Lebanon’s political instability and involvement in the Syrian civil war has made it a host country for fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State group. For now at least, the jihadists are not capable of launching a full-scale attack there, but their presence in a heavily sectarian country is causing concern. The dire state of the Lebanese government combined with Lebanon’s own militant group Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militia, proclaiming itself to be the country’s “savior” could send the country into chaos.
For now, militants see Lebanon as a host country, but given that it's locked in a political crisis and hasn’t had a president for six months, it is vulnerable to a spread of insurgent ideology, said Lebanese journalist Rami Aysha.
A Lebanese armed forces commander told news outlets last week that the Islamic State group, or ISIS, has sleeper cells in two major Lebanese cities: Tripoli and Akkar. ISIS has even assigned an emir, or leader, to Lebanon, who allegedly reports directly to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So far, the ISIS sleeper cells have not staged large-scale attacks, but the militant group has been able to carry out several bombings in the country.
ISIS “has been trying to grow in Lebanon for a year now, but I still think that Nusra is a main factor,” said Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who studies ISIS and Shiite militias. “Nusra put people in very early on and tried to put links on the ground.”
Militant infiltration in Lebanon isn’t the same as what’s happening in Syria’s Kobani or Iraq’s Anbar province. In the mountainous Bekaa Valley region between Lebanon and Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are not fighting each other. It’s not an actual alliance but rather the absence of allegiance, in that militant fighters on the Lebanon border are quick to defect and join the group that is making more money and gaining more territory. And while Nusra has been making headlines, ISIS has a bigger force on the ground, according to Aysha.
Last week, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters attacked Hezbollah bases on the border with Syria and even reportedly managed to gain control of a base for several hours. While taking over Lebanon may well be in its grander plans, right now the group is looking to secure a supply route into Syria for the upcoming winter months, according to Aysha. The militant group is also holding 27 Lebanese soldiers hostage; negotiations to free them have so far failed.
Hezbollah, which is also a Lebanese political party represented in parliament, has been working with the army and preparing for possible militant infiltration by arming sects around the country and trying to rally support from groups that previously opposed them.
"They’ve been trying to build up localized militias," Smyth said. "Reaching out to different sects, different groups in different villages."
Hezbollah is reportedly working with militias in in the northern Bekaa Valley. Leaders of the Free Patriotic Movement Party, a Christian political party that also happens the second-largest political party in Lebanon, called on Lebanese Christians to take up arms. The March 14 Alliance, a coalition of opposition political parties, repelled the idea of arming sects in the early stages of conflict, but there are reports that one of their branches, Kataeb, “has started to assist in certain areas,” Smyth said.
Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization, may even be the reason for the Sunni militant infiltration. After Hezbollah intervened in the Syrian civil war on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria’s Sunni militant groups have had their eye on Lebanon.
“Now everyone is saying that Hezbollah is the savior of Lebanon. They are gaining support from different sects,” Aysha said. “It’s a very frightening image of what might happen. It’s leading the country nowhere good.”
But Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters aren’t the only Lebanese nationals who have gone to Syria. Somewhere between 500 and 1,500 Sunni Lebanese people have reportedly crossed the border and joined Sunni insurgent groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Aysha put the number of Sunni fighters much higher at 5,000.
“They can come back and say ‘it’s time to start the revolution,’” Smyth said.