A struggle for the hearts and minds: Thoughts on the strategies of the Islamic State (IS) in Lebanon

By: Erling Lorentzen Sogge, University of Oslo.

After a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Beirut hotel last summer, the Lebanese press announced that the Islamic State (then known as ISIS), was about to instigate a full-scale conflagration in Lebanon. IS has since attacked army checkpoints, captured Lebanese soldiers, and allegedly established a Sharia-court near the eastern border. Nonetheless, the group is struggling to find a foothold in Lebanon due to a lack of allies.

Battles along a porous border
On august 2. 2014 a fierce battle broke out between Islamist militants and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the village of ʿArsāl, a small Lebanese town located near the eastern mountain range separating the country from Syria. The spark of violence was lit following the LAF’s arrest of Syrian militia leader ʿImād Jumaʿa, whose brigade recently had pledged allegiance to IS.

A large number of militants belonging to both IS and the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nuṣra, all stationed in the Syrian mountains, surrounded the town. The local police station was stormed, army checkpoints were taken over, and more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers were captured. The LAF responded by shelling ʿArsāl. The assuming violence resulted in several casualties on both sides, 42 civilians were killed, and more than a hundred were injured. The militants withdrew after a week of fighting, but the kidnapped soldiers remain missing to date.

IS is now using these hostages as leverage for pressuring Lebanese authorities into releasing hundreds of convicts held in the notorious Rūmiyye prison north of Beirut. Two hostages have already been beheaded.

Divide and conquer

Why does IS want the Rūmiyye prisoners? Many of the people on its list have been convicted of domestic terrorism, but these are not necessarily allies of IS. According to the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, some of the detainees have even rejected the offer of being swapped. Why waste energy trying to free unwilling prisoners when the group seemingly has an endless supply of willing foreign fighters waiting to join its ranks?

As some have suggested in lieu of the group’s recent negotiations with the Jordanian state, the aim of IS’ prisoner exchange dialogues has little to do with the prisoners themselves. This is rather a strategy meant to cause domestic rifts.

In Lebanon the families of the kidnapped soldiers responded by burning tires and blocking off highways in order to protest the army’s inability to retrieve their sons. Moreover, residents of ʿArsāl have repeatedly complained about a general lack of stately presence in the border town, both in terms of security and humanitarian aid, as refugees keep pouring in from the war-stricken neighboring country. Some locals have claimed that IS now is running an informal sharia-court in the outskirts ʿArsāl, where the group is seeking to offer the area’s working class Sunni population a sense of order where the state has failed.

“Most people are terrified of ISIS…” a local school teacher recently told The Daily Star:

“But I also have colleagues who are happy with their deeds, and they believe ISIS is punishing the right people”.

Reluctant jihadists
IS has put significant pressure on the state, but stirring up domestic tension alone won’t guarantee the group a lasting presence in the country. In Iraq, IS managed to capitalize on sentiments of marginalization felt by the Sunni-minority to the extent that some saw al-Baghdādī’s state in the making as a valid alternative. But in Lebanon there is a significant lack of powerful mediators or “tribesmen” willing to vouch for the group, as one saw in Mosul. In other words, IS lacks a serious ally on the inside.

In fact, the most influential Lebanese Salafi movements have followed the lead of the state Mufti in denouncing IS. The same goes for some of the country’s longest running Jihadi-Salafi groups, many of which are based in the southern Palestinian refugee camp ʿAin al-ḥilwe. Faced with countless accusations of sheltering foreign fighters and smaller terrorist networks, the camp’s leading Jihadi figures have made a habit of publicly disassociating themselves with names like IS and Jabhat al-nuṣra:

“O Jihadi brother…” a leader of the Palestinian Jihadi militia ʿUsbat al-anṣār declared in December while addressing fugitive and Nuṣra-affiliate Shādī al-Mawlawī suspected of hiding in the camp: “There are 100,000 Palestinians in this camp that will not be able to provide you with any help. They will not support you if you are here”.

The fact that both moderate and radical Sunni-voices, in the mainstream
as well as on the fringes of society, actively are speaking out against IS is certainly preventing the group from winning the hearts and minds of the Sunnis of Lebanon. Of course, this could change.

Vacancy: Emir of Lebanon
Last week the Lebanese press speculated that Aḥmad al-Asīr, the eccentric Salafi preacher who clashed with the LAF in the southern city Ṣaīdā a few years back, is to be crowned the new “emir” of IS in Lebanon; in other words, the person tasked with conquering the country. The press has thrown around a number of likely and unlikely candidates for the “emirate of Lebanon” ever since Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī announced the creation of his desired Caliphate last June. The title itself is irrelevant, but the rumors of someone of al-Asīr’s stature getting involved with IS are troubling.

The BMX-riding Salafi has gained somewhat of a popular following through his phosphorus rants against Ḥizballah coupled with folksy antics such as arranging a public ski trip for his entourage, and mingling with former pop-icon-turned-Salafi Faḍl Shākir. After losing an armed battle against the Army in 2013, al-Asīr went underground, and is now exclusively communicating with the world through his Twitter-account where he has more than 230,000 followers.

Al-Asīr’s allegiances remain uncertain, as do his current whereabouts, but the last thing Lebanon needs now is for IS to be able to coopt an insider with a popular following.