Lebanese security agencies controlled by rival religious sects are coordinating more closely than at any time since the end of the country’s long-running civil war as concerns of further jihadist bomb attacks mount.
In a Thursday interview with Reuters, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said the “danger of bombings is still there” despite recent security successes in identifying jihadists planning attacks and the recent arrests of seven of them.
The interior minister said events in Iraq, where jihadists have been spearheading a widespread Sunni Muslim insurgency, have exacerbated the threat of sectarian conflict in Lebanon and emboldened like-minded militants.
“We must admit that what has happened in Iraq has caused great excitement among these groups that believe they can benefit from the Iraqi experience,” Machnouk said. “They think they can carry out similar operations in Lebanon.”
The interior minister confirmed that the Islamic State of Syria and Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaida splinter group fighting in Iraq and Syria, now has a presence in Lebanon.
Fears have mounted that the radical ISIL militants, who last month declared a caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq, may seek to turn Lebanon into a third front in a bid to put pressure on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite movement, to withdraw fighters from Syria. Hezbollah forces have been a key component in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's gains against the insurgency.
ISIL is just one of several militant Sunni groups operating in Lebanon. Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is also present, say security officials. Sunni militants have mounted more than a dozen bomb attacks in Lebanon in the past year, mainly targeting Hezbollah strongholds. Their attacks, which tapered off in the winter, are spiking again.
In recent weeks Lebanon witnessed a spate of suicide bombings, including one at a police checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway in which a policeman was killed and 33 people wounded. The target appears to have been Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon's general security agency, whose convoy was roughly 200 meters from the blast.
A separate suicide bombing struck a busy, predominantly Shi'ite suburb, and on 26 June a suicide bomber blew himself up in a four-star Beirut hotel as security personnel prepared to storm his room.
According to intelligence documents leaked to Ad-Diyar, jihadists have been attempting to recruit members from Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps and establish a base at the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Sidon, in the country's south.
VOA reported last week that Lebanon’s security chiefs were becoming anxious about the heightened level of jihadist activity in the dozen camps housing 400,000 Palestinians. The camps were set up for Palestinian refugees fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Although the camps are self-policing, Palestinian officials who declined to be named for this article say Lebanese security forces have secretly deployed elite units within the camps. The elite units, the Palestinian officials say, are operating with the endorsement of Palestinian camp chiefs.
One of the reasons for the Lebanese army’s fears over Ain Helweh and the other Palestinian camps is that they have played prominent roles in the history of violence in Lebanon, having been used in the past by extremist groups. In 2007 the camp at Nahr al-Bared was taken over by the Islamist Fatah al-Islam, triggering a three-month-long siege by the Lebanese army in the most severe internal fighting in Lebanon since the country’s 1975–1990 civil war.
Lebanon’s Christian leaders are also increasingly worried that jihadists will expand their targets to include Maronite Christians in order to sow more sectarian turmoil. A recent series of threats against Christians issued by an obscure Sunni militant group known as the Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigades, in the Beqaa Valley, has added to Christian apprehension.
In one Tweet, the self-styled Baalbek Brigades said “a special group from the free mujahedeen was assigned to free the Islamic emirate of the Beqaa in specific and Lebanon in general from the churches of the polytheists.”
“This group will work on targeting the crusaders... in order to stop the bells of the polytheists’ churches from ringing,” said another Tweet.
Lebanese security chiefs have sought to allay Christian fears, arguing the Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigades is a fake group. But Wadi Al-Khazen, head of Lebanon’s Central Council of Maronite Societies, remains concerned about sectarian violence directed against Christians and has called on Arab governments for protection.
And the Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Zahleh and Ferzul, Issam John Darwish, said in a statement the responsibility for the protection of Christians in Lebanon “falls on Muslims in general and Sunnis in particular.”
The Lebanese state news agency reported Monday that 21 jihadists have been charged in absentia with planning attacks.
The high level of coordination between Lebanon’s security agencies stands in contrast to the political deadlock over selecting a new president for the country. After a new government was formed this winter, thanks to behind-the-scenes talks between major regional players Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreement over picking a head of state to succeed retired Gen. Michel Sleiman, whose term ended in May, has proven elusive.
Under Lebanon’s power-sharing order the head of state has to be a Christian.