Lebanon: Armed group planning to kidnap civilians in exchange for Roumieh prisoners

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Islamist inmates at Lebanon's Roumieh prison. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Jean Aziz

Published Thursday, July 31, 2014

Information obtained from Western intelligence sources revealed an armed takfiri group is undergoing training in North Lebanon in preparation for an attack against a village and the abduction of several civilians in order to negotiate with the government on the release of Islamist prisoners in Roumieh prison.

The Lebanese state is worried about four areas, according to senior officials. First, there is the Ersal mountainside, where fighters from the armed Syrian opposition are stationed west of Qalamoun. Second, there are the gunmen’s gathering points in the north between Tripoli and some hideaways in Akkar. Third and fourth are the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp and Roumieh central prison.

Informed sources explain that Ersal is under the spotlight. This is a reason to reduce its threat, especially in light of the clear field coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies, as well as between Hezbollah and Sunni political factions. This contradiction is rarely mentioned in the media. However, the fragile situation caused by the threat of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the region imposed this reality despite the disagreements between the two sides and their different strategies.

According to the sources, Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, faces the same danger but to a lesser degree. Takfiri groups inside the camp are smaller than those outside Ersal. Their geographic scope is limited and controlled, in addition to the ample space inside the camps for the movement of Lebanese security and military forces and collaborating Palestinian factions. This was demonstrated recently through the security plan adopted in Ain al-Hilweh.

Nevertheless, two factors are still influential in the camp. First, [Palestinian National Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas still has influence on the ground, which acts as an element of control. Second, the battles in Gaza diverted the takfiris inside the camp from their personal agendas and focused all the attention on the outcomes of the battle in the besieged Strip. The two factors are interdependent to a large extent and will determine the future security situation in Ain al-Hilweh.

Relations between the authorities in Ramallah and other Palestinian factions will be decided on the basis of the outcome of the battle in Gaza. This will directly impact the situation in Ain al-Hilweh, as well as the future priorities, goals, and methods of takfiri groups, especially their ability to use the camp in this context or lack thereof.

In North Lebanon, a fierce intelligence war is raging between the Lebanese state and the takfiris. On a whole, the security forces seem to have scored vital points in their favor. However, every time they get close to the masterminds and are ready to eliminate the source of terrorism, they are faced with confessional and sectarian excuses, which could lead to threatening civil peace and setting off chaos in the north of the country. On many occasions, security forces had to put a stop to their momentum and slow down their achievements.

Insiders provide an accurate example of this situation following the arrest of one of the most important terrorist cell operators in the north, Khaled Mahmoud (aka Abu Ubaida), late last June. The detainee was a trove of information about terrorists and their various networks, from recruitment, to equipment, to planning, to implementation. His arrest led the security forces to avert some operations and locate the storage of explosives set for that purpose.

But more importantly, the interrogation of Abu Obaida led to the discovery of undisputable clues to the involvement of several big names in North Lebanon, including civilians and those with non-civilian duties. This led to a mobilization and threats of escalation if some of the suspects were not released. This looks to be aimed at pressuring security forces to stop following the chain of involvement at a certain level, preventing the discovery of its various branches, something which seems to have happened, at least temporarily.

This leaves us with Roumieh prison. On July 29, Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil revealed that the jail contains one of the command rooms for terrorist groups, fully equipped with communication and internet devices. This was either due to the inability to stop them or for other reasons. Bassil spoke of blatant official neglect, including official correspondences turning a blind eye to these facilities for terrorist commanders in Roumieh. This occurred in the absence of an official vision or even a government decision on any level to solve this situation.

However, another indicator appeared a few days ago linking Roumieh and the hotspots in the north, threatening to impose a new situation on the Lebanese state. Trusted politicians with a high level of responsibility revealed that around 10 days ago, a major European nation relayed new intelligence to Lebanese security agencies.

The information indicated that an armed takfiri group has been training in Wadi Jahannam in the north. They were estimated at around 100 gunmen and were preparing to storm a village nearby to kidnap a large group of unarmed civilians. They intend to take them to a safe location to begin negotiating with Lebanese authorities for the release of their comrades in Roumieh, threatening to gradually kill the hostages.

As the European intelligence information reached Beirut, residents of the region indicated they had been hearing close and intermittent gunfire for several days. According to the politicians informed of the dossier, however, some official sides are taking it slowly, if not lightly. Official patrols to the indicated location waited until the news has spread enough to be leaked and they returned empty handed.

The army command, however, took the issue more seriously. In the past several days, it has been sending patrols, combing the area, and constantly monitoring the situation from the air. Moreover, the politicians revealed that the field was prepared in several sensitive locations to protect the possible targets of the terrorist operation. Due to the danger and sensitivity of the situation, several opposing political factions agreed to the preparations.

There is no need for panic, according to inside sources. Official and national institutions are stronger than any terrorist threat. However, what remains is full official and national preparedness on the decision-making level for confrontation, regardless of any consideration, in order to avert a catastrophe.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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