The 'Jihadi Spring' - could Isis gain a foothold in Lebanon?

'We understand no borders,' says one Isis fighter, 'we will go wherever our sheik wants to send us'

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:30 ON Tue 24 Jun 2014

BEIRUT - The sudden, dramatic loss of huge corridors of Iraq to the extremist Sunni group Isis has quite rightly rattled the region. In Lebanon, an unstable country that most analysts predicted would fall prey to violent civil unrest long ago, the stakes are even higher, and fears of a similar development may not be unfounded.

The current rift between Iraq's Sunnis, who account for around 40-45 per cent of citizens, and its Shia people, believed to make up just over 50 per cent, has been brewing ever since the US helped install a Shia prime minister who went on to neglect and marginalise the half of the population not from his sect.

Resentment, poverty, the absence of a stake in the systems of governance and daily experience of violence are powerful factors that can push a person to pick up a gun and get behind an ideology - any ideology. Tellingly, most of those now advancing on Baghdad under the flag of Isis are not actually part of the extremist group, but come instead from various disaffected local tribes and, remarkably, Saddam Hussein's pro-secular Baath party.

Isis - which was born in Iraq - does not have anywhere near the same foothold in Lebanon as it does back home. But, and it's a big but, there are more than enough corners in this tiny Mediterranean country where the group could find willing recruits if it wished.

Tripoli, Lebanon's northern capital and second-biggest city, has been collapsing under the weight of clashes between a largely Sunni neighborhood whose residents wish to see President Bashar Assad out of a job, and a predominantly Alawite area where locals support the Syrian leader and the continuing supremacy of their sect next door.

The fighting has stopped - for the moment - leaving all the militants involved kicking their feet as they wait for another call to arms. Further, Tripolitans have long complained that the government doesn't care about their city, which has become something of a dirty backwater amid a lack of policies to stimulate the tattered economy. The poverty in Tripoli is immense, and is one of the primary factors behind the never-ending cycles of violence there.

Down south, the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh is being carefully watched in light of recent clashes and a spate of reports that it is harbouring extremist Sunni militants. As in Tripoli, poverty, unemployment and resentment are rife. The Palestinian population, almost entirely Sunni, is widely acknowledged to be the worst-off in Lebanon and has long been fertile ground for fundamentalists seeking recruits.

The numerous car bombs and suicide attacks that took place between August last year and March this year were not claimed by Isis but by various al-Qaeda affiliates. However, that dark period is proof that some in Lebanon are wide open to the idea of a campaign of fundamentalist violence similar to what has been seen in Iraq.

Further, the hostility among some toward Lebanese party Hezbollah for its risky involvement in the Syrian civil war alongside Assad - part of a Shia alliance that stretches to Iran - should not be underestimated. Already there are recurrent whispers that the Lebanese Army is biased and turns a blind eye to Hezbollah's activities, something cited as the motive behind several attacks earlier this year.

So the conditions for an Isis surge are arguably there, and there are many parallels to the situation in Iraq. But does Isis have any desire to come for Lebanon?

Part of the answer is in the name. The reason it is sometimes written Isis and sometimes written Isil is because the final word in Arabic is "al-Sham" which refers to historic Greater Syria or the Levant, an area that includes Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Palestine and part of Turkey.

In an Isis propaganda video released last week featuring fighters from the UK and Australia, one declared: "We understand no borders ... We have participated in battles in Sham (Syria), and we will go to Iraq in a few days, and we will fight there and come back, and we will even go to Jordan and Lebanon, with no problems - wherever our sheik wants to send us."

A successful security crackdown has been underway for a while now, but the months-long veneer of calm cracked last Friday and again last night when suicide bombers blew themselves up at army checkpoints. Lebanese authorities have been working hard to root out potential terror threats, but will it be enough to keep the regional tide of Sunni extremism at bay? ·