The Jan. 2 bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs marked the third attack against Hezbollah’s stronghold for its military support of the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. The first bomb to hit the suburbs occurred on July 9, followed on Aug. 15 by the most devastating bombing to date, which killed 21 and wounded 250.
However, the nature of bombing and the claim of responsibility separate the Jan. 2 attack from the previous two. This attack was carried out by a suicide bomber identified as Qotaiba Mohammad al-Satem, a 20-year-old Lebanese university student from the Akkar district. Satem is also the first member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to target Hezbollah on Lebanese soil. While the circumstances around why Satem decided to blow himself up are still murky, his act points to two disturbing trends: the growing radicalization of underprivileged Sunnis and the entry of Al-Qaeda’s two Syrian factions into Lebanon.
The North governorate, from which Satem hails, is the poorest in the country. Bordering the Syrian governorates of Tartous and Homs, it has seen an influx of roughly 250,000 refugees during the almost three-year conflict next door, bringing its residents face-to-face with the plight of their co-religionists. Furthermore, the governorate and in particular its capital, Tripoli, suffered tremendously under the successive Assad regimes. Whether during Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War or the resulting Syrian occupation until 2005, Sunni residents have cultivated a shared historical memory of the atrocities committed. Animosities run so deep that armed clashes between Tripoli’s Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the city’s Sunni areas, including Bab al-Tabbaneh, have been ongoing since June 2008. It is this void of poverty, despair and sectarian animosity – exacerbated by the Syrian civil war and its winner-take-all mentality – that has allowed for the rise of a group of influential sheikhs.
These Salafist leaders, though concentrated in Tripoli, have cultivated a following among poor Sunnis in the north, Sidon in the south and Palestinian refugee camps dotted across the country. Characterized by their willingness to both threaten and chastise the Syrian regime, they have been instrumental in mobilizing their followers to fight in Syria and at home against its interests. These pre-eminent Salafist sheikhs can be divided into two camps: those that have utilized the pulpit and others that have taken an active role in hostilities. While their tactics differ, they are intrinsically linked by ideology and association.
Those that have confined their actions to religious sermons include Zakaria Abdel-Razzaq al-Masri and Salem al-Rafei. Both hail from Tripoli, have condemned Assad and have held numerous rallies in support of the Syrian rebels. Masri, the leader of the Hamza Mosque in Tripoli, is a spiritual guide for many of the city’s Sunni combatants and has been a vocal critic of Hezbollah. Viewed as the most important Salafist figure in Tripoli, Rafei has repeatedly told Lebanese Sunnis to join the fight in Syria, stating, “Our calls for jihad will stop once Hezbollah withdraws from Syria.”
Whether in response to the direct actions of his followers or as a message to Tripoli’s Salafists, Syrian intelligence targeted Rafei’s congregation on Aug. 23. On that day, two car bombs exploded, including one outside the Al-Taqwa Mosque, where Rafei usually gives Friday sermons. Though Rafei was not at the mosque, a total of 47 people were killed and 500 wounded in both explosions. The act, viewed as retaliation for the Aug. 15 bombing against Hezbollah, did not result in a cessation of attacks against the group. Rather, it seems to have undercut the capacity or willingness of their attackers – only one failed car bomb targeting Hezbollah was found between Aug. 15 and the last bombing on Jan. 2.
The second group of sheikhs has taken a more active role in hostilities. Known as the “Sunni Lion” among his followers, the Sidon-based Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was the most outspoken critic of Hezbollah and the group’s abundant weapons stockpile. He was known for his firebrand sermons, a number of which were coordinated with Masri in Tripoli and Sidon. In April, Assir began to send followers to Syria and even posted a video of himself purportedly near the battleground of Qusair. After his fighters attacked an army checkpoint near Sidon on June 23, a two-day battle left 17 Lebanese soldiers and dozens of Assir’s men dead. The preacher then fled and may still be hiding in the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh.
Security sources believe that Assir’s followers were responsible for simultaneous suicide attacks on army checkpoints around Sidon on Dec. 16. There is even the possibility, according to The Daily Star, that some of the attackers were members of the Nusra Front, one of the two Al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, and thought to have a presence in Ain al-Hilweh.
Rafei has been photographed alongside another shadowy sheikh, Hussam al-Sabbagh. A resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh, he is thought to have 250 followers. Though this number is small when compared to that of the abovementioned Salafist leaders, Sabbagh is an experienced jihadist: He has fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Lebanon’s Civil War. Known for smuggling fighters into the governorate of Homs, he is reported to have fought alongside the Nusra Front in Syria. He may even act as the representative of Nusra and other Syrian Islamist factions in Lebanon.
If reports on Assir and Sabbagh are correct, they point to a more worrying trend: Not only have all of the Salafist leaders radicalized many of their followers, they have also created the conditions for the active involvement of Syria’s two Al-Qaeda affiliates in Lebanon.
The Jan. 2 bombing and the claim of responsibility by ISIS should act as a wake-up call for both Hezbollah and Lebanese politicians of all stripes. As the Syrian civil war continues, the links will strengthen between Lebanon’s Salafist preachers and radical Syrian groups fighting the Assad regime. Given the pivotal role of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict, radical groups will increasingly target the country’s Shiite population both for retribution and in an attempt to force the group to limit its involvement. Among the Lebanese cadres of Salafist leaders, they will find a wealth of recruits, some of whom may be willing to emulate Satem.
While Sunni extremism in Lebanon is a multifaceted issue, the country’s current political vacuum has allowed it to grow. Lebanon was without a government after the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March over a dispute with Hezbollah. This inability to form a government acceptable to all parties, a common theme in Beirut, had a direct impact on Lebanon’s security situation.
Without the guidance of a cross-sectarian executive branch, the country’s main guarantor of security, the Lebanese Army could not effectively police Sunni extremists and other violent symptoms of the Syrian civil war. This situation was made worse by the fact that Hezbollah-aligned politicians, including the caretaker foreign minister, subsequently downplayed a $3 billion pledge by Saudi Arabia aimed at bolstering the Army’s capacities. If this continues, the Lebanese state will be unable to deal with the growth of violent Salafism and the exacerbation of Sunni-Shiite tensions.
Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with The Atlantic Council of Canada and a blogger with the Foreign Policy Association. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).