Middle East

Is Lebanon next on Isis hit list?

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Media captionMany believe jihadists from the Islamic State are behind the attacks in Lebanon

News that jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) had declared the creation of a "caliphate" last month initially sent Lebanon's social media networks into a frenzy of puns and jokes depicting them as backward, bloodthirsty bearded men.

But soon, worry replaced laughter. After months of relative calm, Lebanon was hit again by a series of attacks accompanied by a slew of arrests of suspected suicide bombers.

A general belief is starting to grow that the IS, the precursor to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), stands behind the renewed instability in the country.

"When the [caliphate] was established across the border between Syria and Iraq, IS made the threat that Lebanon would be in the eye of the storm," says Maj-Gen Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon's General Security intelligence agency.

"The last wave of attacks is an interpretation of that threat."

Much of what is known about IS plans and operations in Lebanon has been circulating in the media through co-ordinated and anonymous leaks from the investigations into the arrested suspects.

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Image caption Lebanon has seen a recent rise in instability and security concerns following a number of suicide attacks

There was talk of IS appointing an emir for Lebanon and plotting massive attacks on Shia areas, as well as targeting public figures.

But all of this remains unconfirmed, contrary to what the IS had itself declared, which is its grand project to destroy borders between Arab states and rule them all under one Islamic entity.

'Ending Sykes-Picot'

In a widely shared video, an IS fighter is seen walking across what used to be the border between Iraq and Syria and vowing to "break all borders in Jordan, Lebanon, and all the borders, inshallah [God willing]".

The video is called The End of Sykes-Picot, a reference to the 1916 secret agreement between the British and the French which shaped the modern Middle Eastern.

Such calls do not echo favourably in Lebanon, even within the circles of the Salafists, ultraconservative Islamists who call for a return to the political and moral practice of the first Muslims.

"The announcement of the Islamic State will backfire on all Muslims and eventually lead to the division of Iraq," says Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a Salafist sheikh who has a religious show on an Islamic radio channel broadcasting from the northern city of Tripoli.

Sheikh Rahim and other Sunni clerics point out what they consider flaws in the declaration of the caliphate and strongly reject the brutality that accompanied it.

But such positions do not go unchecked by some IS supporters in Lebanon.

Opponents, including Sheikh Rahim, have received death threats and disturbing messages via text and social media networks promising to make them pay for speaking out.

"In one message, the sender threatened to chop our heads off and to sever our heads from our bodies," says Sheikh Rahim.

Stability threat

For the clerics, the overzealous sympathisers of the IS are to be feared more than the radical organisation itself, at least for the moment.

This belief resonates with the assessment of Gen Ibrahim.

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Image caption This football fan park in central Beirut, usually full of fans, was empty earlier this month

"There is definitely a feeling for IS in the country, the ideas they promote are present in Lebanon. Call it IS or whatever you want, that ideology exists here," the intelligence chief says.

Few fear an incursion or establishment of a foothold for IS in the country.

"What they can do is an attack here, a bomb there. They can disrupt stability in Lebanon. That's what they can do and that's what we will strive to stop them from doing."

Western sources have told the BBC the string of arrests related to IS in Lebanon is an indication of a legitimate concern of infiltration, but not necessarily of a prominent existence.

The recent bombings blamed on the group have also unified a usually divided Lebanese government that, faced with a common enemy, is working in unison to counter the threat early on.

Tourism hit

So far, the significant damage they have caused for Lebanon is one of perception.

The tourism industry - which accounts for a major part of Lebanon's GDP - has already taken a hit as travellers from the Gulf and other regions have cancelled trips amid security concerns.

The role of IS in the latest events in Lebanon and its true plans for the Levant all remain unanswered questions for the moment.

What is sure is that the spectre of the group has infiltrated people's minds, be it by work of media or work of terror.

Today there is much talk about IS in Lebanon.

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