TRIPOLI, Lebanon: “Make way for the martyrs, the heroes,” a loudspeaker bellowed Sunday, as ambulances bearing coffins arrived in Jabal Mohsen, black mourning flags fluttering in the frigid afternoon breeze.
Minutes later, Khoder Issa Khaddour held his father’s coffin atop his shoulder. “Everyone is congratulating me about you, Abu Ali,” he said softly, caressing the wooden casket draped in a Lebanese flag.
Residents and witnesses spoke of the heroics of “Abu Ali” Issa Khaddour Saturday night. After a suicide bomber detonated his vest outside a cafe in the predominantly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, the 60-year-old father of seven rushed with locals to the scene, a mere hundred meters from his house.
But five minutes after the first bombing, he noticed another man walking toward the crowd shouting “Allahu akbar.”
Residents and witnesses said Abu Ali then tackled the suicide bomber before he could reach the crowd, perishing alongside him and preventing an even greater massacre.
“Do not give me condolences, congratulate me,” Khoder Khadour told The Daily Star. “Our traditions and our faith tell us to give martyrs, and my father was a hero and a martyr.”
“We are proud of him, and he is the martyr of all of Jabal Mohsen and Lebanon,” he added.
Abu Ali died with at least eight others in Lebanon’s first suicide attack of 2015, after a lull that lasted nearly a year.
In a funeral procession for the victims attended by thousands, women in the balconies above showered the mourners with rice, their smiling faces streaked with tears of grief, as their feelings of loss intermingled with joy amid chants declaring the martyrs destined for heaven. As each casket was brought out, the crowds clapped and cheered in respect.
The mourners’ chants repeated the Islamic declaration of faith, praised Imam Ali – the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin from which the Alawite sect’s name is derived – declaring that “Alawite blood is boiling,” and condemned the Nusra Front and ISIS, while proclaiming “God is greater than terrorism.”
Fresh details of the attack emerged as the funeral took place near the crime scene.
A witness who was inside Ashqar cafe, the scene of the first suicide attack, said a bearded man had walked into the establishment, which had some 60 patrons out on the weekend, before beginning to back away.
The witness said the man may have entered Ashqar cafe by accident and may have been aiming instead for the much larger Omran cafe meters down the road, which he said had over 200 customers.
“He came in and looked up as if he was in the wrong place, and then he backed out, but his jacket got tangled in something,” he said. “So he said ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew himself up.”
“The last thing I saw was a blast,” he added.
When the witness, who asked to remain anonymous, regained consciousness he rushed outside to find a crowd gathering, with wounded and dead people laid out on the floor.
“We got out and started yelling at everyone, and then we saw another man shouting ‘Allahu akbar,’ and Abu Ali Issa grabbed him and fell with him to the floor, and we saw [the suicide bomber’s] hand move and then he blew both of them up,” he said. “If he had gone into the second cafe, there would have been a massive massacre.” Multiple residents confirmed the details of this account.
While the details are still unconfirmed, it appeared that the second attacker may have originally intended to target Omran cafe as well. But after the first attacker blew himself up at Ashqar cafe, the second man may have opted to follow suit and capitalize on the crowds gathering there instead.
Ashqar cafe remains devastated, the ground littered with glass, tables, chairs and nargileh pipes overturned, half-empty glasses of the popular “matta” tea untouched since Saturday night.
Outside the cafe, a pool of blood still lies fresh by the entrance, nurtured by the rain that fell after the twin suicide attack.
Residents circulated images taken by a local of a decapitated head of a young man lying by the cafe. They alleged that the head belonged to one of the suicide bombers, because nobody in the tightly knit community recognized him.
Soldiers guard the entrance to the cafe and have set up a cordon around the blast sites. Armored cars are deployed throughout Jabal Mohsen and its entrances.
While the community was clearly shaken and traumatized by the sudden attack, locals and religious officials absolved their Sunni neighbors of responsibility, saying they had enjoyed months of peace with their traditional rivals in Bab al-Tabbaneh, who unlike Jabal Mohsen, support the Syrian uprising.
The politics of the Syrian uprising have long been a fixture here, but the twin suicide bombings, blamed on radical groups from Syria, was an escalation in a conflict that had taken the form of armed clashes in the past between the two neighborhoods. It was also the first serious disturbance in the district since a security plan was implemented in Tripoli last year.
“We hope this will be the last bombing in Lebanon and that we move to a new phase, and that these incidents do not make a comeback,” said Maj Gen. Mohammad Kheir, who heads the Higher Relief Committee and surveyed the damage at the scene. “But anything that happens, we are ready for it.”
Residents and officials urged unity in the face of the attack, while stressing that they would not leave their ancestral homes.
“The martyrs of Tabbaneh, Qibbeh and Abi Samra, of all areas, are also the martyrs of Jabal Mohsen,” said Assad Assi, the Alawite mufti, speaking to reporters meters away from the bomb site. “We are brothers. These martyrs were sacrificed to God and the nation.”
Assi declared the Mankoubine neighborhood, the home of one of the suicide bombers, innocent, as the family of the man had disavowed him.“We stand with the family because it is the terrorist who is an outsider,” he said.
“The people of Tripoli are greater than this,” said another resident. “These terrorists only represent themselves.”