On the evening of June 3, a gunman killed two police officers and two members of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in Tripoli, Lebanon. The assailant, identified posthumously as Lebanese national Abdel Rahman Mabsout, opened fire and threw explosives at two security positions while riding a motorcycle, before retreating to a residential building. When the military attempted to siege the apartment complex, Mabsout detonated an explosive vest, killing himself (Gulf News, June 4).
Subsequent to the attack, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab confirmed that Mabsout had traveled to Syria to fight under the banner of the Islamic State (IS), and spent 18 months in the infamous Roumieh prison charged with terrorism offenses, before being released in late 2017 (Al Manar, June 4). Although little is known about Mabsout’s past prior to his attempts to join IS, his time in prison clearly did not weaken or nullify his jihadist beliefs, and the attack demonstrated inherent structural weaknesses within the wider Lebanese judicial system.
The IS Operations Room
In January 2015, then-Interior Minister Nihad Mashnouq stated that Roumieh prison, located in Matn district east of Beirut, was an “operations room” for IS, after a raid by the security forces revealed the prison was being used as an ad-hoc staging ground by Islamist detainees linked to Fatah al-Islam, al-Qaeda, and IS (Asharq Al-Aswat, January 12, 2015). Despite this revelation, few long-term structural upgrades were made, and Roumieh remains an incubation chamber for jihadism.
Out of almost 3,400 inmates in Roumieh, just over 1,000 have been convicted, with the rest awaiting trial (Asharq Al-Aswat, November 15, 2018). Of the overall prison population, at least 1,200 are being held on terror-related charges (Arab News, June 4). Owing to the slow nature of convictions, overcrowding, and substandard humanitarian conditions, numerous groups are calling for trials to be expedited or amnesties issued to certain detainees. In Lebanon, there is no system to classify or separate inmates based upon crimes; in Roumieh, prisoners are classified as ‘Islamist’ or ‘non-Islamists’, but these categorizations are based upon little evidence and extremists are free to interact with other inmates.
Roumieh itself is just a microcosm of the problems facing the Lebanese judicial system, especially when it comes to cases of Islamist extremism. Questions have been raised about the length of Mabsout’s sentence. There are no international processes in place to help domestic courts determine the extent of Mabsout’s crimes in Syria. With no formal method of concluding whether Mabsout was operationally active or committed actions tantamount to war crimes, he was only convicted of joining a foreign terrorist organization and served a reduced sentence.
These structural failures breed not just radicalization, but anti-state malaise, with the two often coalescing. The targeting of state-level security forces by Mabsout was likely deliberate. Allegations that the security forces, over which Hezbollah holds significant influence, deliberately target members of the Sunni community despite limited evidence of militant activity have furthered resentment of the state. Accusations of torture are commonplace, while convictions can be deliberately delayed. There was an influx of Sunni prisoners from 2014-2017 following a series of attacks on the Lebanese security forces, who reciprocally conducted a significant sweep of any suspected Sunni militants (The National, June 22). Members of the Sunni community claim the crackdown and subsequent neglect of Sunni detainees was disproportionate, fostering anti-state animosity.
Mabsout demonstrated the results of ideological hardening. Two distinct factors can strengthen an individual’s ideological belief in jihadism—time in Syria within IS’ self-declared caliphate and exposure to other extremists while incarcerated. While the practical deficiencies of Roumieh prison are not enough alone to foster radicalization, mixing with other jihadists, some of whom are experienced jihadist imams, can reinforce extremist views.
The lack of separation between inmates means those convicted for fairly minor criminal charges can be exposed to radical Islam; becoming part of a jihadist group can be appealing to former Sunni moderates attempting to find a purpose in life. It has been noted that anyone who enters Roumieh is a potential new terrorist (The National, June 22). Current Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan has called for structural reforms to prison and military detention centers, including rehabilitation strategies and reviews of classification procedures (Al-Monitor, May 10). In reality, such reforms are years away from implementation and are not far-reaching enough to fix the issues of overcrowding, radicalization and discrimination.
Little assistance exists for ex-detainees, which can further perceptions of discrimination and state-level neglect. No program exists to aid the transition back into normal life, and ex-detainees can find it hard to find work, while their access to a passport is restricted. In addition, there is a lack of post-release surveillance from the security services. The authorities do not have the bandwidth to be able to monitor ex-prisoners who are deemed to be at risk of radicalization, or are displaying continued jihadist tendencies, such as Mabsout.
A Tinderbox Ready to Ignite?
Al-Hassan was quick to state that Mabsout acted as a ‘lone wolf’, and was in an unstable psychological condition (Naharnet, June 4). It is beneficial for the state to characterize this as an isolated incident to soothe public fears and minimize any potential uptick in sectarian tensions. The IS propaganda machine was slow to take credit for the attack, only publishing a declaration of responsibility a month later in its al-Nabaa newsletter; no evidence of collusion with Mabsout was given (The National, July 5). The firearms and explosives utilized by Mabsout indicate some sort of material assistance, but evidence of support from a wider cell has not been uncovered.
Despite the relatively low-impact nature of the incident and a lack of subsequent attacks indicating a developing trend, Mabsout’s aggression is representative of an underlying issue. Like Mabsout, there are hundreds of jihadists incarcerated in Roumieh and numerous other detention facilities across Lebanon who will be up for release in the coming months and years. Time in prison could harden their resolve and imbue extremists with the intent to conduct lone-actor attacks targeting state actors (7dnews, June 6).
The structural issues hampering the judicial system are highly unlikely to be solved in the medium term, owing to Lebanon’s current financial difficulties and a myriad of other factors. The army and ISF have proved adept at detecting and preventing more high-impact jihadist attacks, but officials are concerned about a revival in lone-actor attacks. Army Commander General Joseph Aoun has voiced concerns about the lone-wolves’ ability to operate, as a lack of red flags and operational trip wires make them harder to detect (Asharq al-Aswat, June 5). The release of hardened jihadists, some experienced fighters with time served in Syria, armed with augmented communications networks and renewed anti-state resentment, will prove challenging for the Lebanese security services in the coming months and years.