Lebanese security agencies closed out 2017 by capturing several high profile "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) operatives.
The General Directorate of State Security (GDSS) on December 23rd arrested ISIS mufti Ahmed al-Raheel, who is one of the group's top three leaders.
On December 11th, the directorate arrested notorious ISIS media operative Khalil al-Hamdu, a Syrian national also known as "Abu Rayan".
According to the National News Agency, al-Raheel hails from the Syrian town of al-Tabqa. He entered Lebanon secretly and was living in the Bekaa Valley. Arriving in Lebanon via a rugged mountain route, he had paid to be taken to al-Hermel, and then made his way north through the mountains to Denniyeh.
He altered his appearance and settled in the home of an ISIS affiliate, but an al-Hermel resident discovered his secret and informed the directorate, which arrested him, interrogated him, and brought him before a military court.
Al-Raheel admitted to being ISIS's "spiritual mufti" and its "sharia official" and confessed to having issued rulings to kill civilians and prisoners held by ISIS.
He was found to be one of the group's top three leaders, after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his deputy.
The arrests of al-Raheel and al-Hamdu were the result of "intensive surveillance", said GDSS director general Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.
Al-Hamdu "is one of the top media men in ISIS, while Ahmed al-Raheel is a leading sharia official in ISIS who has been entrusted with the task of educating fighters in the religious and ideological fields", he told Al-Mashareq.
Arrests reveal ISIS inner workings
Al-Hamdu's arrest was significant, "because by interrogating him, ISIS's inner workings have been revealed, especially in the field of disseminating takfiri ideas, whether through religious guidance or the media", Saliba said.
"Abu Rayan is a big fish in terms of what he represents and the information he holds," he added. "He has given us the names of persons in the group in Syria and Lebanon, starting with al-Raheel's name."
Thanks to that arrest, security forces have been able to penetrate extremist groups and gather confirmed information about the whereabouts of ISIS elements, and then observe and arrest them, he said.
Interrogations with ISIS's 'spiritual mufti' or with others "have yet to show that there is planning to carry out specific acts of terrorism", Saliba noted.
However, he added, "this does not mean that Lebanon is not a potential target for [groups such as ISIS], because they have made their intention clear".
Al-Hamdu's arrest follows a series of operations in 2017 against senior figures in extremist groups who "have fought against the army or helped provide logistical and intelligence support to those terrorist organisations", he said.
In these operations, the GDSS "relied on human resources in co-ordination with other Lebanese security services, requesting assistance when needed", he said.
ISIS in 'state of chaos, disintegration'
Al-Hamdu's arrest reaffirms that the Lebanese security services "are asserting their ability to provide security to society and to the state", said strategic and security researcher Brig. Gen. Nizar Abdul Qadir.
They have prevented new terrorist operations from occurring through pre-emptive security operations, he told Al-Mashareq.
He stressed that it is "premature to make a clear and rational assessment of the serious threats posed by ISIS to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq after the disintegration of the group".
The group is in a transitional phase after the military defeat it has suffered, which has caused it chaos and loss, he said.
In this state of chaos and disintegration, some ISIS fighters are trying to cross back into their countries of origin, while others are joining secret cells, such as those recently arrested in Lebanon, Abdul Qadir said.
These elements recently entered Lebanon "secretly and with new identities, which did not prevent them from being arrested", he noted.
But the arrest of an extremist leader here or there, though it is significant, does not take Lebanon out of the theatre of ISIS terrorist operations, he said, adding that the security services are constantly on the lookout.
Co-operation among Lebanese agencies
With the arrest of the Syrian ISIS elements "the Lebanese security services, especially the GDSS, have scored a new victory in the fight against terrorism", journalist and political analyst George Shaheen told Al-Mashareq.
The directorate's leadership has showed unprecedented co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism, with pre-emptive security operations that have led to the detection of several cells linked to ISIS and other extremists, he said.
"The series of significant arrests is the result of close co-operation between the GDSS and other Lebanese security services, which has led to the uncovering of several terrorist and takfiri operations," Shaheen said.