In the wake of unknown gunmen opening fire in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on the eve of the Eid el-Fitr holiday, the feast marking the end of Islam’s holy month of fasting, security concerns about the reverse flow of extremists from Syria were maximised.
Security and intelligence experts warn that extremists who return either band up into sleeper cells or operate as lone wolves. This threatens to set back any progress the Lebanese security and army forces have made on dismantling Isis terror cells that spilled into the small Levantine country from neighbouring war-torn Syria.
Army intelligence and internal security forces, after logging together multiple counter-terrorism victories, have been seriously diligent in conducting far-reaching sweeps, successful chases and swat operations to deter terror suspects all across Lebanon.
Many Syrian radicals who slipped past borders were arrested as a result of the effort.
But despite progress made on the counter-terrorism front, Lebanese Army Chief Joseph Aoun reaffirms the threat is still present, and that army units are working to thwart any potential terror plots.
On exposing and taking down terrorist cells, well-informed security experts, speaking under conditions of anonymity, confirmed to 7Dnews that extremists are no longer able to act in groups or communicate easily. Nevertheless, this plays out into exacerbating the risk of lone wolf attacks.
The latest counter-terrorism efforts yielded in Lebanese security teams dismantling a four-member Isis cell and the capture of a number of sole rover radicals.
Arrested early January, the sleeper cell was operating out of Metn and North Lebanon.
In a statement, the Army said it had arrested four Isis-linked Syrian nationals following an intelligence operation undertaken across Lebanon during the holiday period.
Cell members were said to have been operating in Metn and North Lebanon and to have been communicating with Isis leaders, and were subsequently referred to the judiciary.
The latest terror operation, carried out by Abdel Rahman Mabsout in Tripoli, showed that the threat of militants is still present in terms of them attacking as individuals.
Whilst leading a triple lone wolf attack that ended in a suicide bombing, Mabsout targeted security and military personnel, killing a military officer and two Internal Security Force (ISF) agents.
Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan, on Tuesday, June 4th, reaffirmed that the ISF is dedicated to facing and aborting threats of lone wolf terror attacks, an assault tactic troubling security agencies worldwide.
As for the latest attack, it was revealed that the assailant had fought alongside extremists in clashes against Lebanese army forces in 2014. He later, with the help of Turkey, was able to join armed rebel factions in Syria.
Upon returning to Lebanon in 2016, Mabsout was arrested by authorities and released the following year.
The hundreds of Lebanese expats who joined armed foreign extremist factions still surviving in Syria or Iraq, according to insider sources, represent one of the toughest challenges dogging Lebanon’s security apparatuses.
These civilians-turned-militants are heavily concentrated in north Syria’s Idlib province, where they were drafted into Al-Nusra Front, an ex-Qaeda affiliate. But after Isis lost its last Syrian enclave, some two months ago, remnant fighters chose to escape death in neighbouring Lebanon.
The first sign of Lebanese recruits joining extremist factions was detected in 2012, with dozens then getting killed in combat alongside extremist ranks. But there are no exact statistics on the number of Lebanese fighters who joined Isis. Most of these radicals, after Isis’ defeat in Syria’s east town of Baghouz, retreated to Idlib, where they joined a number of Turkey-backed rebel factions.
“There are hundreds of Lebanese in Idlib today, we do not know exactly how many, and we do not know how they are distributed among militant groups given the volatile changes in allegiances Syria underwent,” independent Lebanese researcher and expert on Islamist groups Ahmed Al-Ayoubi told 7Dnews.
Ayoubi, however, stressed that the Lebanese who joined Isis have been dropped completely off the grid, with no information found about their fate.
As for those wishing to return to Lebanon, Ayoubi said, “There is no collective reverse influx, but there are some who are trying to make the journey back on their own.”
The expert stressed that authorities are dealing with those returnees as terrorists, and are blacklisting and arresting them.
But security fears do not only arise from Lebanese radicals trying to return, but also from foreign extremists who are trying to escape defeat and death in Syria.
“They (foreign combatants) may seek to transit through Lebanon to reach their countries of origin in Europe,” security sources, speaking under conditions of anonymity, told 7Dnews.
“Lebanese army and security forces are aware of that possibility and are tightening measures near popular smuggling routes and at border crossings,” sources added.
In March, Lebanese authorities were tipped off by Western intelligence services about dozens of militants fleeing Syria to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon with the help of a human trafficking organisation.
Persistent border patrols are being run to counter such operations.
Intelligence and security efforts resulted in arresting Isis emir Ahmed Mansour Al-Khalaf, who served as a top-ranking official in the terror group. Detained in March, Khalaf was captured alongside an entourage of four terrorists trying to slip past borders.
A state decision to face the dangers of the reverse flow of terrorists has become more pronounced with Lebanese President Michel Aoun saying at a security meeting on Tuesday, June 4th, that “confronting terrorism is a continuous task which entails coordination and cooperation between the various organs.”
He also stressed “the importance of investigating suspects and taking pre-emptive security measures”.
During the past few months, regional smuggling jobs have been increasingly done across the Lebanese-Syrian borders, something which has forced stricter security measures by Lebanese authorities.