BEIRUT: UNIFIL has been bracing itself for some time in expectation of an attack against the peacekeeping force, given the political deadlock in Lebanon and the violence in neighboring Syria.
UNIFIL officials and diplomats worry that the unclaimed bomb blast on the southern coastal highway near Rmeileh Friday, which wounded six Italian peacekeepers and two civilians, is unlikely to be the last attack against the force.
“With all the tension, we can’t rule out other attacks. It could be just the beginning,” a European diplomat said.
The coastal highway is the main route used by UNIFIL vehicles moving between Beirut and the force’s area of operations in the south and has long been regarded as a potential security risk, particularly in the vicinity of Sidon, due to the presence of militant groups in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
The four-vehicle Italian convoy was returning to the south from Beirut port, where it had delivered some vehicles as part of a recent troop rotation. The four UNIFIL vehicles carried no insignia identifying the occupants as Italians. The perpetrators, therefore, may not have known the nationalities of the peacekeepers they targeted, suggesting that the goal was to hit UNIFIL rather than soldiers belonging to a specific country.
The natural temptation will be to connect the bomb attack to the unrest in neighboring Syria, especially as rumors are circulating that a senior Syrian official recently made an explicit threat against UNIFIL. Furthermore, European diplomatic sources say that France has received specific warnings of potential attacks against its troops in south Lebanon.
But UNIFIL faces an array of potential enemies, any one of whom may have sought to capitalize on the crisis in Syria by launching an attack at this time.
UNIFIL has presented an attractive and relatively soft target for militants either opposed to its presence in the south or wishing to send “messages” to the international community since the peacekeeping force expanded in the wake of the 2006 war from 2,000 troops to nearly 9,000 today, drawn from 34 countries, around half European.
In the months after the 2006 war, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, on several occasions encouraged attacks against UNIFIL.
The first attack came in June 2007 when six members of the Spanish battalion were killed when their armored personnel carrier was struck by a powerful and sophisticated car bomb. Investigators later determined that the bomb, which was hidden in a parked Renault Rapide, consisted of some 60 kilograms of military grade PETN explosive packed with aluminum powder to augment the fireball effect.
The bomb was detonated by an infra-red beam and had a shaped charge configuration directing the blast laterally against the targeted vehicle.
There was one other small attack a few weeks later involving a stick of dynamite detonated beside Tanzanian military police at the Qasmiyah bridge north of Tyre.
Two other attacks planned for the Abbassiyeh area near Tyre never materialized and another targeting UNIFIL soldiers on Tyre beach failed, apparently due to a faulty detonator. No other attack against UNIFIL even came close to the deadly proficiency of the bombing of the Spanish.
Before Friday, the most recent attack against UNIFIL personnel was on Jan. 8, 2008, when a road side bomb exploded on the coastal highway near Rmeileh beside a jeep carrying Irish soldiers, lightly wounding two of them. The bomb consisted of 10 kg of explosive buried about 15 cm underground beside the median strip and was detonated by remote control, according to investigators.
Friday’s bombing of the Italian convoy took place just 20 m from where the Irish were attacked in 2008. Investigators are still examining the remains of the explosive charge, although initial reports suggest it was of a similar size to the 2008 bomb.
There are other similarities between the two incidents besides the location and size of the bomb. Hours before the Irish were hit in 2008, two 107mm Katyusha rockets were fired from south Lebanon and struck the Israeli border settlement of Shelomi. It was the second rocket attack against Israel since the 2006 war.
Last week, the Lebanese Army caught a militant planning to fire rockets from somewhere near Hasbaya, just outside UNIFIL’s area of operations, according to security sources. The claim remains unconfirmed and the army released no statement on the alleged arrest of the militant.
The handful of short-range Katyusha attacks since 2006 (the last was in October 2009) has been blamed on either the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, or a loose network of Palestinian and Lebanese Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists living in the Iqlim al-Kharroub district north of Sidon, or based in the Palestinian camps of Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon, and Rashidiyah, Al-Bass and Bourj ash-Shemali in Tyre.
In September 2009, the Permanent Military Court indicted five Palestinians for their role in the Irish bomb attack and other terrorist-related activities. Of the five, only Said Mohammed Mrad was in custody. He was sentenced to three years hard labor.
Among the other four sentenced in absentia was Fadi Ghassan Ibrahim who goes by the nom de guerre “Sikmo.” Ibrahim was close to Abdel-Rahman Awad, a former head of Fatah al-Islam who lived in Ain al-Hilweh. Awad was killed by military intelligence agents in Chtaura last August when traveling to Iraq.
Awad reportedly was replaced as head of Fatah al-Islam by Osama Shehabi, himself a former leader of the now disbanded Jund ash-Sham group who is supposed to be living in Ain al-Hilweh. Shehabi’s top military man within Fatah al-Islam is reported to be Mahmoud al-Dukhi, known as “Khardaq” who also has been linked to the attacks on UNIFIL in 2007-08.
The circumstantial evidence at least suggests that Shehabi’s Fatah al-Islam network in Ain al-Hilweh may have been reactivated to stage attacks against UNIFIL. If correct, the next question to ask is who authorized Fatah al-Islam’s resurrection?