Lebanon boosts security at Ain el-Hilweh camp to prevent ISIL infiltration

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Soldiers from the Lebanese army man a checkpoint at the entrance to Ain el-Hilweh camp in Sidon. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese army’s guidance directorate]

Soldiers from the Lebanese army man a checkpoint at the entrance to Ain el-Hilweh camp in Sidon. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese army’s guidance directorate]

The Lebanese army and its intelligence branch have stepped up security measures around the perimeter of and at the entrances to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon in response to growing concerns involving the camp.

The measures came after Lebanese security agencies obtained information about terrorist plots being hatched inside the camp and a surge in the number of "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) sympathizers there.

According to local media reports, between 30 and 45 camp residents have pledged allegiance to ISIL, and dozens have traveled to the group's self proclaimed Syrian capital al-Raqa to fight in its ranks.

These developments prompted the director of army intelligence in southern Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Khodr Hammoud, on July 18th to warn Palestinian and Islamist faction leaders of the presence of ISIL infiltrators in the camp.

Camp security

Retired Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb, a military strategy expert, downplayed the growth of ISIL and al-Nusra Front (ANF) among the camp’s population.

"The situation in Syria does not concern the traditional population of the camp, most of whom are under the banner of their own Palestinian factions," he told Al-Mashareq. "However, sympathizers of these two groups can be found among Palestinians who came from [refugee] camps in Syria and Iraq."

Even though a number of ISIL and ANF sympathizers likely exist in the camp, Maleab said "security in the camp is under control. The army and security agencies along with the [Palestinian] factions are keeping a watchful eye on security and working to keep the situation inside [the camp] under control".

"The coordination between all Lebanese [security] agencies and the camp’s agencies is ongoing and robust," he said. "The authorities [on both sides] fully understand how delicate the situation is and are controlling it in such a way that makes it non-conducive to the growth of the ISIL phenomenon."

Qasim Qaseer, an expert on Islamist extremist groups, said the reports regarding the presence of ISIL and ANF supporters in the camp are true.

"There is talk that they are planning suicide operations and bombings and to ultimately blow up the security situation inside the camp and create a crisis in Sidon," he said.

"Lebanese security agencies and Palestinian factions are taking this matter seriously," he said.

Sleeper cells

Qaseer said there was no telling exactly how many ISIL elements there are in the camp, but the danger "does not lie in their number but the type of suicide bombings they are planning to carry out" and other types of clashes, which could ignite chaos in the camp.

The other threat, according to Qaseer, is the potential linking of "the interior of the camp without the areas outside it along the coastal road from Sidon all the way to Beirut, given the presence of sleeper cells in a number of coastal areas, especially in al-Naemeh and its environs and al-Ouzai, in which members of ISIL sleeper cells were arrested a few days ago".

Lebanese security agencies, he said, have intercepted communications between extremists in the camp and al-Raqa, and "concluded that there is increased activity by sleeper cells associated with ISIL".

However the security situation inside the camp "is under control of the Lebanese security forces stationed at its entrances, in full coordination with the factions inside it", he said.

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