Confronting Extremism: Lebanon’s “War on Terror”

Global Risk and Investigations Practice

September 22, 2014

Lebanon’s government and security forces are struggling to confront the threat of extremism. In the face of the continuing conflict in Syria and the rise of groups such as ISIS across the region there is a risk of enflaming deep sectarian tensions across the country.

During the worst spillover of violence since the start of Syria’s civil war fighters briefly took control of the border town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley. The arrest of a Syrian rebel leader, Imad Ahmad Jomaa, on 2 August sparked clashes between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Jomaa’s supporters who reportedly included members of both ISIS and al-Nusra. The Lebanese security forces were eventually able to retake the town, but at great cost – 19 soldiers were killed and up to 20 members of the security forces were captured. In a grim repeat of recent atrocities in Iraq, one captured soldier was reportedly beheaded by ISIS militants.

While the immediate security threat seems to have been contained, these events point to a wider issue of Sunni extremism in Lebanon. As with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Sunni radicalism in Lebanon has not appeared in a vacuum, but is a multifaceted problem that reflects a complex array of political and socioeconomic issues. It is important to look beyond the cliché of simple Syrian “spillover”; the Syrian conflict has undoubtedly had an important effect on Lebanon’s security but a number of challenges now facing the security forces reflect decades old sectarian and political tensions.

Attacks perpetrated by Sunni extremists in Lebanon have not been restricted to the wave of suicide car bombings targeting Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Beqaa Valley over the last year. In 2007 the LAF fought a lengthy battle with members of Fatah al-Islam, a militant jihadist group, within the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, and was engaged in fighting against another Sunni extremist movement in the summer of 2013. Clashes broke out in Saida, a southern coastal city between supporters of Hezbollah and those of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, an outspoken anti- Hezbollah Salafist cleric based in Abra, a suburb of Saida. The LAF eventually moved in and launched a crackdown on Assir and his followers with heavy casualties among both the army and Assir’s own militia. This confrontation remains controversial because of accusations that the LAF acted with the backing of Hezbollah forces.

The northern city of Tripoli has also seen sustained violence, particularly centered around the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabeneh, which is embroiled in conflict with the mainly Alawite area of Jebel Mohsin. Militants have repeatedly attacked LAF patrols in Tripoli.

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