Lebanon is one of the region’s constantly unstable countries but has been able to remain relatively peaceful during this turbulent period in the Middle East’s history. This doesn’t mean that it hasn’t witnessed a rise in jihadist activity over the past years but not on a scale as seen in Iraq and Syria; however, there has been a lot of worrying signs regarding Islamic State cells in various areas especially with the group’s decline elsewhere. This paper aims to see evaluate the situation of the Islamic State in Lebanon as a whole, its hotspots, the reasons for Sunni sympathy with the group, and whether expansions plans are feasible or not.
Lebanon has witnessed a huge rise in terrorist cells since the start of the Syrian war with both Sunnis and Shiites fighting on opposing sides in the conflict. According to Salafi sheikhs from Tripoli and the Bekaa, it is estimated that around 800-1,000 Lebanese Sunnis and Palestinian refugees have gone to Syria to support the opposition while reports state that around 7,000-1,0000 members from Hezbollah are also fighting in Syria to support the Assad regime.
The activity of jihadists in Lebanon was divided by Alami into five phases: recruitment of Lebanese Sunnis to fight Hezbollah in Syria as of 2012 through networks formed by Zahran Alloush, Jaish al Islam’s former leader, and the relations between the residents of Tripoli and Syrian opposition fighters. For example, Khalid Mahmoud from Jund al Sham is originally from the Mankoubin area in Tripoli and has personally recruited several dozens to fight in Syria. The second phase is attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon through a series of explosives and bombs targeting Shiite areas which are largely supportive of the group as seen in the Bekaa, Bir al Abed, and Iranian embassy… The third phase is the targeting of the Lebanese Army whose campaign against jihadist groups was seen as converging with the interests of Hezbollah. This was translated into road-side bombs against Lebanese soldiers, clashes in Tripoli and Saida, and a large attack on the border town of Ersal. The fourth phase is the regrouping of Islamic State and Al Nusra Front militants in rural border areas between Lebanon and Syria such as the barren mountains of Ersal and Qalamoun. The fifth and final phase saw an increase in activity of cells related to the Islamic State at the expense of Al Nusra Front in Lebanon especially since the Islamic State has seen a growing popularity in specific Sunni circles such as the marginalized youth in Tripoli, Bekaa Valley, and Palestinian refugee camps. This is coupled with the return of some of the Lebanese fighters who went to Syria previously and the very large number of refugees who could be infiltrated by Islamic State members.
Shortly after the Syrian war began, Sunni extremists gained ground in Lebanon and were being funded by very wealthy people. For instance, local Salafist sheikhs began driving new SUVs, and their followers started carrying expensive weapons. This also coincided with the rise in influence and control of radical Islamists inside Roumieh prison. This backing and funding from local and foreign figures was seen as a counter to Hezbollah’s growing role both inside Lebanon and outside through supporting Assad in Syria.
The section of Roumieh prison which holds Islamist detainees, also referred to as an “emirate”, is largely off-limits to prison guards and has members of different Islamist groups such as Al Nusra Front, Fatah al Islam, and the Islamic State. Sharia law is enforced in varying degrees and fatwas are even issued to organize the actions of the followers inside and outside the prison. This level of freedom was highlighted with the links that emerged between the inmates of block B and the suicide bombings in the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen. In spite of attempts made to better control the Islamist section of the prison, any concrete action to limit their power and communication abilities could be faced with reprisals and violent objections (blocking roads and burning tires) by their families and supporters on the outside. A further indication of the importance of the prisoners is the specific mentioning of the issue by the Islamic State and Al Nusra Front in their media publications which call for their “liberation”. Threats were even made to the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers if the Islamist prisoners were harmed in any way.
The socioeconomic and political situation of the Sunni community in Lebanon could be a factor in pushing some of its members, especially youth, to being sympathetic with the Islamic State. The Sunnis lost their military power after the defeat of the PLO during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and in spite of gaining power with the rise of Rafic El Hariri in the 1990s and early 2000s; his assassination had a devastating effect. This culminated with the May 2008 clashes where Hezbollah and allies occupied the Sunni areas west of Beirut in a matter of hours. The level of sympathy definitely varies between different areas such as Tripoli and Beirut, with Tripoli being much poorer and underdeveloped which makes its residents more responsive to such ideas. The frustration of the Lebanese Sunnis kept increasing with what was seen as constant concessions by Saad el Hariri and the rapid rise in popularity of Salafi cleric Ahmad el Assir until his armed group was destroyed by the Lebanese Army in clashes in Sidon in 2013.
Another area of concern is the cooperation between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah which aggravates the tensions even further. Sunnis draw comparison between their situation under the hegemony of Hezbollah and the somehow similar scenario in Iraq and Syria of their coreligionists. Marginalized areas continue to be a possible breeding ground for cells linked to the Islamic State, and no one doubts their already-existent presence in many areas across Lebanon.
This could be linked to the arguments calling for formal and direct cooperation between the Lebanese and Syrian Army. Such a move could have a positive effect on the ability of Lebanese security agencies to protect the border and monitor the activities of Islamic State militants in both Lebanese and Syrian territories; however, it could also exacerbate the already existent feeling of harassment among the Lebanese Sunnis.
A Sunni sheikh who monitors the activities of fundamentalist groups in the North of Lebanon, speaking on the condition of anonymity, stated that there is a degree of willingness among a certain part of the population who adhere to the thoughts of the Islamic State to fight alongside it in case of a military expansion into Lebanon. He indicates that they are present in almost all Sunni areas in the Bekaa, Palestinian camps, and Syrian refugee camps. Their numbers are low but can have a devastating effect especially since they are acting from within rather than from the outside.
It has been reported by the media and some commanders in the Lebanese Army that the Islamic State has the goal of reaching the Mediterranean Sea through the North of Lebanon by exploiting the Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions and divisions in the country. The viability of such option has been dismissed as virtually impossible by analysts who pointed out that for the Islamic State to reach the Mediterranean Sea, they would have to drive out Hezbollah from large parts of the Bekaa Valley, defeat the Lebanese Army, and earn the support of the whole Sunni community in Akkar and Tripoli to break away from the Lebanese government.
On the other hand, due to the diminishing control of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the group could attempt to stage attacks in Lebanon with the hopes of breaking through in an area or another. It is difficult to do so using conventional means since its fighters are isolated in the Northeast of Lebanon and almost certainly cannot break through the defenses of Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army at the border; however, they might use non-conventional tactics. It has been reported by sources close to the security forces and Hezbollah that hundreds of Lebanese members fighting for the Islamic State have been sent back to Lebanon to establish cells in Tripoli, Akkar, Wadi Khaled, and the Bekaa Valley where recruits are allegedly being offered around $50 per week. LISTER
The Islamic State has established a heavy presence in the barren Ersal and Qalamoun areas on the Lebanese –Syrian border which could be used as a launching pad for an incursion into Lebanon. The last checkpoint for the Lebanese Army lies in Wadi Hamid, and beyond it, in the barren mountains, the Islamic State and Al Nusra Front rule. Recent clashes between the two groups indicate a turf war in an attempt to gain more influence. Hundreds of fighters use the mountains as cover and safe havens from the bombardment of the Lebanese Army, patrols are done, and spoils such as food and fuel are seized. This presence and recruitment is no doubt a preparation for something in the future, and perhaps the recent attacks in Qaa are a test-run and just the tip of the iceberg.
Another powerful card held by the Islamic State is the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers who could be used as a bargaining chip in possible future negotiations. The latest unconfirmed information regarding their fate indicated that they were moved from the barren mountains of Ersal to Raqqa in Syria.
Ain el Helwe, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, has attracted a lot of attention in recent years due to reports indicating the possible presence of cells tied to the Islamic State and Al Nusra Front. In spite of the relative control of the camp by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and pro-Assad groups, the Syrian war has disrupted the camp’s stability and power balance. This disruption has been seen repeatedly with assassinations and clashes between PLO and Islamist militants that have increased in intensity every time. As a result, a Palestinian Joint Security Force which comprises seventeen armed factions from different ideological backgrounds was formed to prevent a confrontation between the rising radical Islamic groups and the Lebanese Army, as seen in Naher el Bared in 2007 with Fatah al Islam. This security force includes relatively moderate Islamist factions which play a leading role in negotiating disputes with the more radical groups. These negotiations usually provide temporary peace agreements; however, this does not tackle the root of the problem which is the poor socio-economic situation of the camp which has only gotten worse over the past years due to the influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Syria. This has strained the abilities of relief agencies and those managing the camp. Such environment makes it easier for radical groups to attract and recruit new members which will definitely cause bigger problems on the long-run.
According to intelligence figures following the camp, key members of the Islamic State in Ain el Helwe are Imad Yassine and Bilal Badr who are in contact with the Raqqa leadership of the group. The reported aim is to launch attacks in the South, establish a degree of control inside the camp, and expand towards Sidon to cut off the road linking Hezbollah’s areas in Beirut with the South in order to force a new balance of power on the ground. In spite of reassurances from Palestinian and Islamist forces in the camp that it’s almost impossible for the Islamic State to establish control over Ain el Helwe, the group seems keen on using its safe haven inside the camp as a base for its operations.
The failure of the Islamic State to retain control of Ersal and expand into further areas, as well as the stalemate in its presence in the barren mountains bordering Lebanon and Syria, may have pushed the group to change its tactics. The increasing media and security reports stating the presence of newly established Islamic State cells in different areas in the country, and the fear of these cells succeeding in launching attacks if activated, seem to confirm the assumption that the group has accelerated its plan to attempt to expand into Lebanon especially since there appears to be an international decision to increase pressure so that it’s contained and defeated in Syria and Iraq.
The cells that are active in the country, whether in Tripoli, Ain el Helwe, or refugee camps…, do not seem to have the manpower or adequate popular support to exert control over a significant area in a public manner. This shows that these cells could be used as a support tool to provide a distraction and cause chaos in case of an another attempted external attack through the border. On the other hand, they could be used as a pressure tool through well-targeted attacks that exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite tensions in order to amass enough support thus enabling them to exert control, even if temporarily, over strategic locations (as seen with the Ain el Helwe alleged plan stated previously) which could cause a damage to the power balance in the country, especially against Hezbollah.
An international blanket is preserving Lebanon’s stability at the moment as seen with the increased security, military, and intelligence cooperation between major powers and Lebanon’s different agencies. This international support has succeeded until now in fending off the Islamic State’s suspected plans to target the country in widespread attacks during Ramadan this year, but it remains to be seen whether this will continue to be the case or not.
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