BEIRUT: The profile of General Security has risen dramatically following a deadly bombing in the southern suburbs of Beirut last week, signaling a revival of the work of a key security branch. But the development doesn’t necessarily herald a budding war between the country’s numerous intelligence bodies, according to experts.
They argue that the precarious security situation and the risk of seeing Lebanon become another Iraq has prompted various security agencies – even those considered as rivals – to join efforts in a bid to prevent the country from slipping into chaos.
Military expert Nizar Abdel-Qader expressed the view that competition among security bodies to safeguard security and uncover terrorist and criminal cells is “a healthy and dynamic sign.”
For Omar Nashabe, an academic specialized in criminal justice, “healthy and constructive competition between security institutions is only normal ... At this point everyone is extremely cautious and security agencies have shown solidarity in their efforts to safeguard the country.”
Over the weekend, General Security arrested several members of a car-bombing ring in the region of Naameh, south of Beirut, and confiscated an Audi rigged with 250 kilograms of explosives that the men were preparing.
General Security has also been active in arresting members of gangs that forge official documents and license plates, which security sources believe are closely linked to terrorist activity across the country.
Last week, a car bomb attack in the south Beirut suburb of Ruwaiss killed 30 people and wounded hundreds.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes major security incidents such as the Ruwaiss explosion to produce public support for divulging security information or making arrests,” said a senior intelligence source who did not wish to be identified.
In addition to the problem of Lebanon’s multiple state security bodies, the organizations have taken on specific political labels in recent years, which translates into significant limitations to their efficiency in combating crime and making arrests.
In May, the reaction was violent in Tripoli when General Security arrested Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist accused of funneling money to Syrian rebels.
Meanwhile, attempts by the Information Branch – the intelligence arm of the Internal Security Forces – to establish law and order are largely frowned upon by the supporters of the March 8 alliance.
Established in 2005 following the assassination of late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Information Branch is seen as being affiliated with the Future Movement and the March 14 alliance. Conversely, Lebanon’s Army Intelligence is identified as being backed by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
The top post at General Security was traditionally reserved for the Maronite community but shifted to the Shiites in 1998, when then-President Emile Lahoud ignored custom by appointing his long-term Army colleague, Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, to the position.
In light of the country’s notorious sectarian power-sharing system, the heads of various security agencies, although appointed by the government, usually require the informal backing of the dominant figures of their sects for these promotions to the top of their organizations.
The current head of General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, is no exception. His opponents accuse him of maintaining close ties with Hezbollah, saying this explains his organization’s ability to achieve successes.
Moreover, Hezbollah’s detractors accuse the party of working to boost the capabilities of General Security to counter the influence and efficiency of the ISF’s Information Branch.
Nashabe said that Hezbollah’s security wing, the Liaison Unit, preserved “good ties” with Lebanon’s multiple security agencies, including the Information Branch.
He added that Hezbollah has engaged in a “practical and pragmatic” policy on the security front, and has often acknowledged the capabilities and competence of the Information Branch, despite periodic episodes of tension and criticism of its behavior.
“Was Hezbollah bothered when the Information Branch uncovered Israeli spying cells? Is the party bothered by the Information Branch going after those who are launching rockets on populated areas?” Nashabe asked. “I don’t think so.”
According to Nashabe, preserving stability falls directly in Hezbollah’s interest. “It is in the interest of Hezbollah that stability is maintained in the country because this protects the resistance.”
The senior intelligence source said that while the ISF’s share of the state budget has amounted to approximately LL1 billion per month, that of General Security hasn’t exceeded LL80 million. Also, the source said, while the Information Branch can draw on the services of roughly 1,200 personnel, only 300 General Security members are tasked with following up on security-related missions.
“No matter what efforts it exerts, Hezbollah cannot compensate for the lack of personnel, equipment and funding that General Security suffers from,” the source said.
General Security functions as a passport and border control organization, as well as a security agency that is tasked with combating crime and terrorism. Therefore, the body is asked to amass a variety of political, economic and security information and report back to the government.
General Security witnessed what many people termed a renaissance during the tenure of Sayyed, who restructured the entity and considerably reinforced its abilities before he resigned in 2005, following accusations of alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination.
It witnessed a considerable slow-down during the mandate of the late Wafic Jezzini between 2005 and 2010, only to regain momentum with Ibrahim.
Experts agree that Ibrahim’s dynamic personality and his experience as the deputy head of Army Intelligence, as well as a wide range of contacts he draws on, all work to explain General Security’s recent successes.
“General Security is the security agency with the widest-ranging prerogatives in Lebanon,” Abdel-Qader said. “Ibrahim is totally aware of the major security role his institution can play, and he is determined to bolster this role and avoid past mistakes.”
Ibrahim has involved himself in a number of crucial issues since he assumed his duties. In 2012, he secured the repatriation of the bodies of a Lebanese group who were killed in an ambush by the Syrian army en route to join rebel groups fighting there. He also negotiated the release of Hassan Srour, a member of the group, with Syrian authorities. More recently, Ibrahim has been involved in negotiating a swap to ensure the release of nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who continue to be held hostage by a rebel group in northern Syria. His efforts have yet to bear fruit.
In Nashabe’s view, even those who are dissatisfied with General Security regaining its role, will not be vocal about their opinions.
“They might not support General Security and might have criticism on its performance,” he said. “But the country is going through rough times and the opposition won’t be as fierce as before.”