As the world watches the Islamic State (IS) in North-West Iraq, its presence in Lebanon last week has all but been forgotten. However, a closer look at this brief incursion betrays some intriguing truths about the jihadis who have knocked al-Qaeda into obscurity.
When the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested Imad Ahmad Jumaa, the former Jabhat al-Nusra commander, at the beginning of August they sparked off a series of events that brought Lebanon to a precipice. Jumaa’s detention became an opportunity for IS to move into a state that was already teetering on a sectarian knife-edge and has been desperately trying to keep out of the Syrian Civil War for some years now.
Even though it’s now back under government control, the jihadist takeover of the border town of Arsal was the most serious spillover from Syria into Lebanon yet. There have been other encroachments, but this was by far the most significant. The fact that it one seemed to be led by IS fighters made it all the more worrying. Although, contrary to some speculation, it doesn’t mean that IS is looking to mount a full invasion into Lebanon, as some analysts speculated.
What, then, did motivate IS to make its move in Lebanon? After all, it’s already fighting the Kurds (both Syrian and Iraqi), Iraqis (both military and paramilitary) and Syrians (both secular and Islamist).
Initially, it looked like this was part of a long-planned strategy of provocation. Even if it pushed IS to the limit of its operational ability, fighting with the LAF and Hezbullah would have slotted right into its grand strategy of exacerbating sectarianism in the region, such that Shias and Sunnis are forced into war with one another.
On a tactical level, too, it looked like a meticulously planned offensive: elements of Arsal’s takeover at were strikingly reminiscent of when IS took the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.
So it came as a surprise to hear that IS militants had agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the area’s Muslim clerics soon after. Even more surprising were the reports that IS had withdrawn completely from Arsal days later. Now, the town seems to be back under Lebanese control, free from jihadists.
There are two points of interest here: firstly, that Jabhat al-Nusra and IS were fighting side by side. True, both are jihadist groups. But both have also been at loggerheads for nearly a year, with each attempting to undermine the other through assassinations, suicide bombings and fully fledged military operations. That they fought together in Lebanon is truly remarkable.
Second, it was most intriguing to learn that IS agreed to a ceasefire with a secular state. This suggests that its fighters in Arsal were either on a rescue mission and nothing more, or that they felt out-gunned by the Lebanese army and sorely regretted trying to bring it into the conflict. Either way, they chose to retreat, instead of dying as martyrs fighting the “kufr” state, certainly not something that we’ve come to expect from them.
Last week’s events tell us something important about IS – it is not as coherent and centralised as rumour might have it, at least in this part of the world. To fight alongside a sworn enemy such as Jabhat al-Nusra goes directly against Baghdadi’s anti-al-Qaeda policy, as does agreeing to a truce with a state like Lebanon. Hence it is unlikely that the orders to enter Lebanon came from the top of the IS hierarchy.
What seems more probable is that this was a group of fighters that pledged allegiance to Baghdadi out of pragmatism, not ideology. After all, logistically, it’s very tempting to be an ally of the most successful player in a conflict as protracted as this. Hence, the “IS militants” who fought in Arsal last week could well have been only nominal associates of the Caliphate, jihadists allied by default pursuing their own aims rather than those of Baghdadi.
While it is fighting on seven fronts spanning over a thousand kilometres, and being struck with US bombs, it seems unlikely that it has sufficient resources and manpower to take on Lebanon. That said, the world should not look away. After all, few predicted that IS would be able to capture Mosul in June. Even fewer thought that it was strong enough to give the Kurdish Pershmerga a run for its money.
Given that the Sunni-Shia cleavage is at the heart of its ideology, Lebanon faces an already-critical existential threat from IS. If, however, the international community does not push back swiftly and robustly against IS’ blitzkrieg-like advances in the region, the threat is inevitable. A situation in which Lebanon, a country that has long suffered from pronounced sectarian cleavages, falls apart under IS pressure must not be allowed to come into fruition.
Charlie Cooper is a Middle East researcher at Quilliam.