Abstract: The November 12 bombings in a Shia neighborhood in Beirut were an attempt by the Islamic State to destabilize Lebanon and plunge it into deeper sectarian strife, a strategy already seen in similar attacks by the group across the Arab world. Although none of Lebanon’s divided communities has an interest in importing the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State is growing in strength by discarding al-Qa`ida’s rigid recruitment criteria and welcoming younger recruits attracted to its simple brand of conquest and brutality. The Islamic State now has the capability to unleash significant carnage in several areas of Lebanon if it decides to mount an all-out campaign.

The twin suicide bombings carried out by the Islamic State in southern Beirut on November 12 were yet another indicator the group is pivoting toward international terrorism after its initial focus on building up a so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Recent months have seen attacks in Tunisia, Turkey, and France, as well as in the skies above the Sinai.

The twin suicide bombings that struck Burj al-Barajneh, a Shia suburb in southern Beirut, killed 43 people and injured 239 others.[1] The first suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt in a large crowd and the second bomber targeted people who rushed to aid the wounded.
Unlike previous suicide bombings perpetrated by Lebanese networks, these suicide bombings were entirely carried out and planned by the Islamic State’s Syrian base.The investigations revealed that two Palestinians and one Syrian had slipped across Lebanon’s border with Syria. Lebanese security services suspect the cell was directed by the Islamic State and that the cell included more than two bombers.[2] In its first reaction to the attack, the Lebanese security apparatus, including the powerful military intelligence group known as Mukhabarat al-Jaysh, tightened border controls and security protocols at Syrian camps in the Beqaa valley.[3]

Targeting a Shia neighborhood in southern Beirut where Hezbollah has a strong presence served a dual purpose. On one hand, the Islamic State showed it was able to retaliate against Hezbollah for sending thousands of fighters to Syria to battle opponents of the Assad regime, and therefore boost its standing among Sunni Muslims in the Levant angered by Hezbollah’s presence in Syria.

On the other hand it was designed to deepen and take advantage of sectarian tension in Lebanon, by provoking Hezbollah to lash out against Sunnis in the country. The latter is in line with a blueprint developed in Iraq by the Islamic State’s founding father Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who deliberately targeted Shia in a strategy that successfully plunged the country into civil war during the U.S. occupation, and which has provided the rationale for attacks by the Islamic State against Shia in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere this year. The goal is to provoke a regional Sunni-Shia war, which the Islamic State calculates would allow it to thrive. As this article will outline, given this strategic maxim, there are questions why the Islamic State has not yet fully mobilized its growing base of support inside Lebanon to launch a more sustained campaign of attacks.

Sectarian Spiral
Lebanon’s radical Islamist history precedes the Syrian revolution. In the 1980s, Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city, became a hub for the militant group al-Tawhid, which carried out assassinations against Communist cadres in Tripoli before losing a bloody battle to the Syrian army.[4] The al-Tawhid movement inaugurated Tripoli’s longstanding affiliation with radical Islam. In 2000, returnees from the fighting in Afghanistan clashed with Lebanese government forces in northern Lebanon, resulting in a short-lived conflict known locally as the “al-Dunniyeh events” in which hundreds were arrested.[5]

The 2003 Iraq war reinvigorated radical Islamists, and the Syrian regime, which was still a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon, facilitated their movement. Palestinian camps in northern and southern Lebanon became hubs for fighters keen to participate in the fighting in Iraq. Returning jihadis from Iraq actually took over the Nahr al Bared Camp in northern Lebanon, triggering a conflict with the Lebanese army in 2007.[6] After two months of fighting, the group was defeated and dozens of militants were jailed. While some remain in prison, others have joined Syrian jihadis after their release.[7]

Tensions spiked in 2008, and after a two-year standoff between Hezbollah and the Sunni-led 14 March coalition, Hezbollah was able to defeat poorly armed Sunni militants and won control of western Beirut.[8] This defeat, coupled with the rise of the Shia, exacerbated grievances among Lebanon’s Sunnis, especially in impoverished areas such as Tripoli, where more than half of the population struggles with poverty.[9] After the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, Ahmad al-Assir, a Lebanese Sunni sheikh and leading critic of Hezbollah, gained popularity and attracted much media attention. Based in Sidon, al-Assir clashed with the Lebanese army and went into hiding, joining the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, while some of his previous supporters became suicide bombers. Security officials arrested al-Assir when he attempted to join contacts in Nigeria’s Boko Haram group.[10]

In the two years since Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria’s civil war, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa`ida’s Syrian branch, and a group closely affiliated with it, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, have conducted a series of suicide and car bombings[11] that further heightened sectarian tensions from their earlier peak after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, the Sunni Rafik Hariri, and the subsequent showdown between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hariri’s Saudi-backed coalition. Tensions had been climbing even before the Islamic State attack in Tripoli in November. One aggravating factor was that Tripoli in northern Lebanon and Irsal, in the Beqaa Valley, had both became key points on smuggling routes for the Syrian opposition in the early phase of the conflict [12 ]

Islamized Radicals
Although al-Qa`ida and other Salafist groups dominated Sunni radical movements during the past few decades, the Islamic State has exceeded its competitor’s capacity of recruitment. As part of that process it has relaxed al-Qa`ida’s rigid criteria of piety and ideology, and supplementing it with gangster-like violence, paving the way for including previously excluded social strata. The emphasis on radical rituals, as an initiation criteria, rather than religious education, guarantees both a more inclusive recruitment and stronger unquestioned loyalty. Such a predatory and ideologically simplistic mode has fed on growing Sunni-Shia tensions.

The Islamic State has been able to attract many different segments of Lebanon’s Sunnis, both in Tripoli and other cities and towns. Their recruitment success story is in part based on the sharp differences between the group and al-Qa`ida, with Islamic State’s emphasis on conquest and brutality appealing to a younger and less cerebral demographic. While al-Qa`ida had attracted recruits from an older generation of Salafis in northern Lebanon, the Islamic State has attracted support from many of that generation’s children. One example that encapsulates this dynamic is Shaker Shahhal, a 22-year-old from Tripoli who is a judge with the Islamic State. His uncle Hassan Shahhal is a high-profile member of Lebanon’s traditionalist Salafi community.[13] A self-described “non-violent Salafi,” Hassan denies any connection to the Islamic State, describing his position on the group as “neutral until I undergo some fact-finding myself.”[14] He has described his nephew as a young man in trouble, who fell short of completing higher Islamic education, and travelled to Syria after his plans to marry his fiancée failed.[15]

In addition to recruiting young men like Shaker, the Islamic State has also been able to cast a wider net, catching young Lebanese who have returned to Lebanon from Europe and Australia. One example is Arabiy Ibrahim, a Dane of Lebanese descent, who was arrested last year on suspicion of links to the Islamic State.[16] Overall, the Islamic State has recruited from a broader segment of the Sunni society than have groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. This broader-based appeal has put it into a position where it has the ability to stage shows of force, including potentially occupying and controlling the center of Tripoli.[17] Many of those recruits, particularly those with no criminal record, have joined the fighting in Iraq and Syria after travelling through Turkey. Some of the recruits unable to follow that route because of a criminal record or jihadi links have instead joined the Islamic State’s enclave along the border with Syria.

The Islamic State has hundreds of supporters in Tripoli,[18] according to some estimates, which is significantly greater than the al-Qa`ida/Jabhat al-Nusra presence there. In an attempt to explain the group’s success, one source[19] said that the Islamic State appeal is its radicalism, not ideology. Al-Qa`ida members are more often laymen who defied traditional imams in their interpretation of Islam. In contrast, the prime prerequisites for an Islamic State recruit are radical or violent leanings, links to organized crime, and loyalty. Such traits are apparent in the story of Yahya al-Hussein and his father Mohammed, who was also the father of the Syrian radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohamed’s second wife. After Yahya lured his younger brother and two sisters to Syria to join the Islamic State, Mohammed traveled to Syria to get them back, but was turned on by his son and executed.[20] The dynamics in Lebanon are not dissimilar to those in some European countries. As the Belgian academic and counterterrorism official Alain Grignard has pointed out, the Islamic State has had success recruiting “Islamized radicals” whilst al-Qa`ida has drawn support from “radicalized Islamists.”[21]

The Islamic State’s decision to use a Syrian cell for the suicide bombing in Beirut left many in the security services perplexed. Why hasn’t the Islamic State used its pool of Lebanese supporters to launch a more sustained campaign of attacks? Certain impoverished areas in Tripoli, such as al-Mankubeen, have become a hub for Islamic State supporters.

One possible explanation is that the Islamic State’s leaders are concerned that a string of attacks would hurt the group’s popularity there, unless launched at a time of heightened sectarian tensions. But given the Islamic State’s apparent determination to plunge Lebanon into sectarian civil war, it may only be a matter of time before a wave of attacks orchestrated and encouraged by the group hits Tripoli and other areas of the country. Much will then depend on the reaction of Hezbollah. So far the group’s leaders have largely held back from retaliating against Sunnis in Lebanon. While memories of Lebanon’s own civil war, as well as the self-interest of leaders of all sides of the sectarian divide who have benefited from the status quo, will make it more difficult for the Islamic State to bring the Syrian civil war to Lebanon, the Burj al-Barajneh bombings have brought Lebanon closer to being sucked into the maelstrom of violence.

Hassan Rabih is a nom de plume being used for security reasons by a Beirut-based security analyst focusing on Sunni and Shia militant groups.

[1] “43 Martyrs and 239 injured in a twin suicide bombing in Burj al-Barajneh,” Assafir (Lebanon), November 12, 2015.

[2] Euan McKirdy, Greg Botelho, Paul Cruickshank and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Beirut Mourns its Dead,” CNN, November 17, 2015.

[3] “The Army takes Preemptive Measures in the Beqaa’s Camps and Border Crossings,” Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 28, 2015.

[4] Robert G. Rabil, “Lebanon,” in Barry Rubin (Ed), Guide to Islamist Movements Vol. 2, Armonk NY, (M.E. Sharpe, 2010) p. 321.

[5] “Salafists in Lebanon, from Establishment to War: Part I,” Orient Reports, October 19, 2013.

[6] “The story of Nahr al-Bared,” NOW, October 10, 2007.

[7] 65 Lebanese citizens killed in Syria in 2014, Assafir (Lebanon), January 17, 2015.

[8] “Nasrallah hails May 7 as ‘glorious day’ for Resistance,” Daily Star (Lebanon), May 16, 2009.

[9] “Poverty in Tripoli,” United Nation’s ESCWA (Lebanon), January 10, 2015.

[10] “Who is Boko Haram that Ahmad Al-Assir wanted to join in Nigeria?” Annahar (Lebanon), August 15, 2015.

[11] “Nusra claims Responsibility for Jabal Mohsen Bombings,” Annahar (Lebanon), January 10, 2015; A Timeline of Lebanon’s Suicide Bombings,” Raseef 22, November 13, 2015.

[12] “Weapons being smuggled between Lebanon, Syria: U.N.,” Reuters, May 8, 2012.

[13] “Tripoli again in the Caliphate’s Mouth,” Al-Hayat, September 14, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Arabiy’s arrest was unsurprising: his family members have been involved with jihadi groups for many years “A Dane is arrested in Lebanon for Fighting with IS,” Al-Monitor, October 28, 2014

[17] Interview with a source affiliated with the interior ministry, November, 2015.

[18] “Islamic State’s Sway spreads to Lebanon,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2014.

[19] A Lebanese expert on Islamists affiliated with the Interior Ministry, November 2015.

[20] “ISIS executes father-in-law of extremist Lebanese cleric,” NOW, October 30, 2015; “ISIS executes the father-in-law of a Lebanese cleric after his son lured him,” Russia Today (Arabic), October 30, 1015.

[21] “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard,” CTC Sentinel, 8:7 (July 2015).


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