The Islamic State Is Capitalizing on Lebanon’s Economic Collapse

A growing number of Lebanese men are deciding their best hopes lie with jihadis next door.

Lebanon’s deepening economic crisis and long political stagnation have recently persuaded dozens of the country’s Sunnis that their most hopeful future involves joining the Islamic State. Over the last several months, young and unemployed Sunni men from the poorest parts of the country have been lured with the promise of handsome salaries by Islamic State handlers to join the group and multiply its forces.

Some of the men who have fled Lebanon for Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State had previously served time in Lebanese prisons or were suspected of having links with or sympathy for extremist outfits. Most, however, simply came from areas of Lebanon riven with poverty and sectarian rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis.

At the peak of Syria’s civil war, hundreds of men from the Sunni-dominated Lebanese areas of Tripoli, Akkar, and Arsal joined Syrian rebels, including Islamist jihadi groups, affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They carried out many lethal attacks inside the country, including using car bombs. Sometimes, they carried their violence back home. In 2015, the Islamic State’s suicide bombers killed more than 40 people and injured more than 200 in an attack in Burj al-Barajneh, a Shiite-dominated suburb of Beirut.

Their ire at home was often focused on the Shiite group Hezbollah. But Lebanon’s army quickly reined in the extremists in northern Lebanon. In 2017, in a joint operation with Hezbollah, the military pushed out hundreds of Islamic State fighters, their families, and sympathizers from the border town of Arsal to Deir Ezzor, Syria.

After years of calm since the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, there has been a recent spike in violence by the group. Last month, just a day after the Islamic State attempted to break into a prison in al-Hasakah in northeast Syria, which holds 3,000 Islamic State members, a group of fighters broke into an army base in the al-Azim district, north of Baghdad, and shot to death 11 soldiers while they were asleep. Within days, Iraqi forces found those who carried out the massacre and avenged the killings. Iraqis launched airstrikes on the hideout and killed nine alleged Islamic State members, including at least four Lebanese, though Lebanese media said five Lebanese were killed.

Lebanese security officials believe a collapsing economy and an accompanying deterioration in the standard of living are the prime reasons driving young men away from the country and toward the jihadi group. Impoverished parts of Lebanon like Tripoli have turned into a perfect recruiting ground for the Islamic State. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019, resulting in a more than 600 percent increase in food prices. Even before the economic crisis, 60 percent of people in Tripoli lived in poverty. Although Lebanon’s interior minister told the Lebanese press that 37 men had left Tripoli to join the Islamic State, local activists claim the number is higher, saying nearly a hundred men have left the country recently to join the group.

A senior security official, speaking to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity, said Islamic State recruiters typically lure young Lebanese ages 18 to 24 with the offer of a $500 to $600 monthly salary. “I expect more to leave if the financial temptation keeps flowing,” he told Foreign Policy. “However, the killing of at least five in Iraq might serve as a discouragement and make others reconsider.”

Four mothers of Lebanese recruits to the Islamic State who were killed in two separate Iraqi airstrikes claim that they believed their boys were not extremists but victims of joblessness, the stigma of being sympathetic to extremist groups and incessant state scrutiny. At least three of the men were engaged to be married and were worried about an uncertain stream of income. One of the men, Zakaria al-Adl, was known in his community to have left to escape poverty last summer and was presumed to have hopped onto a boat to Europe. He, in fact, landed in the Islamic State’s arms in Iraq.

Another one of the men, Omar Seif, was running from Lebanese state security. Seif had been convicted for connections with an extremist outfit and sentenced to five years in prison, but even after he served his sentence, he was chased by security officials and was not accepted by the society. “What happened with Omar was a result of the unbearable pressure he was subjected to by the state after being released from prison,” his mother told Foreign Policy. “They kept arresting him and torturing him every now and then for investigation.”

Gen. Elias Farhat, a retired official with the Lebanese army and a political analyst, said alleged strictness by state security or sectarian tensions are “not an excuse” to join the Islamic State. “Security services are always after the suspects, and they do not chase. Rather they call them to question them about possible involvement,” he said. Active sleeper cells and remnants of the Islamic State in the region is the real problem, he expounded. “After ISIS was defeated in Lebanon and al-Nusra [former al Qaeda affiliate] were driven to Idlib, [Syria], it is likely that many sleeper cells remained in Tripoli, Akkar, and other regions. Elements from these cells join al Qaeda and ISIS from time to time. Last year, our intelligence services stormed an ISIS cell in Akkar.”

Tripoli’s Sunnis, however, feel unfairly targeted by the security apparatus and complain about crackdowns on militancy. Local activists have been campaigning against detentions of thousands of Sunnis without trial merely on the basis of suspicions that they might have links to jihadis.

Lebanon’s Sunnis in general resent Hezbollah’s rise and feel sidelined by their own political leadership. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the biggest Sunni leader in the country, abandoned his role when he announced a temporary sabbatical from politics and said he won’t be running in the upcoming May elections. “I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence,” Hariri said. But critics fear his exit might further strengthen Hezbollah’s grip on politics and boost the chances of the group and its allies.

At the end of Lebanon’s long and blood-soaked civil war, all sectarian groups except for Hezbollah gave up arms. The group said its arms were meant to protect Lebanon from Israel, but many inside the country fear their alleged protector. In October 2021, while Hezbollah supporters protested against the judge investigating the Beirut post blast, they came under fire in a Christian neighborhood. Hezbollah responded with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades as the streets turned into a war zone within minutes.

Hezbollah’s supporters said the group never starts a fight. There is nonetheless a palpable sense of insecurity in the country, which has led to an increase in the purchase of guns and ammunition. Many are buying guns to protect the money they don’t wish to deposit, but others wish to be prepared to protect themselves in case political violence or sectarian riots erupt.

Lebanon’s officials are coordinating with its Iraqi counterparts and said that although the spike in the number of people who joined the Islamic State has made them more attentive, they are in control of the situation, which is still less worrying than it was in 2014. But a combination of poverty and political disaffection might continue to make the prospect of joining extremist groups alluring for many Lebanese who already come from a religiously conservative milieu and, in some cases, already have well-established links to jihadis.

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