BEIRUT: Security forces raided more hotels in Beirut Thursday in search of suspected terrorists as details emerged that the two Saudi suicide bombers had planned to attack a restaurant in the southern suburbs frequented by Hezbollah officials.
The Lebanese Army enforced strict security measures around the Dbayeh Palestinian refugee camp north of Beirut after a tip to security forces that a suspected car was inside the camp. Although it was not found, the search continued in and around the area, security sources said. Other camps are off-limits to Lebanese authorities and policed by armed Palestinian factions.
Speaker Nabih Berri, meanwhile, renewed his call for 3,000 new Army recruits and an additional 1,000 members each for General Security and the ISF to face growing threats from terror groups.
“We have no choice but to shore up the Army and security agencies. When these institutions are strong, terrorists will not be able to do anything,” Berri was quoted as saying.
The stepped-up security alert came as authorities have mounted pre-emptive operations in a bid to crack down on terror cells, days after three suicide bombings rattled Lebanon and threatened to put the country on edge.
A Saudi suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt at the Duroy Hotel in the Raouche district of Beirut Wednesday evening, killing himself to evade arrest during a raid by General Security personnel. A second would-be suicide bomber survived the blast and is undergoing interrogation.
Security sources said the suicide bomber and his partner had planned to carry out an attack against As-Saha restaurant, a popular restaurant located on the Beirut airport road in the southern suburbs and frequented by Hezbollah officials.
The would-be bomber, Abdul-Rahman al-Shnifi, who suffered severe burns after his partner, Abdul-Rahman al-Thawani, blew himself up to evade arrest, told interrogators that the pair planned to carry out a double suicide attack outside As-Saha, a security source told The Daily Star.
One of the two was supposed to enter the restaurant and blow himself up. Seconds later, the other would do the same after people had gathered to help the wounded, to cause maximum damage, the source said.
Shnifi, according to the source, said he and Thawani had obtained the explosives in Lebanon and arrived in the country on June 11.
The source added that the pair were members of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), while a Syrian man who helped the pair plan the attack was a member of the Tawhid Brigade, an armed rebel group involved in the Syrian war.
“They all belong to organizations under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda [that aim] to spread chaos in Lebanon,” the source said.
The two had stayed in a different hotel before coming to the Duroy Hotel, and they had made reservations at two different hotels with checkout dates mid-July.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam praised the coordination and pre-emptive action by security agencies that, he said, had thwarted the suicide bombers’ plans.
“With our consciousness and with God’s help, we were able to foil the plan of those enemies,” Salam said after chairing a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail. “No terrorist plan will succeed in sowing strife among us.”The United States condemned Wednesday’s bombing and voiced hopes that it did not signal a return to spiraling violence in Lebanon. “That’s yet another reason why we have been in a very material way supportive of assisting the Lebanese armed forces and internal security forces,” a senior U.S. State Department official said after talks in Paris between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Saudi Arabia also condemned the “terrorist act” in Raouche.
“Such actions have nothing to do with humanitarian or Muslim values but represent an attack on innocent people and sanctities,” the Saudi Embassy in Beirut said in a statement.
Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Assir said his country was ready to send a team to help in the ongoing investigation with the Saudi would-be bomber if the Lebanese government wanted.
Security and judicial sources told The Daily Star that the Army was taking unprecedented measures at the entrances and around the Dbayeh camp in line with a crackdown on suspected terror cells.
Sources said around midday ISF Information Branch personnel, wearing bulletproof vests, raided the Ramada Plaza, located diagonally across from the Duroy Hotel. Security agents stationed outside the Ramada Plaza said some explosive material had been discovered inside the hotel and that they would be removed gradually. The hotel premises were cordoned off, preventing reporters from entering.
At least two individuals were arrested, and police are still in search for an unidentified woman. It is unclear where the latter suspect was staying at the hotel.
Sources said the security forces had also raided the Golden Tulip Galleria Hotel in Jnah, arresting a Saudi and Syrian national.
Separately, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk stressed that Gulf citizens would continue to receive visas on arrival at the airport.
“Discussing the issue that visas should be granted for Gulf nationals by prior application is out of the question,” Machnouk said.
After the Cabinet session, Salam reaffirmed that tourists from the Gulf would still receive visas upon arrival: “Visas do not affect the terrorists.”