Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and the former Iraqi generals who chart his strategy, this week abruptly reversed the orders issued to the fugitives escaping from the various fronts in Syria and Iraq. Instead of fleeing east as usual – and heading for the jihadist bastions in Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria and Abu Kamal in western Iraq – they were instructed to take the opposite route and head west for a new destination: Lebanon.
This change in tactics is momentous and far-reaching, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
Defeated ISIS fighters on the run from embattled Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, previously reassembled in the two towns straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border: Abu Kamal in the Deir ez-Zour Governate of eastern Syria, and Al Qa’im in the Anbar Province of western Iraq, 400km from Baghdad. (See attached map.). The Al Qa’im border crossing, one of the major Middle East supply routes, was captured by ISIS in June 2014.
This safe haven for ISIS fighters escaping from warfronts was bombed by US warplanes on Saturday, March 11. The US Central Command said an “improvised weapons factory” was struck in Al Qa’im and a gas and oil separation plant in neighboring Abu Kamal.
These primitive oil and gas installations provide the Islamic State with its main source of revenue. American and Iraqi intelligence agencies are sure that Al-Baghdadi and his top lieutenants are hiding in one of the two towns or in a safe house between them.
The two towns’ other advantage for the terrorist organization is their geography: both are situated in sparsely populated mostly desert regions with few approach roads. Intruders driving along them are clearly visible from afar. Moreover, the dense vegetation of the Euphrates river banks and nearby forests provide effective cover for surreptitious movements against aerial and satellite surveillance.
So why has the ISIS turned its attention to new turf, instead of consolidating the two heavily-invested strongholds straddling one of the most strategically important borders in the world, which also offers a safe hideaway for fugitives?
- ISIS leaders see fresh prey in Lebanon’s weak government and army.
- Chronically beset with conflicts among the Sunni, Hizballah-Shiite and Christian communities, Lebanon offers a vulnerable playing field for ISIS inroads.
- The jihadist leaders have cast their eye on Lebanon’s second largest town of Tripoli, 85km north of Beirut, a strongly Sunni city with a Mediterranean port.
- They are also looking hard at Sidon, the third largest city, located 40km south of Beirut on the southern Mediterranean coast. Its added advantage is proximity to the Israeli border, no more than 60km north of Naharia, the closest the Islamic State has ever come to an Israeli town.
Adjoining Sidon, which has a core population of 90,000, is the Palestinian refugee camp-town of Ain Hilwa, among whose quarter of a million inmates ISIS has already planted cells – both overt and sleepers.
- ISIS leaders now conclude that their Iraqi-Syria border strongholds may prove too hard to secure when, according to their reckoning, they are targeted for American or Russian attacks. In unstable Lebanon, they see little chance of any military foreign power intervening to fight a terrorist organization.
- They are also strongly attracted to a new option offered by Lebanon of hitting Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria from the rear.
- DEBKA Weekly’s sources reveal that American and Israeli intelligence services this week conveyed a warning to the new Lebanese President Michel Aoun with details of the ISIS conspiracy to overrun parts of his country, as it did in Iraq and Syria three years ago. Aoun was already under notice from Washington to watch his step after a statement he made in Cairo last month which elevated Iranian surrogate Hizballah to national status. This group, Aoun said, complemented the Lebanese Army in helping in its defense against “Israeli aggression.”
The Trump administration is pondering continued funding for a national army that colludes with an outfit listed by the US as a terrorist organization.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources also reveal that jihadists on their way to fight for the black flag in Syria from the Caucasians republics were ordered to turn back.