The annual country report on Lebanon published by the US State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism begins with a clear statement, “Lebanon was a committed ally in the defeat-ISIS fight during 2017, and its ground forces represented one of the most effective counterterrorism partners in the region. It is worth reviewing in light of the recurring charges that Lebanon does not do enough to prevent terrorism and terrorism-related financing.
The United States provided security assistance and training to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and worked with Lebanon’s defense and law enforcement organizations, such as the Internal Security Forces (ISF), to build its counterterrorism capabilities.” The report also notes that “Lebanon is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and participates in all four of the Coalition’s civilian working groups.”
The summary is in sharp contrast to critics who claim that Hezbollah has extensive influence and in fact provides direction at times to the defense and security organizations. In the details of the report, one finds that the contradictions exist because “Terrorist groups operating in Lebanon included US government-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations Hizballah, ISIS, Hamas, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.”
It goes on to note that even though Lebanon continues to reaffirm its official dissociation policy, which commits it to remain out of regional conflicts, Hezbollah continues to act in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as a proxy force for Iran. The report also points out that “Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, particularly the largest, Ain el-Helweh, remained outside the jurisdiction of local security forces and posed a security threat due to potential militant recruitment and terrorist infiltration.”
Thus the quandary, how does Lebanon protect its territorial integrity, independence, and multi-religious heritage when it has large, permanent forces in the country that may not share the central values that connect the Lebanese people? In fact, the report poses the problem quite starkly, “Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system and Hizballah’s restriction of access to areas under its control hinders implementation of [Lebanon’s counterterrorism laws]. Hizballah’s political power make consensus on any anti-Hizballah legislation impossible.”
The LAF, ISF, Directorate of General Security, and General Directorate of State Security are the primary government agencies responsible for counterterrorism, and are the primary recipients of US training assistance, which focuses on building interagency cooperation and capacity-building. During 2017, the ISF was supported by a number of programs that included construction of training facilities, establishing a secure communications system, and protective gear and vehicles, which continued in 2018 along with more training in enhanced investigation techniques and digital investigative technology.
Another priority is protecting the integrity of the financial sector. Lebanon’s banks continue to cooperate with the Departments of Treasury and Justice on programs that ensure the health of the banking system. The banking community works diligently to fully implement the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (HIFPA) by meeting with US government officials to review compliance, auditing, and reporting requirements defined by this act and its amendments, and distribute these regulations throughout the banking community, according to the report.
As part of its efforts to eliminate terrorist financing, Lebanon is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF); the Special Investigation Commission, which is the financial intelligence unit of the Central Bank, is a member of The Egmont Group that provides a platform for the secure exchange of expertise and financial intelligence to combat money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF); and Lebanon also is a member of the Counter-ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), a working group of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition.
Another area of broad bilateral cooperation are programs for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). “Several government institutions and civil society organizations conducted CVE programs and messaging platforms. The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon continued to work with the prime minister’s office on advancing a “National Action Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism.” The LAF developed a comprehensive counter-messaging strategy that amplifies moderate voices and uses television spots, social media, billboards, and SMS texts to counter terrorist narratives. The Lebanese cities Madjal Anjar, Saida, and Tripoli are members of the Strong Cities Network.” In addition, Saint Joseph University and Hagazian University were among global finalists in Facebook sponsored “communities against violence” competition and presented their projects in Washington, DC.
Finally, Lebanon’s regional efforts were also noted in the report. “Lebanon supported counterterrorism efforts in regional organizations and participated in counterterrorism finance programs as a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League, and the Union of Arab Banks. In the framework of MENAFATF and the Egmont Group, Lebanon offered training to regional peers in international standards to combat terrorist financing.” Lebanon also consistently supported UN Security Council Resolutions to combat various incidents of terrorism and partnered on security assistance initiatives with several nations, most regularly with the United Kingdom.
Given the internal and external challenges inherent in its political system and the region, Lebanon’s defense and security forces are remarkably effective in protecting the state and providing stability for the people of Lebanon. With an effective governing coalition and continued international support, the country could extend its counterterrorism operations even more broadly in the country and enable communities to focus on quality of life issues rather than security.