Lebanese security forces prevented a suicide attack targeting a popular Beirut cafe at the end of January. The attempted terror attack sheds light on the evolution of the Lebanese jihadi scene in terms of its perpetrators and its sponsors as well as the dynamics that are in play.
When Omar Assi walked into the Costa cafe, little did customers know he was wearing a suicide belt laden with 8 kilograms of explosives. A bloodbath was averted by Lebanese security services who arrested Assi before he was able to trigger the explosives.
The young man’s capture comes on the heels of a wide counterterrorism campaign. According to a source in the ministry of interior, the crackdown has forced ISIL to rely on "small and decentralised cells" to avoid detection. Recent arrests point to the growing difficulty faced by the organisation in recruiting members of the Lebanese Sunni community. "The majority of suicide attackers in Lebanon are either Syrians or Palestinians," adds the source. In most cases, Syrians involved in terror activity were smuggled into Lebanon, hiding among the refugee population to which they did not belong. Such was the case of the five suicide attackers who blew themselves up in the Christian village of Qaa last year.
"Only a small number of Lebanese have been so far involved in suicide attacks in Lebanon," says the security source. Five out of 18 suicide attacks reported since 2013 have been the work of Lebanese – three from north Lebanon and two from Saida.
Recent attacks such as Qaa in 2016, Bourj Barajneh in 2015 and earlier in 2014 against the Duroy hotel in Beirut were claimed by ISIL. However, during 2014- 2015 at least eight attacks were perpetrated by Jabhat Fateh Al Sham. Another three were the work of the Abdullah Azzam brigade. The recent decline in attacks by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups is attributed to two factors: their reluctance to trigger a backlash on the Syrian refugee community and the reliance of the organisation in the Syrian area on Qalamoun in Lebanon for their supplies and ammunition, resulting in a tacit agreement with the Lebanese state.
The Lebanese radical scene is thus now dominated by ISIL, whose activity has been nonetheless curbed by the efficiency and cooperation of Lebanese security services, supplied by regular tip-offs from members of the Sunni community. Contrary to the tactics of other terror groups, ISIL has focused its attention on soft civilian targets, such as the cafe.
Despite its inability to recruit and move with ease in Lebanon, the organisation seems to be focusing its efforts on followers of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, in southern Lebanon. The cleric who started protesting in support of the Syrian opposition in the nearby conflict and against Hizbollah’s oppression of Sunnis in Lebanon and Syria, turned radical when he fought a two-day battle in June 2013 against the Lebanese army. "We know that many of Assir’s followers have pledged allegiance to ISIL," says an Islamic source from the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Helweh.
Ain Helweh is a densely-populated camp known as a salafi jihadi bastion. The proximity of the Palestinian enclave is one element that might explain the radicalisation of Assir’s followers, who have maintained relations with extremists in the camp.
Saida, Lebanon’s third largest city, is considered to be a demarcation line with Hizbollah. Since 2005 and the assassination of Sunni prime minister Rafiq Hariri attributed to five Hizbollah members followed by clashes between the party and Sunni groups, inter-Muslim strife has been on the rise.
The formation of a government including Hizbollah and the leading Sunni Future movement and improved relations between the two factions have quelled down tensions for now. Yet in the southern city of Saida, the city’s disenfranchised youth will keep on being drawn by ISIL’s siren song in the absence of a real dialogue around Lebanon’s national and political identity.