Exclusive - Lebanon Fears Return of Extremists from Syria’s Idlib

Exclusive - Lebanon Fears Return of Extremists from Syria’s Idlib

Monday, 29 October, 2018 - 09:15
A woman walks past damaged buildings in Syria's Idlib province on May 13, 2016. (Reuters)
Beirut - Nazeer Rida
Fears have emerged in Lebanon over the return of extremists from Syria and Iraq back to their Lebanese homeland. These concerns were voiced in wake a spike in smuggling operations from Syria to Lebanon.

Lebanese military sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the smuggling in the eastern Bekaa region, especially in the Sweiri village, are well known. The Lebanese army is, however, alert to these actions and is always patrolling the region. Infiltrators are constantly being arrested.

The infiltrations belie a greater threat, that of the return of Lebanese extremists in wake of terrorist groups’ mounting losses in the region.

Army Commander General Joseph Aoun has long warned of this phase and he has given orders to tighten security measures, especially given that the wars in the region are winding down, said the sources. The military has, therefore, upped its patrols along the border and its intelligence directorate has intensified its measures on the internal Lebanese scene to crackdown on potential security threats.

The threat of returning extremists was highlighted in January when the military arrested two former al-Nusra Front fighters in the northeastern region of Arsal. The arrest was followed by a security operation in February in the northern city of Tripoli’s Mankoubin neighborhood that left a soldier dead. ISIS returnee Abdullah Hajer was killed in the raid.

Lebanese started joining extremist groups active in Syria and Iraq back in 2012. Dozens of Lebanese were killed while fighting for the radicals in Syria’s western Homs countryside and northern Damascus countryside of al-Qalamoun. The number of ISIS recruits, meanwhile, surged in 2014. This was revealed after the group announced at the time that three Lebanese were killed in clashes against Kurds in Iraq and Syria and against Syrian regime forces near Deir Ezzour military airport in late 2014.

Informed sources in northern Lebanon estimated that hundreds of Lebanese fighters had headed to Syria and some 1,000 are still in its northern Idlib province. Most of them joined the Nusra Front. There are no estimates about the number of ISIS Lebanese members.

Northern Lebanon is considered a hub for fighters who had joined extremist groups. Thirty-four Lebanese suicide bombers, who had carried out their operations in Iraq, Syria, and even Lebanon, hailed from Tripoli’s Mankoubin neighborhood, one of the country’s poorest areas.

After ISIS lost most of the territory it seized during its lightening offensive in 2014, news about its Lebanese fighters and commanders came to a halt. Sources in northern Lebanon told Asharq Al-Awsat that the majority of those commanders were eliminated in Raqqa and other former ISIS-controlled regions in Syria. Several Lebanese fighters likely headed to Idlib, where they joined thousands of other fighters from across the globe.

Idlib was the subject of a recent deal between Turkey and Russia to spare it a regime offensive that would have been devastating for its population of some 3 million. The province also harbors thousands of extremist fighters.

It is believed that the Lebanese fighters would probably depart the region and return to their homeland through illegal smuggling routes. Smugglers reportedly demand $1,800 for their services.

Lebanese researcher of Islamist groups Ahmed al-Ayyoubi dismissed the fears over the returning fighters.

He explained to Asharq Al-Awsat that the majority of them are residing in Idlib, which is not controlled by the regime. They would prefer to remain there rather than return home, where authorities deem them as terrorists and where they are likely to end up in jail.

“We have long called for finding a secure way to return fighters, especially those who did not take part in the bloodshed,” he revealed. “Those individuals must be prepared to live within society’s rules and they will in turn be monitored and receive proper rehabilitation.”

“Up until this moment, the state is completely ignoring this file,” he lamented.

He expressed Lebanon’s fear that several fighters, who have grown accustomed to war and grown skilled in the use of arms, would seek to return to Lebanon.

“Would they be able to lead a normal life or will their extremist ideology prevent them from doing so?” he wondered. “This is a fundamental issue that must be addressed.”

“It is not simply enough to arrest the returnees, because this is not a strictly security file. We must not rule out the possibility that some of the figures, who occupied leading roles in extremist groups, would have ambitions to set up sleeper cells in Lebanon,” Ayyoubi warned.

He predicted that the fighters would not come back in groups because of the tightened border security, unless Hezbollah and the Syrian regime had other plans. He explained that the party and its ally could facilitate their return to Lebanon to exploit the extremist file for their own interests, creating a similar scenario as that of the Fatah al-Islam group back in 2007.

Moreover, he dismissed as “exaggerated” claims that Lebanese fighters in Syria and Iraq totalled 1,000.

“There are hundreds of Lebanese fighters in Idlib, but we do not have exact figures and do not know which groups they have joined. Syria is a constantly changing chessboard,” he explained.

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