BEIRUT: With the release of Islamist prisoners topping the demands of extremist militants holding security personnel in Arsal, a long-held suspicion was confirmed: ISIS has a stake in Lebanon, and the Roumieh prison lies at the heart of the matter.
The first inkling came in June, when the group posted a video on YouTube, promising in song to force the closure of Roumieh.
The assembled men, all masked and surrounded by a store of weaponry with their signature black-and-white flag overhead, sang in unison “I am saddened by the circumstances of prisoners in Roumieh Prison, oh brothers,” before signing off as the “Lions of ISIS.”
Nearly three months later, the feline motif resurfaced in connection with the extremist group, this time depicting the gruesome beheading of captured Lebanese Army soldier Ali al-Sayyed on an ISIS-affiliated Twitter page, with Abou Misaab Hafid al-Baghdadi tweeting “Now you know who are the Lions of ISIS.”
Intelligence reports suggested that one of the scenarios being hatched would see several suicide bombers blowing up the Roumieh prison gates, at which point other militants would take advantage of the resultant commotion to rescue detainees. Sources inside the prison said another plan involved an external attack paired with mutiny within, confusing officers. Neither plan materialized.
Both ISIS and the Nusra Front have claims on Roumieh Prison, Mario Abou Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center said. But the Nusra Front is steadily losing interest in the detainees because of reports that prisoners appear to be inclining toward ISIS’s more hard-line ideology.
“Certain figures inside Roumieh are shifting their allegiance toward ISIS,” Abou Zeid explained. “ISIS wants specific figures, who were previously a part of the Nusra Front and other fundamentalist groups.”
The loyalty of these figures outside the prison’s wall could provide ISIS with something it craves in Lebanon: a base. “They are having a hard time finding an enabling environment in Lebanon,” Abou Zeid said.
Nusra, on the other hand, is well aware of the possibility that once these figures are freed, they might operate, if not against the group, then certainly not under its banner. For this reason, Abou Zeid added, they have been more open to negotiating with the Lebanese government.
With its high-profile Islamist detainees, Block B of Roumieh is considered a recruitment hub for religious extremists, something Omar Nashabeh, an aide to former Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud called “prisonalization,” which denotes adapting to one’s environment behind bars.
“It happens in prisons all around the world,” Nashabeh explained. “A guy guilty of armed robbery gets five years, and is locked up with an expert in money laundering – in time he acquires knowledge.”
“This transmission of information is the same with religious extremism, it’s how they recruit,” he added.
A source recounted to The Daily Star how a young man convicted of drug possession had been given lessons in Islamic teachings by prominent sheikhs interned in the prison. He went in clean shaven but left with a full beard, the source said.
“It’s those kinds of guys I get scared about,” he added, referring to the young man. “Because the state doesn’t know his history, they only see the drug charges on his file.”
Of Block B’s some 500-600 inmates, about 350 or so are considered national security cases. Among them about 10 or 15 are especially high-profile. These vary from members of ISIS – recently interned after the Arsal clashes – to members of the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Some are Lebanese, but the vast majority are foreign.
“If you look at it from a general perspective, these fundamentalists who are staying in Roumieh are in an environment that is safe for them, where they can control their terrorist activities,” an Interior Ministry source explained. “They may not have planned the attacks, but they may have given the command.”
The government is aware that Block B detainees are able to communicate with associates and family members because many have smartphones, their single most valuable possession in detention. Though intelligence has gained valuable insights by monitoring their communications, mobile phones are nonetheless banned according to the prison law.
Inequity between prisoners prompted the Association of Justice and Mercy, an NGO that offers legal help to inmates, to cease providing services in Block B.
“We’ve asked publicly that they be transferred to a high-security prison,” AJEM lawyer Ziad Achour said.
But George Ghali of ALEF, said simply transferring them would not address root causes: “A comprehensive strategy should be adopted, not simply deterring the problem.”
“These people are already in prison, they aren’t going to be different in a new prison,” he said.
According to Nashabeh, the Internal Security Forces have been unable to cut back on prisoner privileges because the prison law, issued in 1949, is outmoded and in need of reforms. “The ISF is not trained to run a prison,” he said. “They have to find a way for the prisoners to help them.”
A political source, who requested anonymity, went further still: “The truth is that there are many politicians in Lebanon who interfere with the prison administration.”
For those working inside the prison having to interact with inmates every day, the problem is glaringly obvious: “The more people like this [Islamist detainees] you put in one room, the more influence they will have, if you lessen the amount, you lessen the effect.”