Lebanon blocks extremist plot to retake Arsal

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Joseph Aoun inspects military outposts around the border town of Arsal on April 10th. [Photo courtesy of the Army Orientation Directorate]

Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Joseph Aoun inspects military outposts around the border town of Arsal on April 10th. [Photo courtesy of the Army Orientation Directorate]

The Lebanese army recently shelled a mass gathering of al-Nusra Front (ANF) fighters on the outskirts of Arsal, blocking a plot to retake the northern border town, local media reported.

The strikes, conducted on the night of March 28th, targeted fighters affiliated with ANF emir Abu Malek al-Talli.

In a March 29th broadcast, LBCI Lebanon News reported that the army’s 9th Brigade had "detected suspicious movements and massed gatherings by ANF militants in the Wadi al-Khail area" on the outskirts of Arsal.

According to the report, the army had monitored calls between ANF fighters that indicated they were planning to attack Arsal after the dawn prayers.

In response to this intelligence information, the 95th battalion and army artillery unit shelled the position where ANF militants were assembling, LBCI said.

Intelligence indicated that ANF fighters were planning to move in on Arsal from several fronts, said journalist Michel Nasr, who specialises in security affairs.

The first front runs from Arsal through the town of Ayn al-Shaab and westward to the town of Laboue, he told Al-Mashareq.

The second front begins at the Zamrani crossing and stretches from north Arsal to the town of Zeitouneh on the Hermel-Fakiha road, he said.

The army is monitoring Arsal from the air and on land "with sophisticated cameras and observers on the ground from forward army positions", Nasr said.

It is "tracking every single movement and the army is granted the flexibility to respond to any development without referring to the central command", he said.

Suspicious activity around Arsal

Arsal mayor Bassel al-Hujairi told Al-Mashareq that on the days leading up to the foiled attack, town residents observed "suspicious movements" by some of the militants in and around Arsal.

"We have recently noticed suspicious activity by the fighters, especially at night inside the town, accompanied by threats made to a number of residents," said Arsal municipal council member Mohammed al-Hujairi.

"They moved around individually, on motorcycles and in cars with tinted windows, heading for the camps for the displaced where there are some sleeper cells," he said.

The municipal guards "monitor their movements and chase them away towards the barren areas", he added.

"Whatever the aim of the attack was, it did not see the light of day thanks to the total readiness of the Lebanese army on the border," said strategy analyst Brig. Gen. Richard Dagher, a retired Lebanese military officer.

"The Lebanese army is monitoring the militants’ movements and intervening with firepower as needed, just as it did that night," he told Al-Mashareq.

Extremist groups will be kept at bay

"No matter how many times the armed groups try to break into the town of Arsal, they will not succeed," Dagher said, adding that the army’s improved capabilities and the experience it has gained since the events of August 2014 have prepared it to take strict measures along the border with Syria.

The army's observation towers and its air and ground surveillance capabilities enable it to maintain security and prevent any breach, Dagher said.

In addition to their confrontations with Lebanese army, ANF fighters are still engaged in a power struggle with rival "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) over the extension of control in the area.

The two groups have been engaged in an ongoing war of attrition, with "reciprocal liquidations taking place between the two groups", journalist Michel Nasr said, explaining that "Arsal is a vital supply line for both".

Both groups are vying for control of Arsal and surrounding region, Dagher said.

Neither group will succeed in gaining control of the area, he said, "because Arsal is now fortified security-wise, thus all the intentions harboured by the two groups will not pose a serious threat to the security situation in Lebanon".

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