BEIRUT: The man who attempted to carry out a suicide attack in Beirut’s busy Hamra district late Saturday night was a registered nurse in south Lebanon, a source told The Daily Star on Sunday.
Omar Assi, who tried to set off an 8 kg shrapnel-laden explosive belt in Hamra’s Costa Coffee, has been working as a registered nurse at Hammoud Hospital in the southern city of Sidon, the source said.
Hammoud Hospital is one of the largest hospitals in south Lebanon.
A hospital official confirmed that Omar Assi has been an employee but would not provide further details.
On Sunday afternoon, an Army Intelligence unit searched Assi’s locker at the hospital, which only contained personal belongings, the source said.
Army detectives also questioned a number of nurses who had worked with Omar Assi.
- Eyewitness accounts at Costa-
A Costa Coffee waiter told LBCI TV that Assi had been in the café for around 10 minutes before going outside to answer a phone call.
“He flirted with the barista while he ordered coffee,” the waiter said.
“When he tried to go back in, he was shot in the leg, and the police and army gathered around him to hold him steady at the entrance of the cafe,” he added.
An army agent then shouted “he has an explosive belt,” after which people at the café tried to escape, according to the waiter.
A few managed to flee the scene, while the rest hid in the coffee shop’s basement, he said.
Around 40 people were in the café when Assi was arrested, one of the customers who witnessed the incident said on Facebook.
“Praise the Lord who has given me a new life ... thanks to the army and police,” he said in a Facebook post recounting the incident.
The 25-year-old attempted suicide bomber is currently receiving treatment at the American University Hospital in Beirut.
- Assir sympathizer -
Omar Assi was not a fugitive as local media reports had claimed, the source said.
But he was a sympathizer of Sidon’s radical Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir wanted for leading a two-day battle against the Lebanese Army in 2013 in Sidon.
LBCI said that several arrest warrants had been issued against Assi for taking part in Assir’s offensive against the army.
Assi had worked as a paramedic at Assir’s compound in the Abra district during the clashes and was reportedly wounded, the source said.
- Brothers questioned-
A military unit raided Assi’s home in the Sharhabeel district of Sidon overnight Sunday and took his two brothers Mohammad and Farouq in for questioning on Sunday morning, a security source told The Daily Star.
Security forces also detained two family friends who had been present at the time of the operation.
Army Intelligence seized the suspect's laptop and cellphone, and closed off the area around his residence.
Later on Sunday, an army unit took another three men in for questioning, who lived near Assi's home, a source told The Daily Star.
- Officials praise security forces -
Lebanese leaders including President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk Sunday hailed the collaborative effort between army and police apparatuses that led to foiling the attempt.
"Security agencies in Lebanon have achieved what the strongest and renowned security agencies of the world were not able to do," Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said in a statement carried by his office.
Defense minister Yaacoub Sarraf also lauded the preemptive step that saved the lives of many.
"Such achievements are a true evidence of the intricate follow up on security issues," a statement by the Ministry of Defense quoting Sarraf as saying.
Several Hezbollah officials condemned the attempted attack as well, calling for further preemptive security steps against suicide bombers.
Army and security forces have been cracking down on sleeper-cells as part of a comprehensive security plan.
- Sidon condemns attack -
Head of the Sidon Municipality Mohammad Saudi Sunday praised security force’s actions to thwart the suicide attempt.
“We support the army and police for their efforts to preserve security ... and we condemn all forms of terrorism,” Saudi said in a statement.
Sheikh Salim Sousan, the Mufti of Sidon, saluted the army and the police for their role in maintaining Lebanon’s safety.
He also condemned the attack saying that the people of Sidon reject any attack on civilians.
Sheikh Hussam Ilani, Imam of Ghufran Mosque in Sidon, also congratulated army and security forces for foiling the attack.
“Sidon ... renounces such terrorist aggression,” he said, confirming that Assi was a supporter of Assir.
Ilani has repeatedly said that Sidon has been witnessing increased support for Assir’s movement among Islamists in the city.
In recent weeks, several radical groups have protested the arrest of Assir.
- ‘We are not afraid’ -
On Sunday morning, Costa Coffee shop was open for business as usual.
Tens of people filled the seats of the café, sipping coffee despite the previous night’s threat.
“We the Lebanese are expected to be afraid?” a man, who had been coffee shop regular since 1977, asked LBCI.
“We are not afraid, and Lebanon will be better than before,” he said.
“I express solidarity with Costa,” a Facebook user wrote as a caption to a picture of a cup of coffee he purchased from the café Sunday morning.