BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) may not be operating out of Lebanon at present but porous borders do pose a security risk, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Wednesday.
“I don’t believe they [ISIS cells] exist on the Lebanese side, but I cannot say they don’t exist on the Syrian side,” Machnouk said in an interview with The Daily Star. “So, we have to worry about this, that anyone can move from Syria into Lebanon, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen through the legal borders.”
The fall of Iraq’s northern capital Mosul earlier this week prompted Lebanese security forces to go on high alert to head off violent spillover from Iraq by adopting a series of preventive measures, which included Army patrols near the borders with Syria Friday in search of gunmen and terror suspects.
“We are looking around, and let’s say are on alert over this matter,” Machnouk said. “But until now we are on the safe side and everything is under control.”
The minister clarified that preventive measures were focused on monitoring “weak points,” that could be exploited by extremist elements. Machnouk declined to name the areas, saying only that there were two, one in south Lebanon and the other in “Great Beirut,” which includes the city and its suburbs.
“I cannot say there are ISIS cells [operating in these areas]. But they are weak points that ISIS could move through or do something in.”
Warding off extremist threats entails intense intelligence gathering, he said. “It requires knowing exactly where the vulnerable points are and dealing with them in such a way that you can be there when someone wants to make a [risky] move.”Machnouk dismissed the possibility of ISIS’ advances in Iraq emboldening Lebanon’s extremist Sunni pockets to resort to armed action.
Fears were raised Monday after Hezbollah said it had thwarted a terror plot with support from the Army, and according to Machnouk, the Internal Security Forces. However, the minister said that the scheme had in fact failed to materialize. “There was information about a car bomb,” he said, “We went in acting as though there was a probability that something would happen, but nothing happened.”
Apart from security concerns, developments in Iraq will also impact on the bilateral relations that Machnouk is carefully cultivating with the Gulf countries. The fruits of his visit last week to Doha, to address the existing travel advisory, secure financial support to manage the refugee crisis and enact prison reforms, will likely hinge on Iraq.
“It’s created a new problem, so I don’t expect to get a call from the prime minister in Doha tomorrow,” he said. “I understand very well that they are deeply worried about what is happening in Iraq and may not have the time to talk about what Lebanon needs and vacations after Ramadan.”
Machnouk is prioritizing building relations with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with visits planned to Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia in the near future, and reinvigorating the dormant joint security committee with the UAE.
“We are trying to open the doors, because the doors to the Arab world have been closed for the last four years,” he said referring to prevailing travel advisories. “Everywhere I’ve gone, I found that there are problems [among Arab states toward Lebanon] and relations are not on good terms.”
Though his visits have made some progress, issues remain to be resolved. “I can say we showed them that we care and that we are responsible,” he said. “Until now, we have a big window, but not an open door.”
He said a visit to Egypt was also on the horizon, as the country shares much “common ground” with Lebanon.
Machnouk is also keen to usher in prison reforms by imploring donor countries to build four new prisons, citing deplorable living conditions. According to the minister Lebanon has 7,800 prisoners in facilities equipped for a total 2,400. “I thought it better to ask each country to build one [prison] so it can be affordable. We told them, we have the plans and the land, all we need is for you to come and build the jail.”
Touching on families being forced to evacuate the Lebanese border village Tfail amid Syrian military strikes, Machnouk said the government could do little to assuage their suffering because of its remote location, requiring a detour through Syrian territory. “We [the Cabinet] will discuss the matter and see what we can do.”
The contentious issue of setting up formal camps for Syrian refugees in no man’s land, the government’s first choice, also came to an impasse after the Syrian regime made it clear that they would not be responsible for maintaining security in the region, said the minister, citing communication via security channels two months ago.
Moreover, “to convince them to set up camps inside Syria requires international dialogue with the Syrian regime. We are not in a position to go into direct negotiations with them,” he said.