Lebanon News

Shiite mosques step up security

Muslim men pray at a mosque in Beirut, Friday, July 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Quranic verses echoed from the Safa Mosque in the Beirut neighborhood of Ras al-Nabaa Monday afternoon, one of several Shiite mosques scattered across the capital.

Sitting near the entrance was Radwan Hashem, the man in charge of security during prayers. The mosque was almost empty, and there was no evident increase in security. But Hashem explained that this is not the case every day.

While attacks targeting places of worship declined after the end of the Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War, concern at religious institutions has risen with the outbreak of the Syrian war, particularly after a wave of bombings that targeted mostly Hezbollah neighborhoods in Lebanon.

ISIS bombers targeted two Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia last month. Last Friday, an ISIS suicide bomber struck a mosque in Kuwait during Friday prayers, killing 27 people.

Hezbollah and ISIS are fighting fierce battles on Lebanon’s northeastern border, and the extremist group has called for an intensification of attacks on Shiites during the holy month of Ramadan.

“We will increase security measures ... we will search every person we don’t or barely know [who tries to enter the mosque],” Hashem told The Daily Star, claiming that he knew everyone who came to the mosque.

“We will also intensify security measures further after the end of prayers,” he said.

When a string of bombings began in Beirut’s southern suburbs in July 2013, security measures were tightened around the Safa Mosque and other Shiite mosques in Beirut. Further steps were taken after the bombing of two mosques in Tripoli in August 2013, which killed 47 people.

During Friday prayers, junctions near the mosque are blocked off. Security measures are heightened further during the holy month of Ramadan, when more people come to worship. The mosque has been equipped with surveillance cameras.

But Hashem explained that more needs to be done, particularly in the wake of the attacks in the Gulf.

“The danger does not only come from the possibility of a suicide bomber entering a mosque ... the bomber could be in the corner, [outside the mosque], and attack people once they get out,” said Hashem, who was interrupted every now and then by arriving worshippers.

He said the Safa Mosque’s committee was considering having people stationed at more junctions around the mosque and at a nearby pedestrian bridge to monitor suspicious persons.

Hashem explained that the security measures are mainly undertaken by young men from Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.

But he admitted that no security system is perfect.

“No matter what you do, a small loophole will be there ... technology is useless in face of an explosive belt.”

Elsewhere in the capital, similar steps are being taken at other Shiite mosques. A senior Lebanese Army source told The Daily Star that the military was heightening security at places of worship – both Sunni and Shiite – across the country.

A huge metal barricade has been installed at the entrance of Fatima al-Zahraa Mosque in the neighborhood of Zoqaq al-Blat to prevent any explosives-rigged vehicle from approaching the structure. People entered the mosque normally, with no evident signs of anxiety.

The barrier was installed around three months ago, according to Abu Ali, who said he was a member of Hezbollah and responsible for the mosque’s security.

After receiving authorization by phone, he agreed to speak about security measures at the mosque.

Arriving on a motorcycle ridden by another man, Abu Ali admitted there were fears of attacks on Shiite mosques, similar to those that occurred in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Echoing Hashem, Abu Ali said that stopping a suicide bomber after he had already reached his target was almost impossible.

“You might be a suicide bomber. If I shoot you and you turn out not to be one, I will be committing a crime. Shooting a suicide bomber once he’s here is a very rare occurrence,” Abu Ali said.

He noted that gathering intelligence on potential suicide bombers and arresting them while they were still making preparations to carry out attacks was much more effective.

“The intelligence we receive from Army intelligence and the Internal Security Forces Information Branch is the most important,” Abu Ali said.

He added that no additional measures were planned at the Fatima Al-Zahraa mosque, as security there is already tight.

During Friday prayers, men from Amal, Hezbollah and the state security forces block all roads leading to the mosque, he said, adding that such measures are undertaken whenever Hezbollah receives information on a potential attack.

But despite their necessity, Abu Ali acknowledged that the security measures made people uncomfortable.

“We are annoyed by these measures. They are a hassle for the people coming to pray here.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 30, 2015, on page 3.

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