Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon strikes Islamist suspects

A deadly military operation in the town of Arsal may be the first of many in Lebanon, writes Andrew Bossone

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the start of the Syrian uprising, Arsal has practically been a Syrian town. Loudspeakers fixed to trucks announce revolutionary slogans and songs and the Syrian accent can be heard just as much as the Lebanese.

Arsal, in the Bekaa Valley, has also been home for Syrians for a long time because of the familial ties of its residents. But recently it drew the attention of Lebanese security forces as a base for fighters moving between the two countries and for smuggling weapons. Occasionally Lebanese security has conducted operations in Arsal, but for the most part has left the town alone and residents in peace.

On 1 February, however, the military entered the town searching for Khaled Hmayed, who was suspected of several crimes, including kidnapping, smuggling, and arms and drugs trafficking. Hmayed was wanted for the kidnapping of seven Estonians about two years ago, and is also believed to have ties to Hussein Houjeiri, who is linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Hmayed’s link to Al-Qaeda, as well as to the Nusra Front fighting in Syria, was most likely the strongest reasons for attempting to capture him.

A year ago Hmayed was believed to be involved in another operation in Arsal when the Lebanese army tried to arrest Hamza Karkouz, a Syrian suspect. The operation failed because the military intelligence patrol was surrounded, disarmed and stopped from arresting Karkouz. This time the operation went drastically different, with deadly results. Hmayed was killed, along with two members of the Lebanese military, in addition to several injuries.

Accounts of the event are disputed, but the Directorate of Guidance of the Lebanese Army released a statement with its version of the story.

“When a Lebanese army patrol was chasing someone suspected by the courts of several terrorist operations in the outskirts of the town of Arsal, the patrol was caught in an armed ambush,” the statement said. “Clashes erupted between the Lebanese army and the gunmen, resulting in the martyrdom of a captain and a lieutenant, in addition to wounding several soldiers and serious damage to military vehicles. Several insurgents were also wounded.”

The head of the Arsal municipality said the military entered the town in its operation in civilian vehicles with no licence plates, and were wearing civilian clothes. The operation certainly could have happened that way because the information branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), not the Lebanese army, seems to have led the operation. Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel denied those details of the story.

“The Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF] entered Arsal in military vehicles and the two [LAF members] who were killed were wearing their military uniforms,” Charbel told Voice of Lebanon radio station.

The deaths of the two soldiers, Pierre Bachaalany and Ibrahim Zahraman, received widespread condemnation from relatives, friends, religious figures and politicians. It became a platform for political posturing and elevating the status of the military. Some members of the 14 March coalition took the opportunity to condemn Syria and Hizbullah, which was rejected by some other politicians.

“The town of Arsal has always suffered from the Syrian regime’s conspiracies and attempts to lure it into clashes with the [Lebanese] government and its institutions,” said a statement by the office of MP Saad Al-Hariri.

Most other politicians spoke of the importance of the military. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri told the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir that the attack on the military was “a crime against the whole nation” and that troops “should not need permission to enter any region.”

Berri’s comments about the military are rather curious because the military has been ineffective at providing stability, standing up to Israel or entering certain areas of Lebanon, particularly those controlled by Hizbullah. But it shows that the military is still concerned with fighting certain Islamic militants, particularly those with activities in Palestinian camps.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar says that the Al-Nusra Front that Hmayed was allegedly tied to was establishing a coalition in the camps including members of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, Fatah Al-Islam, Jund Al-Sham, Usbat Al-Ansar, and the Islamic Jihad Movement. The paper says that Islamists are in control of half of Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp, so the operation in Arsal may be the first of many to come.

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