Armed extremist groups issue Arsal 'hit list'

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

The Lebanese border town of Arsal has come under threat from extremist groups after residents asked the army to assert control. [Al-Mashareq]

The Lebanese border town of Arsal has come under threat from extremist groups after residents asked the army to assert control. [Al-Mashareq]

After the attempted assassination of Arsal mayor Mohammed Alouli in mid-July, residents of the northern Lebanese border town tell Al-Mashareq they fear that armed extremist groups in the area may conduct further targeted killings.

The assassination attempt, and the July 6th murder of Lebanese citizen Qutaiba al-Hujairi in an armed ambush, coincide with reports that the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and al-Nusra Front (ANF), which recently renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, have issued a "hit list".

Reports about the list, which purportedly includes the names of 10 people, began to emerge after the recent municipal elections, which ushered in a local government that has taken a strong stand against extremist groups in the area.

ISIL and ANF have holed up on the outskirts of Arsal, which has a population of 30,000 and hosts more than 90,000 Syrian refugees, using the area along the border with Syria as a base from which to attack the Lebanese army.

The army recently deployed on a wide scale in the city at the municipality's invitation, increasing the number of mobile checkpoints and conducting raids.

Among those netted was Riyad Sharafeddin, "personal physician" to Abu Malek al-Telli, emir of ANF in al-Qalamoun, a security source told Al-Mashareq.

Attack on Arsal mayor

"Mayor Mohammed Alouli came under gunfire in his car on the evening of July 21st, from two individuals on a motorcycle accompanied by a car, and was seriously injured in his face," said Arsal municipality chief Bassel al-Hujairi.

The assassination attempt on Alouli and the earlier slaying of al-Hujairi were conducted in the same manner, he told Al-Masahreq.

Al-Hujairi said the attempt on the mayor’s life "fits with the information we received about ISIL and ANF issuing a hit list that allegedly contains 10 names of people to be liquidated, seven of whom are from Arsal".

"I am at the top of the list, while the other three are resident Syrians," he said, adding that "the assassination attempt was a message directed at us because we are calling on the army to enter the town".

"Two weeks before the assassination attempt, I received a death threat from someone who claimed to be with ISIL, who held me responsible for calling on the army to control the situation and ban cars with tinted windows," he said. "I did not take the threat seriously until the assassination attempt on Alouli."

Threats like this are treated "with caution" al-Hujairi said, noting that the municipality has been working in co-ordination with the army, "which keeps us informed about the movement of suspects".

The municipality increased the number of guards and issued a communique imposing a 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew on Syrian refugees in the area "out of concern for their safety as well as ours", he said.

The threats emerged as the people of Arsal had chosen to break its isolation and return it to the bosom of the state, he said, noting that the municipal council had met with the army to discuss the need to maintain security in the town.

Arsal shakes off extremists

The alleged "hit list" can be seen as a response to "the initiative taken by the winners of the municipal and mayoral elections to clear the town [of terrorists]", said Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies head Brig. Gen. Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army officer who is an expert on extremist groups.

"Since the emergence of terrorist groups such as ISIL and ANF, Arsal has been a logistical support base for them," he told Al-Mashareq.

Through the municipal and mayoral elections, however, and with the blessing of the residents, the municipality has begun to shake off this situation and purge the town of armed extremist groups, he said.

"The municipality, dignitaries and residents are committed to freeing Arsal of terrorists who will not hesitate to intimidate them in an attempt to regain control of it," Jaber said.

Now it is up to the state, he said, to respond and establish a presence in the town to protect it.

According to political analyst Tony Issa, ISIL is trying to "impose its control over the Arsal, al-Qaa, Ras Baalbek area in the Lebanese Bekaa, as the pressure on it mounts in Syria and Iraq".

"The recent municipal elections constituted a setback for extremist groups because they were decided in favour of moderates and confirmed the people of Arsal’s rejection of the attempts to isolate them from Lebanese society," he said.

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