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The Syria effect: Lebanese Sunnis begin to strap on bombs (+video)

Lebanon's moderate Sunni community is radicalizing, as shown by last week's suicide bombing in Beirut. Residents of the bomber's hometown expressed admiration for him to the Monitor.

By Correspondent / January 7, 2014

Friends and brothers of 19-year-old Qutaiba Satem, the man whom the army identified as the perpetrator for Thursday's suicide bombing attack in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold, pray at his grave in Hnayder January 5, 2014. Satem was buried on Saturday night in a cemetery in Hnayder, where a string of small houses flank a potholed road surrounded by fields studded with basalt boulders.

Reuters

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HNAYDER, Lebanon

When Qutaiba Satem, a 19-year-old engineering student, drove an explosives-laden car into a Shiite suburb of Beirut last week and blew himself up, he became the first Lebanese Sunni to commit an apparently sectarian-driven suicide bombing against Shiite civilians in Lebanon

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Lebanese security forces continued to guard the area a day after a car bomb killed four people in south Beirut, the fourth attack to hit the Hezbollah bastion since the Shiite group announced its intervention in Syria last year.

The mode of violence has become grimly familiar in recent years during Sunni insurgencies in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But Lebanon remained untouched by such tactics. Now, the Jan. 2 bomb attack underlines how the grinding civil war in Syria, which has repeatedly spilled into Lebanon, is radicalizing a Sunni community traditionally more comfortable with commerce and trade than jihad.

“Everyone here is proud of what Qutaiba did. He was defending the dignity of the Sunni sect, and there will be more martyrdom operations if Hezbollah does not stop its oppression of Sunnis,” says Anwar, a Sunni resident of Hnayder, referring to the Iran-backed, Lebanese Shiite militant organization.

Satem's family and friends question whether the university student, said to be mild-mannered and moderately religious, actually carried out the attack that killed five people. They speak darkly of a plot to incriminate him and cover up the real perpetrators, even though Lebanese authorities say that DNA tests confirm Satem was the bomber and a Lebanese television channel broadcast surveillance camera footage that captured Satem’s last moments as his vehicle meandered slowly along a busy street in the Haret Hreik neighborhood of southern Beirut before exploding.

The bombing was claimed by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of the leading militant factions in Syria. 

“In light of the Islamic State’s security effort, [we] were able to break into its borders and infiltrate the security system of the Party of Satan [Hezbollah] in Lebanon and attack it in the heart of its bastion,” ISIL (often also referred to as ISIS) said in an online statement. The statement made no mention of Satem as the bomber, but if the claim is confirmed, it would be the first bomb attack by the Al Qaeda group, which in recent days has come under attack by other Syrian rebel factions in northern Syria. 

A new chapter of violence

In November, two Sunni suicide bombers, a Lebanese and a Palestinian, staged a combined attack against the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing 25 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché. The Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda affiliate with a presence in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the bombing. It said that two “heroes from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon” carried out the attack and that more bombings would follow until “Iran’s party,” meaning Hezbollah, withdraws from Syria, where it is helping defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Majed al-Majed, the leader of the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, was arrested by the Lebanese authorities last month but died in detention on Saturday due to a kidney ailment, according to the Lebanese Army.

Lebanon has a long association with suicide bomb attacks, dating back to 1981, when an unidentified member of Iraq’s Dawa Party blew up the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, but they rarely involved Sunnis.

Unidentified but suspected Shiite suicide bombers blew up the US Marine barracks, French paratroop headquarters, and US embassy in Beirut in 1983, hastening the departure from Lebanon of a five-nation Western peacekeeping force early the following year. The bulk of the suicide bombings against Israeli troops and their Lebanese militia allies occupying south Lebanon in the 1980s were carried out by Shiites drawn either from Hezbollah or from secular nationalist groups. Only two Lebanese Sunnis committed suicide operations in the 1980s, and both were from leftist organizations and motivated by nationalism rather than religion.

Furthermore, while car bomb attacks designed to cause maximum casualties in civilian areas of Beirut were a common feature of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, almost all the suicide bombings carried out during that period were against military targets, apart from a handful against diplomatic missions.

Satem’s suicide bombing was of a different caliber altogether, resembling the indiscriminate sectarian attacks that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians across the Middle East and Asia over the past two decades.

Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis live on the coast – Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon – with scattered communities in the rural periphery in the north, south, and east. For centuries, Lebanese Sunnis have formed the backbone of the merchant classes, thriving under the tutelage of their fellow Sunni Ottomans while other, more marginalized Levantine sects frequently rebelled. Sunni leaders in Lebanon traditionally favored suits and compromise over military fatigues and dogma.

But the rising Sunni-Shiite tensions of the past decade, accelerated by the war in Syria, is steadily radicalizing Lebanese Sunnis, particularly in poorer areas of the country long neglected by the Lebanese state – like Satem's Hnayder and surrounding villages in the Wadi Khaled area of northern Lebanon.

Troubling details

The news of Satem’s violent death in southern Beirut has been greeted in Wadi Khaled with a mix of pride, disgust, and denial. While Anwar and several other residents from the area quietly praised Satem’s suicide attack, others were less supportive.

“What he did was wrong and I am against it. We have lived with Shiites and Alawites [a splinter sect of Shiite Islam] for centuries, and this bombing will only make the situation worse,” says Mohammed, who like most of the people who agreed to talk in Wadi Khaled did so on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Wadi Khaled, a hammer-shaped peninsula of Lebanese territory jutting into Syria, is under tight control by the Lebanese Army and security forces with military checkpoints on all roads accessing the area.

Mohammed said he knew Satem from their school days and remembered him as a moderate young man. He was studying engineering at a university in north Lebanon and was said to help his father in his clothing shop.

Sheikh Imad Malabas, a cleric in Wadi Khaled who follows the austere Salafist credo of Sunni Islam, also claims to have known Satem well. “I can assure you that Qutaiba did not have the extremist ideology of Al Qaeda,” says the thickly bearded cleric, sitting in the sunlit courtyard of his home.

Some reports said Satem traveled to Syria two months ago to join a rebel group and fought in the town of Yabroud in the mountainous Qalamoun region north of Damascus where Hezbollah is spearheading a campaign to restore regime control. But Sheikh Malabas and other residents of Wadi Khaled claimed that Satem went missing only four days before his death. They said that Satem did not know how to drive and question how his relatively unscathed identification card was so quickly discovered at the scene of the bombing.

“No one in their right mind would take their ID card with them on such a mission. All the evidence against Satem was neatly laid out on the road,” the sheikh says.

While Sheikh Malabas does not dispute that Satem was in the vehicle, he insists that the young student was kidnapped by Hezbollah and drugged, and that the bomb was detonated by remote control.

However, the surveillance camera footage shown on Hezbollah’s Al Manar television channel suggests otherwise. Satem’s vehicle is seen moving slowly along the street followed by a school bus. He drives past the fortified entrance to Hezbollah’s political office before veering to the right as if looking to park. He continues on, and seconds later his vehicle disappears in a ball of fire. The driver of the school bus, which was empty of children, was among the victims of the blast.

Worried communities

Satem was buried on Saturday night in a cemetery in Hnayder, where a string of small houses flank a potholed road surrounded by fields studded with basalt boulders. A chill breeze whipped across the flat landscape Monday as dozens of male residents bundled up in baggy black leather jackets and coats gathered at the home of Satem’s father, Mohammed, to give condolences. Beneath a canvas awning in the front yard, platters of rice, fish, and lamb were laid out on trestle tables for the mourners.

In the gloomy interior of the house, subdued elderly men, many with red and white keffiyehs wrapped around their heads, sat against walls muttering quietly and smoking cigarettes. Two brass coffee pots rested on a bed of coals while a third was used to pour bitter Arabic coffee into tiny handless cups for each arriving mourner.

“We are against what happened and we are against extremism,” Mohammed Satem says in a tired voice. “I cannot say more, but we think there is a question mark over what happened that needs to be answered.”

Back in Beirut

The suicide bombing has cast a chill across the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut. It was the first suicide bomb attack to target civilians in the area, but it was the fourth car bombing in southern Beirut since last July, indicating to many residents that this is a pattern that will not stop.

“People are moving out. The streets are empty. People are very worried,” says one resident of Haret Hreik.

Hezbollah, however, remains publicly undaunted and determined to continue its mission of defending the Assad regime against what it dubs as Takfiris –extremist Sunnis who treat all those that do not follow their brand of Islam as apostates.

“No matter what the size of crimes and car bombs reached, we will not change our position in Syria or in Lebanon,” said Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, a top Hezbollah official at a funeral on Monday for two victims of the suicide bombing. “We are the makers of victories in any war we fight and we are not those who leave the battlefield or surrender no matter how massive is the bombing.”

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