from returning, which has contributed to an improvement of the security situation,” the source said.

Many Lebanese ISIL fighters who fled the organisation because of ideological differences are now either stuck in Turkey or have joined the flow of refugees into Europe.

Danger still lies within the large Syrian refugee community and in the convergence of Lebanese and Syrian jihadi capabilities. Military sources underline that several cells comprising Syrians have been arrested in recent months.

Improved cooperation between the various intelligence services, mainly the Lebanese army, the security forces and state intelligence – despite political rivalry between them – as well as a constant flow of intelligence from foreign countries and from Hizbollah, has significantly curbed terror groups’ ability to operate in Lebanon.

But now, terror groups appear to be striking back. In the case of the Qaa bombing, the suicide attackers were most probably smuggled in from Syria.

Risks are also associated at the Lebanese level with individuals possibly attempting shooting operations in the style of the recent Paris attacks. Last November, shootings and bomb blasts left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded in the French capital. In May, the Lebanese interior ministry thwarted an ISIL scheme to carry out an operation in an area crowded with cafes and nightclubs in Beirut.

Salafist sources worry about freshly radicalised youth who may have spent time in prison.

“The intelligence services have often unfairly cracked down on the city youth,” said one. “Many have been held for periods ranging from a few months to a year, sharing cells with hardened jihadists before they were deemed innocent. A few have walked free and are resentful of their mistreatment. Some were even tortured. They could be a ticking bomb waiting to go off given the right circumstances.”

Combined with the threat of dormant cells within the marginalised Syrian refugee population, this would mean that despite the efforts of its security services, Lebanon remains at the centre of the terror storm.

Mona Alami is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East