BEIRUT: Terror struck Lebanon again Friday when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway, killing one police officer and wounding 33 people, heightening fears of violent spillover from Syria and Iraq.
The suicide attack in Dahr al-Baidar in east Lebanon came shortly after security forces raided a Beirut hotel and detained 17 terror suspects allegedly linked to a plot to assassinate Speaker Nabih Berri.
The two incidents placed Lebanon on high security alert and sent its rival leaders scurrying to ward off the threat of violent fallout from Iraq following last week’s lightning military advance by the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria during which ISIS seized large swaths of Iraqi territory.
General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said he narrowly escaped the attack in Dahr al-Baidar after the blast went off just 200 meters away from his convoy.
“The explosion in Dahr al-Baidar occurred moments after the convoy I was in passed through the checkpoint,” Ibrahim told a local television station.
Hours later, the Lebanese Army released a photo of a man suspected of being the suicide bomber behind the explosion, asking citizens with information to come forward.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam chaired a meeting of security chiefs at the Grand Serail to address security fears following the attack.
“Salam said today’s events aim to destabilize the country after the success of the security plan,” Mohammad Kheir, the secretary-general of the Higher Defense Council, told reporters. “[Salam] asked concerned ministers and security officials to remain on high alert and carry out their national duties to foil plots to mess with the country's security.”
Speaking after the meeting, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Lebanese security agencies were prepared to confront terrorism in Lebanon, adding that Western intelligence had warned authorities of a possible imminent attack.
“What happened today had been expected but we will not surrender to terrorism ... We are ready to confront terrorism,” he said, adding that he had told Berri to remain indoors and refrain from attending a scheduled morning ceremony for his Amal Movement at UNESCO.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, who attended the meeting, assured the Lebanese that the security situation was under control.
“Our eyes are open and don’t forget that the region is in ruins while we are in seventh heaven,” he told reporters as he left the Grand Serail.
The bombing drew condemnation from officials on both sides of the political divide as well as some international powers.
“[The attack] was aimed at threatening the stability and safety of the Lebanese and dragging the country into the destructive path that prevails in many states in the Arab world,” former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in a statement.
He called on all Lebanese to demonstrate “the highest degree of alert, caution and national solidarity in the face of conspiracies aimed at igniting strife.”
Hezbollah condemned the attack, saying in a statement: “The bombing targeted Lebanon’s security and stability.” It also called on the Lebanese to close ranks to face “a terrorist plot.”
The attack was also condemned by the French Foreign Ministry, which called on the Lebanese to quickly elect a successor to former President Michel Sleiman.
The Internal Security Forces said in a statement that they had received information that “a terrorist group” was planning to carry out bomb attacks in Beirut and other areas.
A joint force of General Security and the ISF’s Information Branch raided a hotel in Hamra in Beirut looking for suspected terrorists, with a senior security source saying that police were “working on thwarting a big security plot.” In its statement, the ISF said officers apprehended 17 people who are now being interrogated.
On his way from the Bekaa to Beirut, the suicide bomber stopped in the eastern village of Sofar for coffee, a security source told The Daily Star. The shop owner immediately contacted police after he noticed the customer was too nervous.
The bomber then made his way to Aley, but was forced to race back to the Bekaa after security forces intercepted his vehicle.
At the Dahr al-Baidar checkpoint, a group of police officers cut off the road with a pick-up truck, the source said.
“As soon as the vehicle arrived at the police checkpoint, officers asked the driver to step out, he then blew himself up,” the ISF said.
It added that an ISF warrant officer, identified as Mahmoud Jamaleddine, 49, was killed and 33 people, including seven ISF personnel, were wounded in the attack.
The source denied that Ibrahim was the target of the attack.
Another security source told The Daily Star that security agencies had received intelligence that ISIS members were preparing a suicide attack in Lebanon.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr, who arrived to the site of the bombing, said the bomber’s 4WD vehicle was rigged with at least 25 kilograms of explosives.
After the blast, security forces blocked several roads in the capital, including the airport road and those leading to Berri’s residence in Ain al-Tineh, Hamra, Verdun, the Kuwaiti Embassy, UNESCO, as well as the military hospital, the National News Agency reported.
Following the blast, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale called off his scheduled meeting with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil for security reasons.