BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities Friday identified a 19-year-old man from north Lebanon as the suicide bomber behind an attack that killed four others in Beirut’s suburbs one day earlier.
DNA samples taken from the crime scene matched those of Qotaiba Mohammad al-Satem, as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV aired footage of a CCTV camera showing the driver of the rigged dark green Grand Cherokee Jeep who, in apparent confusion, tried to park twice before detonating the vehicle, which was still in motion.
A security source told The Daily Star that a major lead in the case was the identity document, discovered at the site of the attack, belonging to Satem, from the Akkar region of Wadi Khaled in north Lebanon. The document was found among the debris of shops and cars destroyed by the 4:15 p.m. attack in Haret Hreik.
A source, requesting to remain anonymous, said Satem’s father Mohammad was summoned by the Army Intelligence in the north after the document was discovered.
During the interrogation, Mohammad said that his son had been missing since Dec. 30, and that he had informed the Internal Security Forces of his disappearance. He denied that Satem had ties with extremist groups as he was only 19, the source said.
But another source told The Daily Star that Satem had disappeared three months ago, and that he had been fighting in Syria with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria rebel group (ISIS).
The source said that Satem’s father regularly led prayers at a mosque in Wadi Khaled and that he was known for his extreme stances against the Syrian regime.
The source added that Satem had been an engineering student at the Lebanese International University in Koura.
In addition to investigating the identification documents found at the scene, authorities Friday also interrogated a man apprehended near the site of the explosion Thursday evening, the source said, adding that the man was not a local.
The source said that Satem had close ties with his cousin Mohammad Ahmad Satem, who is fighting with the Syrian opposition in Yabroud in the Qalamoun district north of Damascus.
He added that after the identity of the bomber was confirmed, investigators would begin looking for clues that might reveal which organization he belonged to and whether the car was rigged in Syria or Lebanon.
Acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud, who visited the blast site along with Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr, said authorities were working on leads, expressing hope that results would surface soon.
Upon the instructions of Hammoud, and after forensic teams and investigators finalized their work, bulldozers began to remove the rubble at the site of the explosion to prepare for the reopening of the road.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel visited the crime scene as well, accompanied by Hezbollah top security official Wafiq Safa.
He described the attack as the most audacious Lebanon has witnessed so far, as the perpetrators did not attempt to cover up the vehicle’s ownership history, easing the work of investigators.
“This has helped us in conducting the probe,” Charbel said. “I tell the perpetrators that no matter what you do, there won’t be sectarian strife in Lebanon.”
Locals from Arsal told The Daily Star that the last owners of the rigged car were from the Ammoun family who lived in the Syrian village of Flita, close to Arsal and under the control of extremist Syrian rebels.
Residents of Wadi Khaled condemned the explosion, saying Satem had nothing to do with the crime.
The Satem family and other families in Wadi Khaled released a statement calling for a “transparent” probe while condemning “any attack against any Lebanese [citizen].”
“Qotaiba Satem does not know how to drive and we wonder how his identification document was not harmed when his body was burned,” the statement said.
“Is it possible that a terrorist would keep his identification document in his pocket? How can someone like Qotaiba drive a rigged car in Hezbollah’s security zone which he’s not familiar with at all?”
A separate statement signed by “ Wadi Khaled tribes” accused Hezbollah of “kidnapping” Satem in the Bekaa Valley four days before the Haret Hreik blast.
The statement said Satem was kidnapped at a Hezbollah checkpoint as he was heading to Arsal.
The tribes held Hezbollah responsible “for the safety” of Satem.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati proclaimed Saturday a day of mourning.
Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi said all “terrorist attacks” in Lebanon had benefited Israel. His comments were made after visiting Speaker Nabih Berri.
Separately, the Lebanese Army arrested at dawn Friday four Syrians in the northeastern town of Arsal for illegally crossing into the country, the military said in a statement.
The Syrians were searched and the Army seized military gear, some ammunition and a grenade.