Al-aalem Al-jadeed, Saman Daoud, translated by Walaa Rayya
On the dawn of Friday, January 21, 2022, ISIS militants surprised an Iraqi army company in the Hawi al-Azeem area in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, and killed an officer with the rank of lieutenant and ten soldiers by small arms fire they had.
This attack was not an exceptional case for the Iraqi security services. The areas between Salah al-Din and Diyala governorates, especially the Hamrin Mountains, have been witnessing for two years now attacks by ISIS members who are holed up in caves there, which they take as safe havens and launch attacks from them on Iraqi security forces and civilians in some cases.
But what is remarkable this time is the disclosure of the nationality of the members of the organization who participated in the attack. A few days later, on January 29, the Ministry of Defense announced, through the Security Media Cell, that three air strikes with F-16 warplanes targeted ISIS in the Al-Azim area within the Diyala operations sector, and killed nine of the organization’s members. The cell indicated that the attack targeted the group that attacked the army forces.
Later, Iraqi military intelligence said, “among those killed were four Lebanese affiliated with ISIS.” The official Iraqi News Agency reported the names of the four dead according to security sources.
Despite these statements and announcements that identified the identities of the dead, a security expert familiar with the details of the attack revealed that the Iraqi security services only found three bodies of Iraqis and that there were no Lebanese bodies. The families of the dead questioned the fact that their children belonged to ISIS, wondering how they arrived in central Iraq days after their disappearance, while they were being monitored by the Lebanese authorities.
The case of the dead Lebanese came simultaneously with the ISIS attack on Al Sina’a prison in the city of Hasaka in northeastern Syria, which is under Kurdish administration and includes thousands of ISIS fighters, and at a time when ISIS attacks escalated in areas far from the Iraqi-Syrian border, which raised great concern in Iraq about the return of the series of violence in light of intelligence reports confirming that the organization is rebuilding its cells in several governorates.
Intersection in stories
An officer in the Iraqi intelligence service (N.G) said in an interview with Al-aalem Al-jadeed that among those killed in the January attack were six Lebanese who hailed from one area Tripoli, north of Beirut, which is considered an incubator for some extremist Sunni groups in Lebanon as he mentioned.
According to the information revealed by the officer, these are not the only Lebanese who entered Iraq to join ISIS. He says: “Dozens of them had entered the country to join the terrorist organization, and some of them joined it recently.”
Lebanese newspapers and news websites reported information about those who were killed in Iraq, indicating that the families of six Lebanese citizens had received news of the death of their sons in Iraq after they were targeted by the Iraqi army.
Lebanese news websites had published the names of the dead, their photos, and their areas of residence in Lebanon, and they are (Anas Ahmed Seif, Bakr Mahdi Seif, Omar Muhammad Seif, Youssef Ahmed Shkhaydam, his brother Omar from Burj Al Arab, and Youssef Al-Sayed from the Al-Qubba area), but this information was not confirmed by any official Lebanese source.
As for the Iraqi side, the official statements in this regard are almost limited to what was said by the spokesman of the armed forces, Yahya Rasoul, indicating that the killing of members of an ISIS cell, among whom were Lebanese, was the result of intelligence cooperation between Lebanon and Iraq and that the Iraqi forces were following the “cell” that was responsible for the killing of ten Iraqi soldiers and officers, and that the response of targeting the cell with F-16 planes and killing its members completely was not delayed.”
Reactions and questioning the legitimacy of the stories
The posts of the families and relatives of the killed Lebanese on social media caused displeasure and happiness to Iraqis at the same time. Many of them indicated that Iraq was the country that provided the most aid to Lebanon and that they did not expect the Lebanese people to respond to that by joining ISIS and killing innocents in Iraq.
Others expressed their happiness to see these posts in which the families of the killed men mourn, and considered them an indication of the truthfulness of the information circulated regarding the presence of Lebanese fighters or dead because they do not trust the Iraqi government media or those close to it.
This information sparked an online war on social media, between the Lebanese who considered the dead martyrs, and the Iraqis who described them as terrorists.
Abdul Latif Al-Hajul, an Iraqi writer interested in the activity of armed groups, says that it is unreasonable and acceptable for the relatives of the Lebanese dead to announce their pride in them and describe them as martyrs, while they were affiliated with a terrorist party inside Iraq and had killed Iraqi soldiers before they were liquidated.
“It is an understatement of the blood of Iraqis,” Al-Hajul says, he also described the Iraqi government as weak because it went quiet about the matter. He points out that the Lebanese were and still receive aid from Iraq despite everything, and asked to hold the parents accountable, “their children did not do something to be proud of, but rather to be ashamed of.”
However, on the Lebanese side, the families of the dead deny that their sons were affiliated with ISIS, and their lawyer, Muhammad al-Sablouh, said in a press conference held in his office in Tripoli on February 16, 2022, in the presence of a number of them, that there are many doubts and question marks about the sudden disappearance of the young men, most of whom are from Tripoli and announcing their death, along with several ISIS fighters.
He said that some of them received information about the possibility of getting arrested by the security services so they fled abroad for fear of arrest and torture, while others have already traveled to Iraq because of the job opportunities they were promised and not to join the ranks of ISIS.
He asked excitedly, “What does ISIS need for young men who are not trained to use weapons, then how did they manage to bypass the security services in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to get there?” referring to the supposed itinerary taken by the Lebanese young men to reach Iraq.
According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which had previously published a report indicating that Tripoli and Akkar in the north of Lebanon are among the poorest regions in the country, and the most economically vulnerable individuals were the most affected by the escalation of the economic crisis in these regions. The report also mentioned information about ISIS recruiting young men from the north of Lebanon in exchange for attractive monthly salaries for the Lebanese suffering from poverty.
But the material need does not undo the ideological aspect behind the recruitment, as the information available in Lebanon about two of the six killed in Iraq, named Bakr Seif and Omar Seif, shows that the first one was imprisoned in 2014 for seven years on charges of terrorism and violating administrative regulations, and the latter had fought previously in Syria and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for terrorism and was released after its termination.
Their entry into Iraq
According to its sources, Lebanese media reported in late 2021, more than a month before the attack, that the Lebanese ISIS members took the Lebanese border with Syria route to reach Iraq because it is not well fortified.
As stated in published stories and media interviews with the families of the Lebanese, 48 hours after the disappearance of their sons, which was in early 2022, some of them received calls from them via non-Lebanese phone numbers saying that their sons were in Iraq.
A few days later, the mother of one of them received a text message on her mobile phone, saying, “Your lover is dead, we found his phone in his pocket after he was killed.” It was on the night of January 27, 2022, which means that the Iraqi air strike took place on that day or the day before, but the Ministry of Defense announced it on January 29, 2022.
Most of the families of the young men received an audio recording via WhatsApp from an unknown edited female voice telling them that their children were dead, so these families set up condolence tent and received well-wishers, as they considered their children martyrs, according to what was published by Lebanese pages on social media.
Meanwhile, the Shkhaydam family announced that they knew about the killing of their two sons (Youssef and Omar) through social media and media.
An officer in the Iraqi intelligence service, who asked not to be named, confirms that the entry of the Lebanese into Iraq took place through Syria and then to Anbar in late 2021. He says that there are smugglers who transport ISIS members into Iraq, in return for sums of money paid by the organization to them.
The officer supported the information about other Lebanese joining ISIS in Iraq, which was confirmed by the sources and security procedures in Lebanon as well. According to what was stated by the lawyer Muhammad Al-Sablouh on February 16, 2022, five young men under the age of eighteen who were trying to travel to Iraq were arrested in Tripoli at the beginning of 2022 and handed over to the Mufti of Tripoli, who brought them back to their families.
The officer also confirmed that some of the Lebanese entered Iraq illegally through Sinjar district (127 km west of Nineveh Governorate), and stated that they introduced themselves as Syrian refugees due to the ease of buying Syrian documents because of the situation there, as well as the similarity between the Syrian and the Lebanese accent.
It seems from the information we obtained in Lebanon that the officer refers to persons who may be among those pursued by the security forces in Lebanon, so they travel unofficially to avoid falling into the hands of the Lebanese security services. Otherwise, Baghdad and Najaf International Airport are the main entrance through which the Lebanese usually enter Iraq, in addition to Erbil airport.
The economic crisis afflicting Lebanon, which the World Bank classified as the worst crisis in the last 172 years, led to the immigration of thousands of Lebanese to Iraq in search of job opportunities, including workers in restaurants and other service sectors, as well as medical and engineering cadres. Many of them also enter Iraq to visit the holy shrines of the Shiites in Najaf and Karbala.
Abdul Nabi Jabbar, an economic expert, points out that the doors in Iraq are open to the Lebanese, whether to those coming in search of job opportunities or to visit religious sites in Najaf and Karbala, “Iraq is a good investment option for Lebanese merchants, while Arab and foreign investors usually avoid it out of fear of the security issues in it.” He said.
He believes that the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon has prompted some of the young men there to join ISIS “for the sake of money, not for the sake of creed, and also to escape security or criminal prosecution. They are just mercenaries, and this is an important indication of the weakness of the organization, which has returned to the stage of the beginning of its emergence. Its members are just paid fighters.”
Iraq allows entry to the Lebanese with a six-month travel visa, according to what was mentioned by the Iraqi Minister of Industry, Manhal Aziz al-Khabbaz, during a joint press conference with his Lebanese counterpart, George Bushkian, on March 7, 2022. The conference was devoted to talking about the volume of trade exchange between the two countries, and preparations for approving an integration agreement between them.
No dead, no bodies
Contrary to what was reported by the Iraqi intelligence officer, the Iraqi security expert Sarmad Al-Bayati denies the presence of Lebanese dead among the bodies of ISIS members who were liquidated in the air attack announced by the Ministry of Defense in late January 2022.
He said that he inquired of the military commanders at the time and that they told him that only three bodies were found in the targeted areas, and they belonged to Iraqis, and they did not find the body of any Lebanese.
Al-Bayati was surprised by the Iraqi and Lebanese announcement of the killing of several Lebanese, but on the ground, there are no bodies, and adds: “They did not find the bodies of the Lebanese in the place that was bombed.”
But the security expert confirmed that the Iraqi forces “were unable to enter a cave in Diyala where ISIS elements were holed up because it was destroyed in the bombing and collapsed on those in it”, leaving open the possibility of the killing to occur.
In Lebanon, the families of the dead young men did not receive the bodies of their sons, according to what was assured by a number of their members, but they are now confident of their death because none of them have contacted them again, along with the Iraqi announcement of their killing.
Iraqi security sources stated that it is unlikely to have an identified body of ISIS elements after Iraqi F-16 missiles aerially bombarded them in Al-Azim, and all that can be found in such cases are mere torn parts or personal belongings that can help in the identification of the dead like mobile phones, SIM cards or ID cards.
The Impossible Return of ISIS
Expert Sarmad Al-Bayati rules out the return of ISIS in Iraq with the same power that it has before and after 2014. Al-Bayati believes that the organization has become weak, and what it is doing is just small operations, although it leaves many victims each time, and he points out: “But this does not mean that the group is not able to return as before.”
Al-Bayati called on the Iraqi government to develop the intelligence effort, support the air defenses, and strengthen them with up-to-date equipment, because, in addition to the tasks the army performs, it would definitively eliminate the organization as he said.
A United Nations report published in February 2022 indicated that “ISIS maintains a large hidden presence in Iraq and Syria” and wages an ongoing mutiny on both sides of the border between the two countries throughout the lands it previously controlled in Nineveh and Anbar. According to the report, the estimated number of ISIS militants present in Syria and Iraq is about ten thousand.
Researchers on the organization warn of the possibility of the group regaining part of its lost strength if it succeeds in “liberating its fighters and leaders” from the Kurdish self-administration prisons in Syria. It tried to do so in Al-Sina’a prison in Al-Hasakah, but the Syrian Democratic Forces disrupted its operation, which was carried out by more than 200 fighters.
It will be easy for the organization if its senior leaders and fighters are “liberated” to attract new fighters. Thousands of its supporters are waiting and their children will grow up in al-Hol camp carrying the same ideology and belief.
Adel Kamal, a political analyst, says that the operation of Al-Quran prison raised great concern and showed the organization’s ability to plan and move, and any success in releasing its fighters would raise Iraqi fears.
Even the mere talk of the arrest or killing of ISIS members in Iraq “raises the fears of the people in the areas that were under its authority or were the scene of its bloody operations between 2006 and until its defeat and expulsion in the summer of 2017.”
Kamal states that the issue is not related to the strength or weakness of the organization, but the result of its presence on the ground because there are thousands of citizens who have been displaced because of it, and their return requires guarantees that what happened in the past will not be repeated. “Also, it’s related to international organizations and investors who need reassurances and a safe environment to contribute to the reconstruction of what was destroyed by ISIS”.
How did they get access to Iraq?
In the Nahla Valley in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, debate still surrounds the topic of how the Lebanese young men arrived in Iraq to die out there. Their families confirm that their sons were detained by the Lebanese General Security, only to discover later that they were killed in Iraq, and even worse, that they were affiliated with ISIS, which they refuse to believe, and they hold the Lebanese security services responsible for what happened to them.
Bakr Seif (23 years), one of the six Lebanese killed in Iraq, was arrested for security reasons at the age of seventeen (in 2014) and was sentenced to seven years in prison. According to his mother and brother Muhammad, Bakr decided after his release to live his life away from any problems.
“He didn’t carry a mobile phone with him anymore, and he was planning to marry and prepared a house for that in Tripoli and set his wedding day on December 25, 2021, but he disappeared shortly before that,” his brother Muhammad confirms.
On December 27, 2021, his mother received a phone call from someone who told her in a sarcastic tone, “Your terrorist son is dead.” They have not received anything from an official Lebanese authority, and the security services have not even investigated the matter, despite the passing of more than three months since the incident, according to Muhammad al-Sablouh, the lawyer of the families of the disappeared persons.
Before that, when Bakr disappeared, his family contacted the security authorities and stated that they had obtained information that he was being held in the Lebanese General Security. His brother Muhammad says: “This proves that he was not in Iraq at the beginning of his disappearance, but detained, so how did he get to Iraq?”
According to well-informed Lebanese sources, the number of young men who joined ISIS from Tripoli ranges between 70 to 100 people. But there are no official statistics that can be relied upon, except for the media statement of the Lebanese Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi a few months ago revealing that thirty-seven Lebanese joined ISIS, ten of them left the country legally through Beirut International Airport and at least one of them called Zakaria al-Adlwas was killed after August 2021.
All the families’ versions of the story are unanimous on one thing, they all received phone calls from their sons in December 2021 telling them that they were in Iraq, which made them “shocked,” according to more than one family because these young men did not have passports, nor any money, so how did they come to Iraq?
They believe that someone deceived their children and transported them from Lebanon to Iraq, to get rid of them, and they accuse the Lebanese security services of being involved in this or turning a blind eye to their exit and their destination.
Al-aalem Al-jadeed contacted a Lebanese writer and journalist, who requested to not mention his name for security reasons. He said that what is happening to some of the young men of Tripoli is very similar to what happened to their peers in Europe and America.
He explained: “Some European countries, as well as the United States of America, had security indicators on some people. After 2014, they pushed them in various ways to leave the country by pressuring them or opening and facilitating ways for them to go to Iraq and Syria to be liquidated there, instead of being arrested.”
He does not exclude that the same scenario was prepared for the Lebanese youths who were killed in Iraq, “because all the data indicate that some of them were pursued or arrested a few days before their appearance in Iraq and the announcement of their killings later.”
The lawyer for the families of the Lebanese killed in Iraq says that he has compelling evidence proving that the security services are either involved in sending the young men to Iraq or know the party behind it.
Al-Sablouh indicates in an interview with Al-Alem Al-Jadeed that Bakr Seif, for example, disappeared in early December 2021, and his family visited Al-Badawi police station, and they informed them there that General Security had arrested him. “A few days later, a military from Beirut called them and told them that Bakr was with him and that he would bring him to them soon. Two days later, a brigadier general in the army called them and told them that he was indeed in General Security.”
Twenty days later, Bakr called his mother and told her that he was in Iraq. “If Bakr Saif was in the General Security, how did he get to Iraq?” the lawyer asks.
What increases Sablouh’s doubts about the Lebanese security authorities’ involvement in the killing of the youths is that the Iraqi National Security thanked the Lebanese security authorities for their cooperation in their liquidation. “How do the Lebanese security authorities have information about the presence of the young men in Iraq, and at the same they were saying that they had no information about them when they were in Lebanon?” Al-Sablouh wonder.
Poverty and security pressures
Tripoli citizens spoke about security pressures that caused young people to flee their city and the country, for fear of being arrested for long periods without trial and subjected to torture which happened to many, according to what they said.
Lawyer Al-Sablouh confirms what was been said and he referred to a young man whom the security services searched for in his residential area to interrogate him about a case that was “fabricated against him.” He fled the city and the country, and it turned out that he was in Iraq and was killed there.
While observers of the Lebanese file point out that the worsening poverty in the country resulting from the severe economic crisis in it, is another reason for the emigration of Lebanese youths from their country, heading to Iraq and engaging in armed organizations to escape their reality in retaliation for those who they believe they are the cause of their suffering.
The researcher Muhammad Abdullah Ragheb expressed caution regarding the increasing number of Lebanese joining ISIS, pointing out that at a certain point they may pose a danger to Lebanon itself “if the state does not undertake reforms or a miracle happens and the Lebanese economy returns to prosperity.”
Muhammad Al-Sablouh says that poverty alone is not a cause, but there are many other reasons, including “security intimidation,” noting that the former Lebanese army leadership before 2014 had “issued 11,000 “means of communication” against citizens of the city of Tripoli.”
The “means of communication”, equivalent to the term “confidential informant” in Iraq, refers to when an unidentified person reports that someone has committed a security violation.
Al-Sablouh mentions that the Lebanese Council of Ministers issued a decision in 2014 to cancel the “means of communication” or not to use it unless it was issued by a judicial authority. “But so far, the means of communication has not been canceled on the ground.”
He said that young people leave the country in groups of ten or more and then were never heard from again. He reiterated his belief that there are many question marks, and that “the security services must answer many questions to reveal the truth.”
This investigation was done with the help of Nawzat Sahmdeen and Walaa Rayya
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