Already suffering from the spillover of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon recently faced increased tensions when two Sunni suicide bombers attacked the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood in Tripoli. These attacks signaled an increased presence and effectiveness of jihadi groups in the country, at a time when there seems to be no solution in the foreseeable future for defusing the tensions in northern Lebanon and the country in general.
On January 10, 2015, Lebanon’s domestic security situation deteriorated even further when two of its nationals, both Sunni jihadists, detonated themselves almost simultaneously in a cafe in the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in the northern coastal city of Tripoli.[i] Taha Samir al-Khayyal and Bilal Maraayan killed nine people and injured 37.[ii] The two individuals, according to security officials, hailed from the poverty-stricken Mankoubin neighbourhood in Tripoli, home to many Lebanese Sunni extremists.
This is not the first time the country has witnessed suicide attacks carried out by one of its nationals. In November 2013, one of two suicide bombers who attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut was Mouin Abu Daher, 21, from Sidon, in southern Lebanon.[iii] In January 2014, Qutayba al-Satem from Wadi Khaled in the north blew himself up in the southern suburbs of Beirut – Hezbollah’s stronghold.[iv] Lebanese suicide bombers have also perpetrated attacks beyond the country’s borders, including in Iraq. The latest suicide operation was carried out by another Tripoli resident, Hisham al-Hajj, known by his nom de guerre Abu Talha al-Lubnani. On August 28, 2014, he killed 15 people in Baghdad; the Islamic State group (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.[v] To date, at least five Lebanese nationals have carried out suicide bombings in Syria and three in Iraq.[vi]
Although the twin suicide attacks of Jabal Mohsen earlier this month cannot yet be considered indicative of a trend, they underline a shift in jihadist tactics: after sending Lebanese suicide bombers abroad to support operations in Syria and Iraq, it seems that Lebanon is now in the crosshairs of Sunni extremist groups, be it the Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, or the IS. Considering the fact that the majority of these Lebanese kamikazes hail from Tripoli, one can conclude that “the capital of the North” is a hotbed for Sunni extremism, active more than ever today in light of the Syrian crisis and the advances of the IS in the region.[vii]
Trading their guns for suicide vests
Lebanese security officials confirmed that the kamikazes of Jabal Mohsen operated in the Syrian Qalamoun region, bordering Lebanon. They underwent training, and even took part in combat with jihadi groups.[viii] They were then monitored by Lebanese intelligence agencies, but still managed to carry out their mission[ix]. It is worth noting that al-Khayyal and Maraayan also took part in clashes between the predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood and its archenemy Jabal Mohsen. The question now is: What drove these individuals to trade their guns for suicide vests?
The exacerbated Syrian crisis along with the rapid expansion of the IS in the region, are two factors that help explaining why jihadists are staging more attacks inside Lebanon: the country has clearly become a “land of jihad”.[x] As opposed to “land of Islam”, which in religious terms loosely means a land that is supportive of Islam, “land of jihad”, or more accurately “land of war”, is a territory where believers wage jihad in order to claim it under the banner of Islam.[xi] Having suffered losses in Syria, especially in areas bordering Lebanon, Sunni hardliners probably realize they need to strengthen their positions in Lebanon.[xii] The country would provide them with recruits, resources, and eventual access to the sea, something they have not yet been able to achieve in Syria. Such an achievement would probably facilitate the transit of foreign fighters to Lebanon (especially those coming from neighboring Europe), but also back to Europe. The same logic applies to the transit of weapons and supplies, which might be easier to achieve through the Mediterranean Sea than by land. Using suicide bombers to assert their presence might reveal some level of desperation, while at the same time proving that the Islamists are more willing than ever to use the weaknesses of Lebanon to their advantage.
What is it, then, that makes young men willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice?” A major underlying and persistent factor is Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Indeed, the Shia party is now deeply involved in the fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against Sunni hardliners. And the Sunni community’s resentment of the Party of God is only growing.[xiii] Mohammad, a 25-year old self-appointed emir in Tripoli, tells Al-Monitor that “hatred is growing day after day and division is becoming steeper due to Hezbollah’s decision to fight us on the land of Syria and kill our youth. But we vow that we will not stop fighting it, till God’s will is done”.[xiv]
However, the twin bombings of Jabal Mohsen did not target Hezbollah affiliates or Shia residents, but rather Alawites (hailing from the same sect as the Syrian president), in a likely attempt by jihadists to push the country into the abyss by provoking an all-out sectarian confrontation. This is also an alarming sign that those sectarian tensions in Tripoli have clearly escalated from sporadic clashes with light to medium and heavy weapons, to confrontation that now include suicide bombings.
Another major factor is the social and economic situation in Tripoli, and in particular young disaffected men with limited socio-economic perspectives, who are easy targets for radicalization.[xv]
The Case of Elie Warraq, a Christian Muslim convert and would-be suicide bomber
Just five days after the Jabal Mohsen attacks, the Lebanese army announced the arrest of several individuals who planned to execute suicide operations.[xvi] Among the detainees, one unusual individual made the headlines: Elie Warraq. The young man of 22 who hails from Majdalya in Akkar and who moved to Tripoli five years ago is a Christian who reportedly converted to Islam and planned to carry out a suicide attack. Having traveled to Turkey twice and later to Libya, the young man managed to evade security checks owing to his Christian background which raised no suspicion.[xvii]
If the two kamikazes from Jabal Mohsen are indicative of the deteriorating security and social situation in Lebanon, Elie Warraq is a stark reminder that Sunni jihadists might have reached new heights in their influence in the country. Of course, it is not yet clear if the case of Elie Warraq, the first of its kind, represents a trend. However, it surely highlights the growing clout of radical Islam in Lebanon and the devastating effect it has on young disaffected youth in northern Lebanon. It might be difficult to assess who has more influence in Tripoli, the IS or the Nusra Front, but the results are practically the same.
The presumed masterminds of the Jabal Mohsen attacks, Chadi Mawlawi and Ossama Mansour, are still on the run.[xviii] The two individuals hailing from Tripoli are well-known for being the leaders of armed Sunni groups which fought Alawites as well as the Lebanese army in October 2014. With the planners still on the loose and jihadists reinforcing their presence in Lebanon by recruiting more and more young locals, Lebanon might face more suicide attacks like the ones in Jabal Mohsen. But without a solution to the Syrian conflict and a halt to the expansion of Sunni jihadists in the region, all social, economic, and local reforms aimed at mitigating the risks of attacks will be rendered useless. While local reports claim the IS now controls Lebanese territory near Arsal on the Lebanese-Syrian border, Tripoli, as a coastal town, is likely to be the next major objective for jihadists.[xix]
[i] Yahoo News, AFP, “Suicide bombers kill nine in Lebanon’s Tripoli”, January 10, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/suicide-bomb-kills-7-alawite-quarter-lebanons-tripoli-192548941.html
[ii] LBCI, “Who are the two suicide bombers in Jabal Mohsen? (Man houma mounafiza al-tafjirayn al-intihariyayn fi Jabal Mohsen?)”, January 11, 2015, http://www.lbcgroup.tv/news/195643/من-هما-منفذا-التفجيرين-الانتحاريين-في-جبل-محسن
[iii] Paul Khalifeh, RFI, “Irak, Syrie, Liban, terres de jihad pour al-Qaïda”, January 10, 2014, http://www.rfi.fr/mfi/20140110-liban-terre-jihad-al-qaida-al-nosra-aqpa-iran-arabie-saoudite-yemen/
[v] The Daily Star, “Lebanese man behind deadly ISIS suicide blast in Iraq”, August 28, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-28/268749-lebanese-man-behind-deadly-isis-suicide-blast-in-iraq.ashx
[vi] Mohammad Nemr, Al-Monitor, “Lebanon’s challenge: When the fighters return”, September 1, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/08/lebanon-fighters-extremism-syria-iraq-return.html#
[viii] LBCI, op. cit.
[x] Paul Khalifeh, op. cit.
[xi] Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Dar al-Harb, consulted on Febrary 10, 2015, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e490?_hi=17&_pos=3
[xii] The Daily Star, “ISIS, Nusra militants number 3,000 on Lebanon-Syria border: report”, January 6, 2015, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Jan-06/283203-isis-nusra-militants-number-3000-on-lebanon-syria-border-report.ashx
[xiii] Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center, “Tackling Sunni Radicalization in Lebanon”, December 24, 2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/12/24/tackling-sunni-radicalization-in-lebanon/hxuv
[xiv] Subaib Ayoub, Al-Monitor, “Tripoli youth recruit fighters to send to Syria”, March 14, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/security/2014/03/tripoli-lebanon-youth-recruit-fighters-syria.html#
[xvi] Mohammad Ali Harissi, AFP, L’Orient-Le Jour, “Élie Warraq, une couverture idéale pour les jihadistes”, January 19, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/906614/elie-warraq-une-couverture-ideale-pour-les-jihadistes.html
[xviii] Jeanine Jalkh, L’Orient-Le Jour, “Le credo des jihadistes : semer le chaos pour mieux régner”, January 17, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/906352/le-credo-des-jihadistes-semer-le-chaos-pour-mieux-regner.html
[xix] Other references in this article: Yahoo News, AFP, “Suicide bombers kill nine in Lebanon’s Tripoli”, January 10, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/suicide-bomb-kills-7-alawite-quarter-lebanons-tripoli-192548941.html
LBCI, “Who are the two suicide bombers in Jabal Mohsen? (Man houma mounafiza al-tafjirayn al-intihariyayn fi Jabal Mohsen?)”, January 11, 2015, http://www.lbcgroup.tv/news/195643/من-هما-منفذا-التفجيرين-الانتحاريين-في-جبل-محسن
Paul Khalifeh, RFI, “Irak, Syrie, Liban, terres de jihad pour al-Qaïda”, January 10, 2014, http://www.rfi.fr/mfi/20140110-liban-terre-jihad-al-qaida-al-nosra-aqpa-iran-arabie-saoudite-yemen/
The Daily Star, “Lebanese man behind deadly ISIS suicide blast in Iraq”, August 28, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-28/268749-lebanese-man-behind-deadly-isis-suicide-blast-in-iraq.ashx
Mohammad Nemr, Al-Monitor, “Lebanon’s challenge: When the fighters return”, September 1, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/08/lebanon-fighters-extremism-syria-iraq-return.html#
Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Dar al-Harb, consulted on Febrary 10, 2015, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e490?_hi=17&_pos=3
The Daily Star, “ISIS, Nusra militants number 3,000 on Lebanon-Syria border: report”, January 6, 2015, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Jan-06/283203-isis-nusra-militants-number-3000-on-lebanon-syria-border-report.ashx
Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center, “Tackling Sunni Radicalization in Lebanon”, December 24, 2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/12/24/tackling-sunni-radicalization-in-lebanon/hxuv
Subaib Ayoub, Al-Monitor, “Tripoli youth recruit fighters to send to Syria”, March 14, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/security/2014/03/tripoli-lebanon-youth-recruit-fighters-syria.html#
Mohammad Ali Harissi, AFP, L’Orient-Le Jour, “Élie Warraq, une couverture idéale pour les jihadistes”, January 19, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/906614/elie-warraq-une-couverture-ideale-pour-les-jihadistes.html
Jeanine Jalkh, L’Orient-Le Jour, “Le credo des jihadistes : semer le chaos pour mieux régner”, January 17, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/906352/le-credo-des-jihadistes-semer-le-chaos-pour-mieux-regner.html
LBCI, “IS controls 4% of Lebanon’s territory” (Daesh yahtal 4 fil mi’a min masahat loubnan), January 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTL_Fy-F3vg
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