BEIRUT: The porous frontiers by Arsal, the overcrowded quarters of Roumieh prison and the labyrinthine confines of Ain al-Hilweh: These are Lebanese areas that could one day compromise national security, according to the Interior Ministry.
Each presents unique conundrums for security forces and the Lebanese Army and, given their operational realities, entails fundamentally different challenges, experts and government sources told The Daily Star.
In Arsal, the site of five-day clashes between Islamist militants from Syria and the Army, the rough terrain and dense urban zone is the primary challenge, whereas in Ain al-Hilweh, it’s a matter of knowing who’s who, and in Roumieh, of enacting stricter measures and speeding up Lebanon’s sluggish judicial process.
“It’s the broad borders of Arsal,” an Interior Ministry source said, describing the trials ahead for the security forces in containing the designated areas.
“It’s the mix of [fundamentalist] groups in Ain al-Hilweh, including Osbat al-Ansar.”
“And Roumieh,” the source, who requested anonymity, added, “is becoming the headquarters of all terrorism operations.”
The success of a Cabinet-backed security plan that went into effect in Tripoli in March accounted for the conspicuous absence of the northern city, which has seen 20 rounds of clashes since 2008, on the list, the source said.
Overreliance on the Lebanese Army to make up for the role normally assumed by police, however, will add more pressure on the military establishment, already spread thin across the country, explained Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When deployed in urban zones, such as the streets of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a restive Tripoli neighborhood known to house Islamists, such as Hussam al-Sabbagh, who was arrested last month, the Army employs a special term – “high intensity internal stability” – to characterize the operation.
“It signifies doing something not normally relegated to the military, usually assumed by police, the ISF or the special forces,” Nerguizian said.
After a military presence in urban areas became commonplace following a series of suicide bombings last year, the counter-offensive in Arsal last week saw the Army instead playing a role that harkened back to its traditional function: defending Lebanon from external threats.
“Arsal falls closer to the Army’s comfort zone, they want to go back to the basics,” explained Nerguizian. “They don’t like being the backup for the police.”
With a highly urbanized and dense center flanked by a vast and open terrain, Arsal posed an operational challenge for the Army: It needed to root out jihadist militants without incurring collateral damage in the process. Arsal’s residents complained to The Daily Star that remote artillery fire appeared to be indiscriminate, destroying homes and businesses nowhere near militants’ hideouts in the town.
Nevertheless, last week’s fighting saw the Army debuting key American-provided weaponry, including laser-guided munitions and the AGM 114 Hellfire, an air-to-surface missile designed for precision attacks, Nerguizian said.
The strategy of remote artillery attack was adopted because of the Army’s proclivity to engage with the enemy outside the range of sniper fire, largely to keep its own casualty figures low. In the first day of fighting, about 11 soldiers were killed, a relatively high death toll.
The declining number of Army fatalities in the following days, however, signaled in military parlance that the situation was stabilizing.
Future clashes with militants will require the Army to use more precise weaponry and invest in more aircraft. Given the agility of militants on the ground, the Army needs to be able to expand and enhance its ability to bring targeted fire at range down on the threats, said Nerguizian.
“Right now, in Lebanon, the number of aircraft that can do this can be counted on one hand,” he added. Limited capabilities can have dangerous consequences, especially if the militants catch on.
“They’ll notice the aircraft has to refuel, and realize they have a window in that time, to break out.”
Political bickering threatens to hinder the use of Saudi Arabia’s $1 billion grant to quell terrorism in the country, but decisions should be made soon to prepare for future attacks, he said.
“What happened in Arsal is the first round of what is likely to be multiple potential rounds,” Nerguizian said.
Intervention in Roumieh Prison and Ain al-Hilweh will prove to be a far more subtle task than amassing sophisticated weaponry. Structures of communication exist between Islamists prisoners and groups in Ain al-Hilweh, according to the Interior Ministry source, largely through the use of smartphone technology.
Phones are formally banned inside the prison, but the fact that inmates possess them indicates the extent to which policing inside the complex has failed. But in their exchanges, Lebanon’s intelligence agencies find an opportunity to collect information and build profiles of extremist groups and their recruitees, a reason why the lines of communication between Roumieh and Ain al-Hilweh, among other areas, have remained open.
“In the last five years, Roumieh has been a continuous source of worry for the Lebanese authorities,” said Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired Army general. “It is overcrowded and there there was weak management, so prisoners were controlling themselves rather than being controlled by guards.”
However, he said, the dawdling judicial process, which has served to keep many Fatah al-Islam members behind bars without formal charges since the 2007 clashes in Nahr al-Bared, has actually emboldened inmates to retaliate against the state.
Experts and government sources agree that in the case of Ain al-Hilweh, intelligence gathering and cooperation, rather than brute force, would be the primary means to deter terror plots. Despite this, the formation of the joint elite Palestinian force in the camp has ostensibly improved conditions, with locals reporting no major security incidents. But after just a month on the streets, their deployment is still new and only time can prove their effectiveness.
Regular patrols in sensitive areas, especially the Taamir neighborhood where Islamist groups are believed to be in hiding, were bolstered with the installation of surveillance cameras. The area was a known refuge of the members and supporters of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, which orchestrated the Iranian Embassy bombings in November.
In all, Abdel-Qader said the group still counts 130-150 members and supporters.
“These people are a real threat, they can reorganize themselves at any time,” he said.
Security in the camp does not fall under the purview of the Lebanese security forces, but rather that of the Palestinian factions. This means intelligence liaisons between both sides is crucial to avoiding security incidents, Abdel-Qader said. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari