Lebanese raise alarm over border infiltration

By Junaid Salman in Beirut

The Lebanese army succeeded in the summer of 2017 in expelling ISIS fighters from the northern border areas. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

The Lebanese army succeeded in the summer of 2017 in expelling ISIS fighters from the northern border areas. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

Concerns are being raised once again in Lebanon over the infiltration of extremist fighters into Lebanon from Syria via illegal border crossings.

The Lebanese army last month arrested an "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) leader in the Hermel area near the border with Syria.

The Syrian national, named as Muhammed Khaled al-Hajj, had travelled to Lebanon from Syria's Deir Ezzor province, security sources said.

Based on information obtained during his interrogation, the Lebanese army said it was able to arrest a Syrian ISIS emir -- a "sharia official" named as Ahmed Mansour al-Khalaf -- and four other Syrian nationals.

The five were charged with entering Lebanon illegally.

Now that ISIS has been defeated in the final pocket of territory it held in the Syrian village of al-Baghouz, concerns are mounting in Lebanon over the potential infiltration of fighters fleeing that area.

Fears of ISIS infiltration

With the elimination of the group's last stronghold, it is not surprising that Lebanese nationals who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Syria also would seek to return, said security expert and retired military officer Brig. Gen. Naji Malaeb.

The fear in Lebanon is that these individuals could infiltrate refugee camps under the guise of being refugees, he told Al-Mashareq.

"The army and security agencies are co-ordinating and communicating with the international bodies that oversee the camps to curb this threat," he said.

Malaeb pointed to "the repeated successes achieved by security agencies and the army in uncovering terrorist sleeper cells, thanks to the technologically advanced equipment they were supplied with in recent years".

"The threat of terrorist fighters infiltrating Lebanon has been curbed, owing to the superior performance of security agencies," he said.

This is "buttressed by the existence of a moderate religious discourse in the country that precludes the availability of safe harbour for terrorists", he added.

Lebanon security 'under control'

The "porous border between Lebanon and Syria" is to blame for the infiltration of some extremists, military expert and retired Lebanese officer Brig. Gen. Charles Abi Nader told Al-Mashareq.

Some extremists who survived the battles in Syria and were able to slip away undetected, "will be trying to return to Lebanon", he cautioned.

"Despite that, security in Lebanon is still under control compared to other countries in the region," he said, pointing out that there has been a notable improvement in the capabilities of the army and security agencies.

Lebanese forces "have been able to dismantle most terrorist networks", he added, noting that many of the members of these networks "are either on trial or in detention".

The level of awareness among the general public in all regions of the country about the threat these networks and individuals pose to society also has made for a more cohesive security situation in Lebanon, he said.

Lebanon has made significant improvements in its border control capability, he added, thanks to international assistance with technologically advanced surveillance, monitoring and communication equipment.

"This kind of assistance reflects an international decision to protect Lebanon’s security and stability to make it difficult for terrorists to operate," he said.

Improved border security

"The smuggling of civilians through illegal crossings has not stopped, but it is limited to individuals, not groups," said Radwan Mortada, a journalist who tracks the movements of extremist groups.

"Investigations conducted by the army of these infiltrators into Lebanon revealed that some of them had taken part in the fighting in the ranks of terrorist groups in Syria," he told Al-Mashareq.

The Lebanese army has established three land border regiments, which are deployed in the country's north, east and north-east, and uses observation towers to conduct surveillance that are equipped with day and night cameras.

Meanwhile, electronic personnel and vehicle monitoring posts transfer information to the Army Command’s operations room.

During 2017's Operation Fajr al-Juroud (Al-Juroud Dawn), Lebanon succeeded in expelling ISIS and other extremists from the northern border areas.

The Lebanese army and security agencies are currently focusing their efforts on continuing the pre-emptive war against extremist groups.

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May God grant success to the army and ever Lebanese fighting against ISIS and people with black hearts. I'm from Lebanon, and I'm proud to have the Lebanese Army.