June 26, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Momentum Carries ISIS Into Lebanon
Once again, Lebanon finds itself bleeding the wounds of another. The recent and continuing advancements in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are beginning to be felt in Lebanon, with the country seeing three attempted suicide bombings in the last week, allegedly by groups tied to ISIS. The lightning-quick “jihad-krieg” attacks by cells of ISIS across Iraq represent the greatest gains by a terrorist group in a decade. The rapid change of the ground truth reality in Iraq has emboldened groups in Lebanon that have fought alongside ISIS in Syria, groups such as the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam. These groups seek not only the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad but also seek a broader sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a as is being attempted now again in Iraq.
On June 25, Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) raided a hotel in downtown Beirut looking for members of a cell believed to be associated with ISIS. A Saudi national blew himself up before he could be arrested, with another Saudi now in custody. It is likely he was part of the cell targeted by another ISF raid on June 20, disrupting what they described as an assassination plot against Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. They detained a French national from Comoros Islands who reportedly stated he was one of four suicide bombers sent by ISIS. Also on June 20, a suicide car bomb—believed to be connected to the assassination plot—exploded at a checkpoint in eastern Lebanon, along the Beirut-Damascus highway. The chaos threatens to further destabilize Lebanon and is a serious cause of concern for the government.
Outside of the direct ISIS threat, groups such as the Brigade of Abdullah Azzam are now issuing threats against Lebanon, saying attacks will increase if Hizbollah doesn’t stop its armed support in Syria for Assad. Other Sunni extremist groups such as Jund as-Sham and Fatah al-Islam, active in Tripoli and Palestinian camps in Lebanon, are tied to ISIS/AQ and there is a high potential these groups seek to ride the wave of ISIS momentum into Lebanon. These groups, which share the same basic violent ideology, even if they differ on finer points, will seek to emulate whoever is seen as winning—in this case ISIS. These groups are less concerned with the doctrinal split between ISIS and AQ/al-Nusra as they are with establishing a Sunni state in Lebanon and waging sectarian war. An increased internal violent Sunni extremism combined with the still-raging civil war in Syria and a resurgent ISIS in Iraq would present any country with significant challenges, let alone one struggling with 1 million Syrian refugees and persistent sectarian conflict.
Lebanon is also affected in a unique way by the ISIS conquests in Iraq. Many Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters have been instrumental in helping Assad maintain some degree of power, especially in regions of eastern Damascus and Qalamoun. However, these Iraqi Shi’a militia are now being called back to Iraq to help with the ISIS threat approaching Baghdad. As a result, Hizbollah recruits are being sent into the region to help reverse recent rebel gains. This depletes the Hizbollah fighters available to meet the increased threat back home in Lebanon. In this light, ISIS gains in Iraq can be seen as altering not only the status of the relative stalemate in Syria but also the capabilities and numbers of Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon.
The three attacks have been disrupted before any of them reached their final target by a combination of alert security forces and the sharing of intelligence by international services. After the fall of Mosul, German intelligence reportedly provided threat information to the Lebanese government that helped disrupt the assassination plot against Speaker Berri. Furthermore, Lebanese ISF and Hizbollah officials are working closely to prevent successful attacks and avoid the sectarian war that ISIS and its Lebanese supporters and imitators seek to spark.
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