Security officials Wednesday advised Lebanese to treat rumors with caution and skepticism after a video was released by an alleged militant group threatening air traffic at Rafik Hariri International Airport. “The video cannot be disregarded nor can it be believed,” a military source told The Daily Star. “Investigations are ongoing and we are working on it ... the security forces are always changing their approach and installing new procedures [to deal with threats].”
Three gunmen claiming to be affiliated with extremist preacher Ahmad al-Assir appeared in a video posted on YouTube, warning that they would target airplanes from Iran alleged to be carrying arms and gear destined for Hezbollah.
“We, the Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir Brigades, affirm today that we will continue to work against the apostates and their masters from the land of Satan [Iran],” one of three gunmen said, speaking in short bursts.
He said they would “attack the aid they [Iran] give to Hezbollah, which reaches our country through Rafik Hariri airport ... Every plane carrying these weapons is a target of ours.” A black flag bearing Islamic inscriptions could be seen in the background of the video, while a machine gun lay in front of the men.
Assir was arrested at the Beirut airport last year after eluding authorities for two years. He was detained for orchestrating a two-day battle against the Lebanese army on June 2013, in Abra, east of Sidon, which led to the deaths of 18 soldiers and 40 militant followers. Assir and his suspected loyalists are currently on trial.
Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has bluntly confirmed that the party receives funds and arms from Iran. Yet he said that the aid is delivered overland via Syria and not through the airport.
The military source said that no exceptional procedures are being installed at the airport, as security forces constantly change their approaches and protocols. “Nothing remains the same, we are always moving forward,” the source said. “We are always modernizing and changing our approaches so that we increase security.”
The video was circulated on social media and could not be verified. It remains unclear if the militants have access to anti-aircraft weapons, or from where they intend to stage their attacks.
The Internal Security Forces issued a statement calling on Lebanese not to be swayed by the flurry of rumors circulating on social media claiming that terrorist attacks are imminent.
“Do not believe anything except what is issued by the appropriate security agencies,” the statement advised. “Security forces often receive information concerning terrorist plots, which it takes seriously ... but after investigation most of the time the information is proven to be inaccurate.”
The statement said the ISF would arrest individuals who spread baseless rumors warning of possible terrorist attacks. A number of voice recordings have circulated in which individuals claim that high ranking security sources have instructed them to be wary of certain areas as they are going to be targeted next.
The statement also asked Lebanese to remain vigilant and report anything suspicious to the authorities. A heightened state of vigilance and alert has gripped the country after eight suicide bombers targeted the border town of Al-Qaa earlier Monday.
Speaker Nabih Berri warned that he had received information suggesting that militants plan on targeting the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and prominent national figures.
Berri told visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence in Beirut Tuesday evening that UNIFIL has been informed of these attempts so that it can take appropriate measures. He also revealed that the Army has arrested a number of militants suspected of orchestrating the plot. Earlier this month, the international peacekeeping force issued memos warning its staff of possible terrorist attacks in south Lebanon.
South Lebanon has largely been spared in the wave of bombings and suicide attacks.
“What we are facing today with the terrorist threat requires the unity of the Lebanese people,” Berri said. “If there is no agreement on disputed issues, then we must at least unite in the face of this poison, which threatens us all.”
Berri said that it was not just al-Qaa that was targeted, but the whole of Lebanon, adding that the Christian village is symbolic of Lebanon’s social fabric.
He said that Lebanon must prevent attempts by militants to create a Sunni-Shiite conflict, as they tried to do in Arsal.
Arsal was the scene of a five-day battle in August 2014, that pitted the Lebanese army against Daesh and the Nusra Front terrorists.
Dozens were killed in the battle, and more than 30 servicemen were abducted. Most have since been released, but nine are suspected to remain in Daesh custody.
By Nazih Osseiran
Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.