Is the “Islamic State” spillover in Lebanon inevitable?

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The recent rise of “The Islamic State”[i] (IS, or previously known as The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS)[ii] as one of the most powerful terrorist group has spread fears and concern amongst Western countries, but above all amongst neighbouring ones, notably Lebanon[iii]. The small fragile State that shares a border with Syria has been struggling with insecurities and spillover from the war next door. Burdened by more than a million Syrian refugees, unstable Palestinian camps and sectarian tensions, Lebanon seriously risks suffering the fallouts of the IS’s rise in the region. If not immediately, this could happen in the medium and long run and could take different forms.

Ever since the fall of Mosul (Iraq) in the hands of the IS on June 9 and the declaration of an Islamic caliphate[iv], events started to take a serious turn for the worst for western governments fighting al-Qaida, as well as neighbouring countries in the area, mainly Lebanon[v]. Lebanese Prime minister Tammam Salam tried in vain to reassure his fellow citizens about the stability in the country[vi]: a few days after his declaration, three months of relative calm were sidelined by one suicide attack in the Dahr al-Baidar (Eastern Lebanon) area on June 20, reminding Lebanon that the events in Iraq might have started to impact it[vii] (although the attack was claimed by the “Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade”[viii] and not the IS[ix]). Three days later, another car bomb hits the outskirts of the Southern suburb of Beirut, killing one and injuring more than 15 people[x]. On June 25 — the latest attack so far (also claimed by the Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade) — one suicide bomber blew himself up in  a hotel in Beirut, moments before security forces raided his room, while his accomplice was apprehended just on time[xi].

Former UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi’s predictions during an interview with Spiegel Online did not have to wait too long to be proven right: The war in Syria effectively spilled-over to Iraq, and to some extent so far, to Lebanon, after the diplomat has foreseen a “blow up” of the entire region[xii].

One important question should be answered in order to understand the dynamics of Lebanon in light of the Iraqi crisis: does the IS exist in Lebanon? A recording dating back to January 25, 2014, and distributed through various jihadist forums, declares the creation of the Lebanese branch of the IS, through an announcement made by Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari, a previously unknown Islamic figure[xiii]. Such hardly verifiable statement cannot suffice to prove the existence of the terrorist group in Lebanon. However, there is no doubt that the echoes of the group’s actions in Iraq resonate in many Sunni jihadist groups already present in Lebanon.

The country represents the ideal target for the IS, for “ideological and doctrinal reasons”: Hezbollah’s Shiia hegemony on the country is the main drive behind Lebanon being on the IS’ list. Second, the country is ideologically part of the “Sham” that the IS aspires to reconquer[xiv]. On June 17, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said that the party has saved Lebanon from having the IS in Beirut, which may underline the risks posed by the IS to the country. Of course, the statements of the head of the Party of god should be considered carefully, since they also serve political purposes, and might exaggerate the jihadism threat in order to rally more support around the Shiaa party[xv].

The successful attempt of Hezbollah, alongside the Syrian Arab Army, to secure the Syrian-Lebanese border, has undoubtedly provided Lebanon with some relative stability for the past three months[xvi]. The defeat of Syrian rebels and jihadists in areas such as the Qalamoun Mountains has made it almost impossible to smuggle car bombs into Lebanon. However, this relative calm lasted only until June 20, when a car bomb went off against an Internal Security Forces (ISF) checkpoint in the Bekaa region, and when three days later, another car bomb detonated on the outskirts of the Southern suburb of Beirut, Hezbollah’s stronghold, followed by the June 25 suicide attack in Beirut.

However, Hezbollah leaders have stressed that these attacks were only the result of remnants of terrorist activities in Lebanon[xvii]. If such statements prove to be untrue, then the country’s stability would have only been short-lived, paving way to more destabilisation in the near future. Moreover, one should not forget that the Syrian-Lebanese border might not stay forever in the hands of Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army. The volatile events in Syria have already proved that cities and towns can change hands several times over a short span of time.

Sleeping terror cells, although not directly affiliated with the IS, also seem to have waken up[xviii]. One explanation as to why the recent explosions in Lebanon occurred right after the IS’s rise in Iraq, might be the feeling of empowerment of some Lebanese Sunni jihadist cells, taking advantage of the momentum created by the Iraqi events, in order to wage renewed attacks against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and security forces have recently beefed up their security measures, in close cooperation with Hezbollah, and with the help of foreign intelligence agencies, in order to prevent instabilities in the country. Indeed, recent raids in Tripoli (Northern Lebanon) and Beirut have led to the arrest[xix] of several members of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades[xx] (who swore allegiance to the IS on June 30[xxi]), marking points in the fight against terrorism. So far, State security plans in Tripoli and Bekaa regions are holding on, despite the recent attack in Dahr al Baidar and Beirut and scattered incidents in the two regions. This might ease tensions in the country, as Sunni militia leaders have in a large part been apprehended or have left Tripoli, putting an end to Sunni armed rise in Lebanon’s second largest city, or at least temporarily.

Another rather spectacular operation was the raid against the Napoleon hotel in Hamra, Beirut; Lebanese security forces managed to arrest several dangerous individuals suspected of preparing imminent terrorist attacks against Lebanese Shiia House speaker Nabih Berry[xxii]. As a result of the raid, a French national hailing from the Comoros allegedly admitted being affiliated with the IS and plotting an imminent attack.

Such facts raise another issue for Lebanon: the foreign jihadist fighters. Europe has already started facing the problem of the return of its citizens from Syrian and other battlefields, coming back home to wage jihad on their national soil. However, the case of this French fighter going to Lebanon instead of Syria, signals that Lebanon might have become a battlefield for foreign jihadists. Another worrying potential issue for Lebanon is the return of its own Lebanese jihadists who went to fight in Syria. Such a problem is usually underestimated in neighbouring countries, although the numbers of Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi fighters there should raise concerns[xxiii]. Mr. Brahimi’s take on the issue probably underlines best the seriousness of the problem: “Syria is so much worse! This ISIS, they don’t believe in just staying there. And they are training people. Your countries are terribly scared that the few Europeans that are there may come back and create all sorts of problems. So just imagine what the feelings are next door![xxiv].

Considering again the regional context and the Iraqi crisis, Lebanon might suffer more, in case Hezbollah decides to intervene in Iraq. Such a move by the Party of God will inevitably exacerbate sectarian tensions in Lebanon and fuel up Sunni feelings of oppression[xxv]. Furthermore, it might also erode Hezbollah’s popular base, since the Party might need to send more troops to Syria after Iraqi pro-Syrian regime fighters are going back to defend Nuri al Maliki’s regime in Iraq.

Adding to the complexity of the Lebanese scene are the Palestinian camps in the country. Composed mostly of Sunnis, hardliners are also found in these camps, and they can hardly be monitored or controlled by the State[xxvi]. The fact that numerous Palestinians were implicated in recent bombings in Lebanon, highlights the urgency of addressing this problem in order to prevent further attacks.

Moreover, the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is another factor that needs to be tackled immediately, for both humanitarian and security concerns. Syrian refugees in Lebanon, now estimated around 1,1 million[xxvii], surely constitute a suitable environment for extremism, bearing in mind the poor living conditions they suffer. Moreover, some refugees might be fervent supporters of the IS. Others might only sympathise with the group as a result of feelings of oppression from the Syrian regime, and in some cases the Lebanese State and/or people.

Finally, Lebanon’s political crisis might suffer from the Iraqi crisis. So far hardly manageable, the political deadlock in the country might soon become unbearable as more attacks might plague Lebanon. A prolonged institutional vacuum in the country could lead to further instability, especially when security measures and institutions are crippled by the vacuum. A National security council for instance cannot be held unless there is a head of State. Terrorist groups will surely not miss such an occasion to profit from political gaps in order to push forward their jihadist agenda.

Lebanese Armed Forces and security agencies have made notable progress against terrorist groups in Lebanon, in cooperation with Hezbollah. Several arrests and actions have been carried out, which have significantly reduced the jihadist threat. Nevertheless, the June 20, 23 and 25 attacks prove that Lebanon is still not totally safe. Groups with no link or ties to the IS, but who share the same ideologies and goals, and who might feel emboldened by the IS’s advance in Iraq, might destabilise Lebanon in the near future.

One slogan raised by some IS fighters in Iraq after their June 9 offensive might also send chills down Lebanese security agencies’ spine : “We will come to liberate you from Roumieh” (in reference to Islamic detainees in the Lebanese prison of Roumieh)[xxviii].

Photo credit: (Yaser Al-Khodor/Courtesy Reuters)


[i] The Guardian, Mark Tran and Matthew Weaver, Isis announces Islamic caliphate in area straddling Iraq and Syria, June 30, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/30/isis-announces-islamic-caliphate-iraq-syria

[ii] The New York Times, What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on Ss and Ls, June 18, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/world/middleeast/islamic-state-in-iraq-and-syria-or-islamic-state-in-iraq-and-the-levant.html?_r=1.

[iii] By referring to the IS, we are also taking into consideration that other jihadist groups and Sunni tribes are affiliated with the IS in its insurgency. For this matter, please refer to the following article : Sada Journal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hassan Hassan, More Than ISIS, Iraqs Sunni Insurgency, June 17, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2014/06/17/more-than-isis-iraq-s-sunni-insurgency/hdvi

[iv] The Guardian, op. cit.

[v] Al-Monitor, Jean Aziz, 3 Reasons Lebanon Fears ISIS Advance, June 17, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/06/17/3-reasons-lebanon-fears-isis-advance

[vi] L’Orient-Le Jour, Salam : la situation sécuritaire est sous contrôle, June 16, 2014, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/872009/salam-la-situation-securitaire-est-sous-controle.html

[vii] The Daily Star, Suicide bomber kills police officer in east Lebanon, June 20, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jun-20/260883-suicide-attack-hits-lebanese-police-checkpoint-in-dahr-al-baidar.ashx#axzz35Nyl9P18

[viii] The Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade is a Lebanon based Salafist Islamist group that views Hezbollah as representative of Shiite supremacy that must be violently opposed. (http://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/free-sunnis-baalbek-brigade?ip_login_no_cache=434eaaccf1685bd1ac2eb803df71cc1d)

[ix] NOW, Suicide bomber targets Dahr
al-Baydar ISF checkpoint, June 20, 2014,
https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/lebanonnews/552374-suicide-bomber-targets-dahr-al-baydar-isf-checkpoint

[x] The Daily Star, Youssef Diab, Officer killed, 25 wounded in Beirut suicide blast, June 24, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jun-24/261342-nighttime-beirut-bombing-wounds-15-red-cross.ashx#axzz35a9iMumH

[xi] NOW, Suicide bombing rocks Beirut hotel, June 25, 2014, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/lebanonnews/553251-terror-strikes-beirut-hotel

[xii] Spiegel Online, Interview with UN Peace Envoy Brahimi: ‘Syria Will Become Another Somalia, June 7, 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-former-un-peace-envoy-to-syria-lakhdar-brahimi-a-974036.html

[xiii] Gulf News, Jihadist announces creation of Isil branch in Lebanon, January 25, 2014, http://gulfnews.com/news/region/lebanon/jihadist-announces-creation-of-isil-branch-in-lebanon-1.1282154

[xiv] Al-Monitor, Jean Aziz, op.cit.

[xv] The Daily Star, Nasrallah: ISIS in Beirut if not for Hezbollah, June 17, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jun-17/260442-nasrallah-isis-in-beirut-if-not-for-hezbollah.ashx#axzz351DVGh3k

[xvi] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada Journal, Alex Rowell, Is Lebanon Winning Against Al-Qaeda?, May 13, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2014/05/13/is-lebanon-winning-against-al-qaeda/hap7

[xvii] The Daily Star, Hezbollah hails security forces’ response to Friday’s suicide bombing, June 22, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jun-22/261085-hezbollah-mps-react-to-fridays-suicide-bombing.ashx#axzz35Nyl9P18

[xviii] L’Orient-Le Jour, Suzanne Baaklini, Avancée de Daech en Irak : quelles répercussions au Liban ?, June 12, 2014, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/871438/avancee-de-daech-en-irak-quelles-repercussions-au-liban-.html

[xix] L’Orient-Le Jour, Arrestation d’individus affiliés aux Brigades Abdallah Azzam à Beyrouth et Tripoli, June 20, 2014, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/872723/arrestation-dindividus-affilies-aux-brigades-abdallah-azzam-a-beyrouth-et-tripoli.html

[xx] Check the following link for a BBC profile of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades : http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25005417

[xxi] Twitter, @Ahrarsunab3lbek, June 30, 2014, https://twitter.com/Ahrarsunab3lbek/status/483583692192116737

[xxii] The Daily Star, Hashem Osseiran, Police raid Beirut hotel in search for suspects, 17 arrested, June 20, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jun-20/260875-police-surround-beirut-hotel-in-search-for-suspects.ashx

[xxiii] The Huffington Post, Matthew Markman, Ticking Time Bomb: Jordan’s Islamists and the Rise of ISIS in the Hashemite Kingdom, May 12, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mathew-markman/ticking-time-bomb-jordans_b_5275208.html

[xxiv] Spiegel Online, Susanne Koelbl, Interview with UN Peace Envoy Brahimi: ‘Syria Will Become Another Somalia, June 7, 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-former-un-peace-envoy-to-syria-lakhdar-brahimi-a-974036.html

[xxv] L’Orient-Le Jour, Philippe Abi-Akl, Le Liban entre frayeur jihadiste et insurrection sunnite, June 19, 2014, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/872487/le-liban-entre-frayeur-jihadiste-et-insurrection-sunnite.html

[xxvi] LBCI, مخاوف من استيقاظ الخلايا النائمة في عين الحلوة, Makhawef min Istikaz al Khalaya al Na’ima fi Ain al Helwe (Fears of sleeping cells waking up in Ain al Helwe) , June 17, 2014, http://www.lbcgroup.tv/news/161175/مخاوفمناستيقاظالخلاياالنائمةفيعينالحلوة

[xxvii] UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response, accessed on June 22, 2014, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122

[xxviii] L’Orient-Le Jour, Suzanne Baaklini, op.cit.

About Author

Matthieu Karam

Matthieu Karam is a contributor to the International Security Observer (ISO). He is a web journalist at the French-speaking Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour in Beirut. Karam holds a Master‘s degree from the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po, with a focus on Intelligence and the Middle East, and a BA in Political and Administrative Sciences from Université Saint Joseph (USJ) in Beirut. He has interned at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where he worked on the Syrian crisis focusing on grassroots movements and military brigades. He also interned for several Lebanese ministries and participated in the launch of a Lebanese observatory of international conflicts in the Arab world. Karam is a native French and Arabic speaker, fluent in English, with an elementary knowledge of German.

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