12 Jan 2015

Islamic State in Lebanon: army storms prison

Lebanon’s military storm the country’s biggest prison, which they say has become an “operations room” for the Islamic State group, as fears increase of the terror group’s presence at the border.

Roumieh prison

Above: Roumieh prison, east of Beirut

Following a suicide bomb attack in the Lebanese city of Tripoli on Saturday, in which eight people died, Lebanese soldiers searched the prison for suspects accused of planning the attack.

Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk headed to Roumieh prison east of Beirut early on Monday and said the crackdown came after intelligence showed some of the inmates were connected to the bombings.

Islamic State does not want to dominate Qalamoun … but they want to use it to secure their backs. Major General Abbas Ibrahim

“We made sure of their involvement in the bombings… through monitoring their communications,” he said, adding that suspects would be moved to a separate section of the prison.

Roumieh was originally built to hold about 1,500 inmates, but is now crammed with about 3,700 including many high profile convicts. Inmates burned mattresses in protest at the military raid, and the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra group vowed reprisals.

Site of Tripoli Islamic State attack

Huge crowds gathered in Tripoli on Sunday to mourn the dead from the attack, which took place in a cafe (pictured above) in an Alawaite neighbourhood in Tripoli. The Sunni Muslim Islamic State group is battling Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite government in Syria.

Border control

The latest sign of a deteriorating security situation in Lebanon follows a warning from a leading Lebanese security official that over 1,000 Islamic State fighters were now in the mountains along the country’s border with Syria.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security (DGS), told Reuters last week that militants were seeking to gain control Lebanese villages along the border.

“Islamic State does not want to dominate Qalamoun … but they want to use it to secure their backs in the region through controlling (Lebanese) villages in contact with the Qalamoun area,” he said.

He added that around 700 new fighters had recently pledged allegiance to the group in Qalamoun, bringing their numbers to over 1,000. It has also been reported that the Islamic State’s ranks have been further swelled by an estimated 3,000 fighters from Syria’s more moderate Free Syrian Army – who had been under attack from the group in Qalamoun.

Previously, Hezbollah militants have reinforced Assad’s army with attacks across the border, and the increased Islamic State dominance in the region will be strategically damaging to the Syrian president.

There are also concerns there will be increased attacks within Lebanon’s borders.

In 2014, militants affiliated to the Nusra Front and Islamic State attacked Arsal, a town on the border with Syria. The militants are still holding some two dozen members of the security forces from that attack.

And in Tripoli in October battle between Islamic gunmen and the Lebanese army left at least 11 soldiers and eight civilians dead.