Lebanon's influential intelligence chief Abbas Ibrahim formally steps down

The head of General Security forged links across Lebanon, the region and in the West

Abbas Ibrahim has hinted that he may be interested in a ministerial portfolio. AP Photo
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The term of Lebanon’s powerful commander of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, formally ended on Thursday as he reached the retirement age of 64.

Mr Ibrahim, who led General Security from 2011 and once served as a bodyguard of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, helped to mediate the release of several westerners detained in Syria.

A Shiite Muslim from southern Lebanon, Mr Ibrahim had a broad and perhaps unique contact base. While well known for his connections to Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, he also had good relations with the US and international community.

The US has proscribed Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group and political party, as a terrorist organisation and has heavily sanctioned the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

“Abbas Ibrahim was definitely a shrewd manoeuverer, a bridge builder, someone who was able to maintain cordial, effective relations with most local and regional partners”, said Karim Bitar, professor of international relations at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut.

“He played a key role at a difficult juncture point. It was arguably one of the most difficult periods to be at the helm of such a crucial service”.

There were reports of behind the scenes efforts for Mr Ibrahim to extend his term past the retirement age, as has occasionally happened with senior officials.

But the cabinet of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that to extend the term would require an action that should take place in parliament, and the deeply divided legislature did not schedule a session for it.

Mr Ibrahim will step down amid an unprecedented governance vacuum and economic crisis in Lebanon.

Parliament has repeatedly failed to elect a new president after Michel Aoun stepped down at the end of his term in October. Mr Mikati’s cabinet has caretaker status and thus has limited powers at a time when Lebanon is struggling with one of the world's worst economic crises in modern times.

The Beirut Port blast in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed many parts of the capital has been seen as a symbol of decades of corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s elite that helped cause the 2019 economic crash.

Mr Ibrahim was one of eight Lebanese officials charged in January by a judge investigating the explosion.

Prof Bitar said Mr Ibrahim's "legacy will also be negatively affected" by this.

Mr Ibrahim's departure from the top job at General Security is not expected to be the end of his public life.

He has hinted that he would be interested in a ministerial portfolio, saying on Wednesday that “on the path of service to the nation, retirement and inaction are not on the agenda”.

“It is my national and professional duty to serve others and their rights," he said.

“Tomorrow, we will continue the path on several other grounds in order to raise Lebanon.”

Mr Ibrahim has also been talked of as a possible successor to long-time parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who is 85.

“I think that even though his term has expired, he will continue to be present on the political scene”, said Prof Bitar.

Mr Ibrahim’s profile has been raised by his mediation with Syria over westerners detained there.

They include the American journalist Austin Tice, who was last seen in Syria in 2012. Syria denies that it is holding Tice, as claimed by the US. The journalist's fate remains unknown.

Mr Ibrahim helped to secure the release of Samuel Goodwin in 2019, an American who was held for two months in Syria. Also in 2019, he mediated the release of Kristian Lee Baxter, a Canadian held in Syrian prisons for almost a year.

Updated: March 02, 2023, 12:55 PM