BEIRUT: As negotiations with radical Syrian rebel groups intensify in the hope of freeing at least 24 security personnel kidnapped from Arsal last month, Roumieh prison’s notorious Islamist inmates have been thrust into the spotlight. But who are the people that ISIS and the Nusra Front want to be released, and what is the likelihood that it will happen?
No list has been either released or leaked. But there are several likely candidates who live grouped together in a lawless part of Roumieh, where there are believed to be between 100 and 150 Islamists being held alongside more than 700 other inmates in the infamous Block B, according to Marwan Ghanem, whose organization Nusroto works in the prison.
Despite some having been there for seven years, the overwhelming majority – as with most prisoners in Lebanon – have not yet been tried, a fact that has long made the government vulnerable to accusations of not upholding justice.
Enjoying luxuries such as cellphones, TVs and fridges at leisure due to prison staff’s inability to properly police them, this core of hard-line militants is made up of a mixture of men arrested over various terrorism charges, ranging from attacking the Army to being involved in terror plots and suicide bombings.
The majority, however, belong to Fatah al-Islam and were detained following the 2007 clashes between the Lebanese Army and the extremist Sunni group in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
One of the most prominent arrests at the time was Palestinian-Syrian Abu Salim Taha, Fatah al-Islam’s spokesperson. Taha, whose real name is Mohammad Saleh Zawawi, was arrested just as the fighting was winding up. He tried to escape in August 2009 along with seven other Fatah al-Islam members at Roumieh – only one man succeeded – and is likely to be among those that ISIS and Nusra will want out. According to Tripoli-based Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim, who is part of a Facebook group that campaigns for the release of the prison’s Islamists, “Taha in particular I think might be released.”
He also pointed to fellow Fatah al-Islam inmate Bilal Ibrahim as another likely choice. Unlike Taha, Ibrahim has already had his trial, the sheikh said. Given the Lebanese government’s insistence that it will not free detainees who have not yet been tried, he may be a more convenient option.
Other major Fatah al-Islam prisoners that may attract the attention of ISIS and Nusra, according to Sheikh Ibrahim, include Abu al-Walid, aka Majdel Anjar, and Othman al-Kabir.
Syrian Yasser al-Shuqairi, who is being tried for his membership in a gang headed by a Fatah al-Islam member that bombed two buses in Ain Alaq in February 2007, may also be part of the militants’ demands. He was among those who tried to break out of the prison in 2009.
This past year has added many more names to the list of fundamentalist Roumieh residents, chief among whom is Palestinian Naim Abbas.
Believed to be the mastermind behind January’s two deadly bombings in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, he has also been accused of belonging to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades, who have orchestrated a number of suicide attacks in Lebanon.
A former Fatah al-Islam member, he was arrested in February, with the military seizing around 100 kilograms of explosives, several rockets and explosives belts from an SUV parked near where he was captured.
A few months later in May, Abbas was joined by Syrian-born Sheikh Omar Bakri – wanted for his role in clashes against the Army in Tripoli – after he was discovered hiding in a house in the Mount Lebanon town of Aley.
Bakri, who was thought to have been one of Al-Qaeda’s top men in Lebanon, fled his longtime home in the U.K. after being questioned over his role in the 7/7 London bombings. He was among around 200 people arrested amid a crackdown launched in April in a bid to restore calm to Lebanon’s restive northern city.
“Look it’s chaos here in Tripoli and people like me thrive from such chaos, as we jihadists do well from that,” he told Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper before his capture.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr has charged Bakri with belonging to the “terrorist organizations Daesh [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda, and with seeking to establish an Islamic emirate in Lebanon.”
According to Qassem Qassir, an expert in Islamic groups, Bakri is another likely candidate for a hostage-prisoner swap.
A number of less significant members of the Nusra Front and ISIS have been detained in the last few months, yet it is the security forces’ most recent arrest who has cropped up most persistently in connection with the subject of a prisoner release: ISIS commander Imad Jomaa.
Jomaa, who is in his late 20s and hails from Qusair, Syria, is the head of the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, which pledged its allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the wake of the group’s enormous victories in Iraq this summer. He was caught at the beginning of August, with his detention sparking five days of deadly clashes in the northeastern town of Arsal between the Army and Islamists from ISIS and the Nusra Front, which resulted in the retaliatory kidnapping of security personnel by both jihadist groups.
Now that the Nusra Front has freed five men – all Sunni – and ISIS has beheaded one, American University of Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan said that the government would have no choice but to make concessions in order to secure the freedom of the rest.
“As far as I see it there is no other way,” he told The Daily Star. “Nusra releasing Sunni troops will cause additional sectarian tension ... I think Lebanon will have to expedite the release of others otherwise it will be seen a certain way.”
This will also mean speeding up the trial process, Khashan said, as Lebanon could not release prisoners without them having been to court.
When asked who he thought would be included in the swap, he said it was likely to involve members of Fatah al-Islam and expatriates from various Gulf countries.
“But more important than the names is that the government will have to acquiesce to the militants’ demands,” he added. – Additional reporting by Edy Semaan