BEIRUT: Extremist Islamist groups are expected to gain more ground in Lebanon as long as the Syrian crisis drags on and Hezbollah continues to fight alongside the regime, analysts told The Daily Star.
Qassem Qassir, an expert in Islamic movements, said the presence of extremist Islamist movements in Lebanon has grown more pronounced in the past two years, in light of the Syrian war, adding these groups have decided to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon, after the party intervened militarily in Syria.
“When unrest broke out in Syria, these groups began considering Syria to be a major fighting arena and Lebanon was a corridor for them rather than a sanctuary,” Qassir told The Daily Star.
“After Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria, they [Islamist groups] began considering Lebanon as a place to confront the party,” he said.
A car bomb attack killed 30 people last week in the Beirut southern suburbs, a stronghold of Hezbollah. A similar attack wounded over 50 people in a nearby area last month.
In a speech after last week’s blast, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah accused takfiri groups of orchestrating the two attacks along with other rocket attacks launched from Syrian territory, targeting the party’s strongholds in the Bekaa Valley.
An unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the two bomb attacks against Hezbollah in a video published on Youtube last week. The authenticity of the footage could not be verified.
In May, Hezbollah announced its heavy involvement in the Syrian war, saying it was fighting alongside regime forces to defend the resistance and Lebanon against takfiri groups, which it said dominate the rebel forces’ ranks.
“There is no doubt that the conflict in neighboring Syria has had a contributing impact upon strengthening the state of militant Salafism in Lebanon. Developments involving Sheikh Ahmad Assir underlined this very clearly,” said Charles Lister, an analyst and head of MENA at the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
“Although he has since gone into hiding, support for him remains strong in several areas of Lebanon.”
A fierce critic of Hezbollah, Assir fought a deadly battle against the Army in Sidon in June. His whereabouts are still unknown.
Qassir explained that extremist Islamist movements are mainly Sunni Salafist groups that have been present in Lebanon since the 1990s.
“Some of these groups are takfiri, and others are not,” he explained, adding that takfiri groups consider those outside their sect infidels. “Some call for killing these infidels because they do not consider them human beings.”
According to retired Army Gen. Elias Hanna, the groups “are players in the Lebanese arena. Yes, they constitute a danger and undermine stability.”
“But they do not threaten Lebanon’s survival, unless they lead it to a civil war, which I do not see happening,” Hanna added. “Two well-armed groups are needed to start a civil war. But currently, there is only one,” Hanna said, referring to Hezbollah.
“Some Lebanese are certainly providing a hospitable environment to these groups. One cannot carry out [their kind of] attacks without enjoying shelter and protection,” he added.
Qassem said that the hardening of sectarian sentiments in Lebanon provides a favorable environment for extremist groups to take root.
For Lister, the Shiite-Sunni schism in the Middle East, reflected in Syria, is encouraging militant Salafist groups to thrive in Lebanon. The majority of Sunnis in Lebanon back the Syrian uprising.
“While many leading voices continue to call for calm, so long as people are dying in Syria, there will continue to be a reason for Salafist militancy to continue to develop in Lebanon,” he said.
Qassir cited a similar situation when the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported jihadists fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“The intelligence agency of any country interested in confronting Iran or Hezbollah could provide funds for these groups [in Lebanon], directly or indirectly,” he said.
In light of the bomb attacks, Hezbollah beefed up its security measures in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Bekaa Valley and in the south, while security bodies intensified their crackdown on terrorist cells.
But Qassir argued that heightened security measures would not suffice in eradicating these groups.
“Hezbollah’s battle with these groups is difficult, as their internal structure mirrors its own; they are secretive, they have a doctrine, they can easily infiltrate Hezbollah’s strongholds and are ready to make sacrifices.”
“ Hezbollah should engage in dialogue with the Sunni groups that oppose this ideology [of takfiri groups], like Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and the Future Movement,” he said.
All three analysts expected more attacks against Hezbollah strongholds and the number of extremist groups to proliferate in the country.
“Every month, the conflict is becoming more sectarian in nature. The many links between Syria and Lebanon make further spillover, including in the form of an escalation in Salafist militancy in Lebanon, unfortunately inevitable,” Lister said. “It is well known that Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front] has a minimal, perhaps nascent presence in Tripoli. While it hasn’t yet become operationally active inside Lebanon, it is by no means unlikely that this could happen one day in the future.”