Lebanon News

Jabal Mohsen bombing: a sign of things to come

Lebanese soldiers inspect the site of the suicide bombing in Tripoli, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The verdict on Saturday night’s shock attack on a cafe in an Alawite Tripoli neighborhood was clear: Lebanon, get ready, this is the beginning of a whole new wave of violence with deep-reaching effects on several issues. “The Jabal Mohsen bombing will be part of a sequence,” said Carnegie Middle East analyst Mario Abou Zeid, adding that Nusra Front, who claimed responsibility for the attack via one of its official Twitter accounts, still has sleeper cells in Tripoli and the operational ability to launch further attacks there.

In contrast to Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, Abou Zeid said he believed it was Nusra Front behind the deadly double suicide bombing that killed nine and wounded 30, not ISIS. But bombers Taha Samir al-Khayal and Bilal Mohammad al-Mariyan, he added, had reportedly been growing closer to ISIS.

“The Nusra Front has been preparing the ground to attack Lebanon in order to distract the Army and Hezbollah and ease pressure on their fighters who are attempting to infiltrate the borders,” he said. “This is part of Nusra’s strategy to ultimately penetrate key border towns [in eastern Lebanon].”

But while that strategy was a constant for most of last year, Nusra Front also appears to be changing some of its tactics.

“The way they are operating, by launching terror attacks [against civilians] and not directly confronting the Army, goes back to the original Al-Qaeda textbook,” he said. “They realize it’s premature to attack the Army, so they waited and are preparing the ground.”

The attack comes just over six months after the last bombing in Lebanon, when a Saudi blew himself up to avoid capture at the Duroy Hotel in Beirut’s Raouche.

Last year saw 10 deadly attacks on various military and civilian targets across the country. They were all perpetrated by militant Sunni groups who vowed to punish Lebanon for Hezbollah’s support of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, a fact that the security crackdowns on militants and hard work to foil terror plots has not changed.

Sami Nader, a professor at Universite St. Joseph and the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs think tank, pointed to this and other unaddressed factors that meant a continuation in violence was likely.

“The causes of the malaise [in Lebanon] are still real and haven’t been dealt with,” he said. “Hezbollah is still in Syria, nothing has been achieved at the level of the social contract, no national defense strategy agreement, no agreement on Hezbollah’s arms, no president, basically no Parliament.”

“All these are signs of weakness,” he continued, “and these terrorists are organized to take advantage of this weakness.”

Nusra Front and other militant groups would continue to attack Lebanon for two reasons, Nader said: this weakness, and the opportunity to stake out new territory.

“The lines of combat have been drawn in Syria and Iraq, but the areas of influence are still gray in Lebanon; these lines have not yet been drawn,” he said.

Kamel Wazne, a Beirut-based political analyst, agreed that an attack like this was inevitable.

“The campaign of violence really hadn’t stopped, it had just been contained,” he said. “Those people [militant groups], when they have an opportunity, they will act.”

“The security apparatus has been successful in preventing some of these attacks. But eventually when you get two people determined to die this way, it’s really hard to stop it.”

He said the parts of Lebanon most at risk were likely to be the same areas that were targeted in the last round of suicide bombings: predominantly Shiite neighborhoods or places associated with Hezbollah.

“So the southern Beiruti suburbs, the Bekaa Valley and so on. So far the Christian areas have been avoided in the escalation, and I have no reason to think that this will change. But I cannot predict the future.”

Wazne said he believed the recently launched dialogue talks between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, which aim to boost political cooperation and defuse Sunni-Shiite tensions that have soared in the country, will help contain violence.

“It will definitely help reduce the level of violence, because it will stop the incitement to violence and recruitment [for militant groups] among the Sunni people,” he explained. “I think it will also reduce the level of tensions between the two factions.”

Not everyone agrees, however.

“Do I think they [the dialogue talks] will contain the violence? No, not really,” Nader said. “They haven’t achieved anything yet and I think it was driven by a kind of regional appeasement.”

One thing that does seem to be certain is that the attack will affect negotiations to free 25 captured servicemen being held by ISIS and the Nusra Front.

When asked about the issue, Prime Minister Tamam Salam told visitors to his Mseitbeh residence Sunday that it would complicate matters, adding that the bombings had made it clear that the extremist group “did not have a clear agenda.”

“They seem to be working without specific criteria,” he added. “It’s our duty to confront them.”

Though an Interior Ministry source said the bombings would not reflect on the negotiations, Carnegie’s Abou Zied disagreed. “It definitely will,” he said, adding that the question of how exactly would become clearer in coming days.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 12, 2015, on page 4.

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