In recent weeks, Lebanese media reports, mostly based on security sources, have expressed concern about the prospect of attacks by the Islamic State group. In the past year, young men, estimated at 35–40, have left their homes in northern Lebanon to join the ranks of the jihadi group in Syria and Iraq, where they’ve received training and are sending money back to their families. Another group was reportedly stopped after parents alerted the security forces. The Lebanese military has also arrested an Islamic State operative who used the pseudonym “Baghdadi” and was connected to bombing plots.
The numbers remain generally small compared to the hundreds who joined the organization and other militant groups during the Syrian conflict. But there is a lack of clarity about the real number and the actual goal of the Islamic State. Will these men’s activities be restricted to Syria and Iraq, or are there plans for operations in Lebanon? Last month, a seventeen-year-old who had been recruited online was arrested and charged with plotting an attack in the north.
The severity of the multiple crises in the country makes tracking the men difficult. Many Lebanese and some Palestinian refugees have reportedly left their homes, and the assumption is either that they have joined the Islamic State or have taken the treacherous boat trip to Turkey or Europe. The number of Lebanese jailed in Turkey for entering illegally can now be numbered in the dozens and is growing.
Lebanon is facing its worst ever financial and economic crises. The salaries and budgets of the army and the security forces have been severely hit as the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value. This raises doubts about whether these institutions have the means to face a serious security challenge. One sign of the change is that the security threat now seems larger outside the Palestinian refugee camps than inside, as factions working with the Palestinian Fatah movement are better funded than the Lebanese army and security forces, which require humanitarian assistance.
Prior to the crisis, which began in October 2019, the Palestinian camps saw increasing clashes and the rise of radical Islamist groups. Some of these groups remain active, but are geographically confined and “controlled,” as Fatah and its offshoots remain dominant. According to the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Lebanese government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the refugee camps remain off limits to the Lebanese army and security forces, which coordinate with a Fatah-led Palestinian factions committee to contain jihadi and criminal activities inside these areas. While the agreement was later annulled by the Lebanese government, the modus vivendi it put in place with regard to the security situation in the camps has continued to apply, with the notable exception of the army’s takeover of the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007.
Lebanon’s multilayered problems are complicating the crackdown on new Islamic State recruits. This was evident in the way that the security services dealt with the few dozen young men who were stopped from leaving the country to join the group. They were reportedly handed back to their families with a warning, according to sources in the north. One explanation by the security forces is that the youths were motivated less by ideology than by the salaries they expected to earn. Another was more practical: The security forces don’t have the means to manage the recruits once they are placed in the overstretched prison system. As a sign of this, in the last two years two large-scale prison breaks have taken place in Lebanon.
In 2019, the military and security forces had more resources, and would have reacted differently. There are growing fears that the military lacks the capacity and morale to confront another Islamist challenge, on the scale of the fight against Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp or the Fajr al-Juroud operation against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in 2017. At the same time, challenges of that nature don’t seem to be on the horizon for now, as the Syrian and Lebanese militaries are mostly in control of Lebanon’s eastern borders, alongside Hezbollah.
However, the Islamic State threat remains plausible, especially as the regional trend suggests a resurgence of the group after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. On November 9, Egypt hosted an extraordinary meeting of the Arab Intelligence Forum, which was established this year by Egypt as a multilateral intelligence-sharing body. Intelligence chiefs from 22 Arab states, including Lebanon, discussed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the potential resurgence of Islamist militancy. An Islamic State resurgence is a reality, as attacks during the past weeks suggest. In northern Iraq, the Islamic State conducted a series of attacks earlier this month, and took over a town for 24 hours, until it was recaptured by Kurdish fighters. In eastern Syria, the group has also launched a series of successful attacks, targeting soldiers, oil workers, and an Iranian military advisor, among others. So, the threat is real and growing in Syria and Iraq, even if it remains limited in Lebanon.
An Islamic State resurgence in Lebanon would also be convenient for the Lebanese political class, in three ways. First, any violence would justify postponing the parliamentary elections next year and decrease international pressure to organize them on time. This would help Hezbollah and its allies maintain their current majority in parliament for longer than the four-year term. Second, the political class would expect more regional and international aid to combat the Islamic State, without having to introduce reforms and meet the conditions of international donors. And third, an Islamic State revival and any ensuing violence would help realign the population behind the country’s sectarian leaderships and sectarian politics in general. This would further undermine any impulse for change in the country.
The threat of the Islamic State might be real and worrisome. But it is also politically convenient for Lebanon’s sectarian leaders. In a country where such leaders have pursued their interests and survival over a mountain of public suffering, the Islamic State phenomenon could soon be about much more than attacks against civilians.