Lebanon targets cross-border arms smugglers

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Lebanese forces display weapons and ammunition seized from smugglers in a 2016 raid. [Photo courtesy of the Army’s Directorate of Guidance]

Lebanese forces display weapons and ammunition seized from smugglers in a 2016 raid. [Photo courtesy of the Army’s Directorate of Guidance]

Lebanese security agencies have thwarted a raft of cross-border arms smuggling operations in their efforts to ramp up security along the Syrian frontier.

Smugglers delivering arms and ammunition to extremist groups operating in the rugged area around Arsal have been camouflaging their illegal cargo via various means, security experts told Al-Mashareq.

Security agencies have arrested smugglers delivering arms intended for the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front (ANF) on several recent occasions.

On May 15th, the General Directorate of General Security (GDGS) announced the arrest of a Syrian national who had reportedly communicated with extremist groups and supplied them with rockets, rifles and ammunition.

The Syrian, named only as "T.Z.", was charged with "trafficking in military weapons", and "confessed to communicating with arms traffickers and terrorists to supply rockets, rifles and military ammunition to armed terrorist groups".

The suspect had used his residence as a waypoint, storing weapons and ammunition there before transporting them to the Arsal hinterland, the directorate said.

On April 22nd, an army unit and an intelligence force raided the house of Wael Deeb Fleiti in the Wadi al-Hosn area of Arsal.

He was arrested, along with his brother Hussein and a number of Lebanese and Syrian individuals who were wanted by the authorities for smuggling arms and supporting extremist groups, the Army Command's Directorate of Guidance said.

Similarly, on November 29th, the army arrested Hussein Kharroub on the charge of supplying weapons and explosives to his fugitive brother Radwan Kharroub, a member of al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades.

Kharroub was arrested in a raid of his home in Majdal Anjar, during which a large quantity of ammunition, explosives and an anti-aircraft missile were seized, the Army Command said.

Heightened border security

"Lebanese and Syrian smugglers were in the past period active in smuggling light weapons, ammunition and rockets to ISIL and ANF through illegal crossings along the border," said journalist Michel Nasr, who specialises in security affairs.

These illegal crossings can most often be found in the rugged terrain between Arsal and Ras Baalbek, he told Al-Mashareq.

"Today, however, it is almost impossible to smuggle weapons across that border owing to the heightened security measures imposed by the army," he said.

Nasr said smugglers are still active in northern Lebanon, specifically near al-Nahr al-Kabir al-Janoubi river on the border, and in the Wadi Khalid area.

"This is due to the existence of a mortar factory, whose owner was arrested a while back, as well as bridges across the river that link [Wadi Khalid] to Syrian villages," he said.

Most smuggling is carried out "through difficult and rugged mountain paths on donkeys and aboard trucks equipped with hidden compartments", he said.

Methods of deception

Syrian and Lebanese smugglers of arms and ammunition use various routes and means to engage in this criminal activity, said military strategist Brig. Gen. George Nader, who is retired from the Lebanese military.

The smuggled arms, mostly light weapons and ammunition, "are sometimes smuggled on mules along illegal rough and bumpy dirt paths" to the outlying strongholds of extremist groups, he told Al-Mashareq.

The smugglers also use trucks that appear to be hauling vegetables and fruit but are in fact loaded with weapons concealed in secret compartments in the undercarriage, he said.

"It is difficult to control arms smuggling to the groups, because security forces cannot control the entire land border with Syria, much less the illegal crossings," he said.

"Most smugglers are Syrians who supply ANF and ISIS with artillery shells, anti-aircraft ammunition and rockets, and have taken positions close to the Lebanese border," said Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb, a security strategy specialist who is retired from the Lebanese military.

Security agencies have ramped up border security in a bid to crack down on traffickers and smugglers, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that "the army is controlling land and sea borders to stop any smuggling of this kind".

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