Arsal officials alarmed by threatening texts

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

A number of Arsal officials have received threatening texts from suspected extremist groups. [Ahmed Aqtai]

A number of Arsal officials have received threatening texts from suspected extremist groups. [Ahmed Aqtai]

Officials in the Lebanese border town of Arsal tell Al-Mashareq they have been receiving threatening messages on their mobile phones.

They suspect these messages come from extremists affiliated with the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) or al-Nusra Front (ANF), they said, and that they may be a reaction to their co-operation with the Lebanese armed forces.

Between March 25th and March 27th, Arsal deputy mayor Rima Karnabi and Arsal community leaders Mohammed Alouli and Mohammed Saadeddine Ezzeddine received death threats on their mobile phones.

Security agencies are following up on this issue, they told Al-Mashareq.

This is not the first time Arsal residents have received threats from extremists.

In June 2016, a number of residents, including Arsal mayor Bassel al-Hujairi, received threatening messages.

Following the municipal elections last May, which ushered in a local administration that adopted a hard-line stance against extremists, ISIL and ANF, now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front, reportedly issued a "hit list" containing the names of 10 local residents .

Threatening texts

Karnabi said she received the first threatening message on March 25th.

The message labeled her a "kafira" (infidel) and "threatened that I would not be left without retribution, which is soon to come", she told Al-Mashareq.

In the second message, received March 27th, she was told she would be made to serve as "an example to anyone who would seek the help of infidels".

Immediately after she received the first threat, "I contacted the army intelligence directorate, who are now handling the case", she said.

They have the text of the threats and are investigating them, along with the threats received by the community heads and other residents, she added.

Karnabi could only offer speculation about why she received the threat, saying it may be because she is a woman, or because she has good relations with state and security agencies.

Last July, community head of Arsal's Southern Aloula district Mohammed Alouli survived an assassination attempt that left him with a serious head wound for which he continues to receive treatment.

"I had received a threat before that attempt on my life, and I just received another one on Saturday, March 25th, via WhatsApp, in which they told me that they want to kill me," he told Al-Mashareq.

"I do not rule out the possibility that they are from militants who belong to either ISIL or ANF or their supporters in town, and those are few," he said.

Alouli said his popularity with voters and his good relations with the state and security agencies may have made him a target for extremists.

"There are those who are harmed by our standing with the state," he said. "These threats are veiled messages to the security agencies and the state, as well as us, their representatives."

Army personnel targeted

Mohammed Saadeddine Ezzeddine, community head of Arsal's Northern Aloula district, told Al-Mashareq he has received five threatening messages since March 25th.

"All the threats labeled me an apostate and said my slaughter is permissible because I co-operated with the Lebanese state," he said.

He informed the security agencies of the threats he received, which came from a well-known phone number that had previously threatened others in Arsal.

Ezzeddine said the messages "were issued by a person who is connected to either ISIL or ANF".

ISIL previously killed five members of his family, most recently Khalid Ezzeddine, who they killed in October "for being in the army", he said, adding that he has heard from Arsal residents that "ISIL wants to liquidate me".

These threats have prompted him to exercise caution, he added, especially as his three sons are in the army.

"I stay home, and when I have to leave, male relatives of mine accompany me," he said.

Ezzedine said he hopes "security can be established in Arsal to put an end to the lawlessness that allows militants to infiltrate the town".

Veiled threats to the state

Most of these threats can be attributed to the strong relationship the local authorities in Arsal have with the Lebanese security agencies, said Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb, a security strategy specialist retired from the Lebanese military.

"The municipal and mayoral elections that took place in May 2016 saw the election of a large number of municipal council members [...] who have strong relations with the state and its official and security agencies," he told Al-Mashareq.

These newly elected officials have been co-operating with the security agencies in the interest of the town, he said, as it is on the border with Syria and is targeted by extremist elements from time to time.

Although the threats were sent to local officials in Arsal, he said, "they were indirectly directed at the state and security agencies".

It is also possible that these threats are an attempt by some extremists to regain their influence, he added, especially in light of the ongoing escalation of violence in the outskirts of Arsal and in Syria's al-Qalamoun region.

"We recently saw escalation between ISIL and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and withdrawal by ISIL from 14 [Syrian] villages near the border with Lebanon to reposition in preparation for the battle for al-Raqa," he said.

ISIL knows it is losing influence as a result of the successive losses it has sustained, he added, and consequently might issue threats in an attempt to demonstrate its influence in areas such as Arsal.

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