Heightened risk of further Islamic State-linked violence following Army raids in North-East but future attacks likely to be isolated
Four suicide bombers struck an Army unit on 30 June at the al-Nour refugee camp near the north-eastern town of Arsal, which is located 15 km from the Syrian border. In a separate incident that same day, another attacker detonated a bomb at the nearby al-Qariyeh refugee settlement. A total of seven soldiers were injured and one civilian was killed in these blasts. The violence occurred as the Army was conducting security raids at several refugee camps around Arsal in an effort to oust jihadist fighters from the border areas around the town. Indeed, on 1 July the Army disclosed that it had detained as many as 350 suspected militants during the operations. Roughly 40 alleged members of Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) reportedly remain in custody.
In recent years IS has used the camps around Arsal as a base for conducting attacks inside Lebanon, and militants linked to the group were therefore most likely involved in these latest attacks. Their presence in the area has increased pressure on the Government to tackle the use of refugee flows by jihadist groups as a means of infiltrating the country. Nonetheless, major raids such as those carried out on 30 June are uncommon. The Army is aware that local Sunnis believe it disproportionally targets their communities, while allowing Hizballah to move fighters across the border. However, the Shia group recently announced that it would dismantle its positions at several eastern towns in the Bekaa Valley (see our 24 May Report). A reduced Shia militant presence in the area means that the Army is under less pressure to demonstrate to Sunnis that it pursues a balanced approach to the country’s various sects, and so this will have encouraged Beirut to move against the jihadists.
That said, four Syrians detained in the recent security crackdown allegedly died in custody due to injuries sustained in torture. The Government has since ordered a probe into the deaths but the allegations risk reinforcing jihadist claims that the security forces are sympathetic to Shia interests. Anger at the Army could help to boost IS recruitment among both refugees and members of the local Salafist community.
The Government regards IS’s presence in the North-East as a genuine, long-term threat to Lebanon’s stability and so the Army is likely to take additional steps to disrupt jihadists’ capabilities in the area once coverage of the torture allegations subsides. For its part, IS is unlikely to significantly expand its operations outside the Bekaa at this time since it will want to focus on protecting its existing capabilities and avoid provoking further security raids. The group will be further constrained by its limited capabilities, as well as greater coordination between different branches of the security forces. Nonetheless, further isolated strikes by IS sympathisers targeting security or Shia interests are likely in the coming months, especially in the Bekaa. Trained IS militants may also look to carry out a more sophisticated attack outside the North-East, for instance by striking Hizballah sites in Beirut, in an attempt to deter further military campaigns against them and boost the group’s popularity among Sunni hardliners.