Suicide bombers bring Iraq conflict ever closer to Lebanon

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) may be activating sleeper cells in Lebanon, which fears further spillover from wars in Iraq and Syria. Three bombers have struck over the last week. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
Fire engines work on extinguishing a fire after a suicide bomber blew himself up in his room at a hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 25, 2014, as Lebanese security forces raided the premises.

A spate of suicide bombings in Lebanon and a security sweep of suspected extremists and militant cells has raised fears that the violence roiling Iraq has arrived in Lebanon. 

Three suicide bombings, two of them car bombs, since Friday have left two people dead and 70 wounded and snapped a three-month period of calm. Lebanese security sources suspect that the current wave of attacks is being directed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which is leading a Sunni offensive in northern Iraq. These sources say ISIS may be exploiting sleeper cells in Lebanon or sending foreign jihadis to Beirut to target the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria alongside the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. 

“The Iraqi volcano is connected to the Syrian one… Lebanon will not be safe or shielded from the fire of both,” wrote Ali Hamadeh, a columnist with Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper.

Recent battlefield advances by ISIS, which seeks to build an Islamic caliphate across the Levant, have granted it a broad swathe of contiguous territory in Iraq and Syria. The militant group is an offshoot of Al Qaeda and is known for its brutality and intolerance. 

ISIS doesn't pose the same threat to Lebanon. Its tiny size and tangled sectarian demographics as well as pervasive intelligence agencies and a largely moderate Sunni community work against the group gaining a significant foothold in the country. Still, militants who share ISIS's extremism exist in Lebanon and further attacks could test the mettle of security agencies.

The latest bombing occurred on Wednesday evening when a suspected Saudi militant sought to evade arrest by blowing himself up in a hotel in the seafront Rawshe district of Beirut. Four security officers were wounded in the blast as well as another militant and seven civilians.

A little known group, the Free Sunnis of Baalbek, a town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, claimed responsibility for the bombing. “The victory that is being achieved by the Islamic State of Iraq against Maliki’s army is motivation for every jihadist in the world,” the group said on its Twitter account.

The group, which claims a link to ISIS, said its “blessed operations” would continue to strike the militant Shiite Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. 

Bombing pipeline disrupted

Between November and the end of March, extremist groups  staged 11 suicide bombings in Lebanon. However, the formation of a new Lebanese government and a security crackdown led to arrests of militants and a cessation of attacks. Another factor was the capture by Hezbollah and Syrian troops in March and early April of militant bases inside Syria where car bombs had been assembled and driven into Lebanon.

But as ISIS launched its stunning advance across northern Iraq earlier this month, security fears rose rapidly in Lebanon. Hezbollah obtained intelligence of militants preparing tunnel bombs beneath hospitals treating Shiite fighters wounded in Syria. The roads around several hospitals in Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold were sealed off to traffic.

Last Friday, a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle at a police checkpoint in mountains east of Beirut, killing a policeman. On Monday night, another suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at the entrance to Beirut’s Shiite-populated southern suburbs, killing Abdul Karim Hodroj, a security officer who was attempting to apprehend the militant.

At Hodroj’s funeral on Wednesday in southern Beirut, militants fired shots in the air in a gesture of respect for the victim – and defiance and anger toward their enemies. As has become custom on such occasions, the gunmen directed their fire in the direction of Tariq al-Jdeide, an adjacent Sunni-populated neighborhood.

In the wake of Monday’s bombing, Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the spokesman for the Al-Qaeda-inspired Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, warned that Hezbollah had “brought trouble” upon itself through its “adventures in Syria." 

“We tell the Iranian party [Hezbollah]: Your battle is not only with us anymore but rather with the Sunni community in Syria and Lebanon,” he said on his Twitter account.

Fear of mass casualties

Lebanese security forces have thwarted other terror plots. On Friday, during a raid on a Beirut hotel, a French national originally from the Comoros islands, was arrested. He later reportedly confessed to having been sent to Beirut by ISIS to prepare for a suicide operation against an as yet unspecified target.

On Wednesday, security forces arrested a five-man cell in north Lebanon that was reportedly planning to assassinate a top security official.

The tight security net and close cooperation between Lebanon’s sometimes bickering security agencies appears to have prevented any mass casualty attacks. The two suicide car bombers were unable to reach their intended targets and the suspected Saudi militant killed only himself in his hotel room.

“The security measures that are being taken are preventing suicide bombers from reaching their targets,” Nohad Mashnouq, Lebanon’s interior minister told reporters. 

More worryingly, perhaps, is that Lebanese security forces reportedly found in the hotel a suitcase carrying 15 pounds of explosive, too little for a car bomb but enough to make suicide vests. Local residents in Shiite neighborhoods and sources close to Hezbollah say they are concerned at the possibility of individual militants penetrating the area wearing vest bombs and carrying rifles, which could lead to shooting attacks followed by self-detonation, similar to operations that have occurred in India and Kenya.

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