Perhaps it’s my natural skepticism, but there is something terribly fishy about the bomb explosions that have hit Lebanon in the past week.
Most noticeable in all three incidents is that they were somehow thwarted by one or the other of Lebanon’s security services. All took place after the offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. And all come at a sensitive time for Lebanon, which has been unable to elect a president to replace Michel Sleiman.
However, this is very little to go on. But it’s a fact that while the security services, bolstered by those of Hezbollah, were unable to prevent any of the bomb explosions that took place earlier this year in the southern suburbs, despite myriad checkpoints, in the space of a week they have repeatedly, if not interrupted attacks, forced alleged bombers to detonate their loads early.
It’s possible that the security services have gotten a hold of accurate intelligence information, but that doesn’t apply to the blast in Tayyouneh, which occurred after an alert officer from General Security became suspicious of a driver. As for the bomb in Dahr al-Baydar, the versions of the story told by General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim and the Internal Security Forces (ISF) did not match, and indeed tended to contradict one another.
During this period the intensity of the panic has been multiplied, propelled by reports of terrorism cells being uncovered in Tripoli, purported threats against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri followed by his cancellation of an Amal conference last week, and statements, with little corroborative evidence, that we are witnessing a terrorism offensive by ISIS.
This sense of panic has been further intensified by arrests of foreigners in Beirut hotels and elsewhere. Last week two Tunisians were interviewed by Al-Jadeed after spending the morning detained by the ISF. They were among the more than 22 people brought in on the day of the Dahr al-Baydar explosion. Far from being hardened jihadists, the pair was in Beirut to attend an Arab nationalist conference. Reports the next day indicated that several of those detained had been set free.
So where is all this leading? A great deal remains unclear or elicits skepticism: security services that behave like James Bond; official explanations that are immediately questionable; assassination lists that keep getting longer; and the near-automatic presumption that ISIS cells are involved.
That is not to say that ISIS is a victim or that there are no terrorist cells in Lebanon. Far from it. ISIS is a real threat to the region, and would readily use terrorist actions to build on its credibility. But until now the evidence in Lebanon seems to be limited. All we have are suspicions, warnings of plots, but nothing that definitely tells us what is true and what isn’t.
Maybe that’s why certain Lebanese politicians view the panic in Lebanon as a manufactured effort to affect the outcome of the presidential election. In this view, Hezbollah and its allies seek to bring in a candidate of their choice to the presidency, thereby using the two elections scheduled this year – the presidential and parliamentary elections – to reinforce their hold over the country. According to this narrative, the Party finally feels that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is relatively secure in power, and would like to reflect that reality within Lebanon.
In this context, Hezbollah has an interest in taking advantage of the security situation, and even in heightening the fear level. The theory is that Hezbollah has two favorite candidates in its scabbard: the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, and Michel Aoun. To impose them on the political scene, the argument goes, their elevation must be justified by the unstable security situation, making the public more willing to embrace either man.
Neither Aoun nor Qahwaji has been accused in any way of involvement in this purported conspiracy. And given Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq’s allegiance to March 14, he is hardly someone likely to be complicit in such a scheme.
And yet one thing can be said if this theory is true: it is not Aoun who would benefit most from a public backlash against the climate of insecurity in the country, but rather Qahwaji, as army commander. Therefore, putting both men in the same basket may be misleading. Hezbollah may be keeping the prospect of an Aoun presidency alive both to neutralize the general, who avidly desires the post, and to absorb potential reactions against Qahwaji, who may remain the party’s first choice as president.
Indeed, Aounist suspicions of such a scenario were evident in an ambiguous piece penned by Jean Aziz last week in Al-Akhbar. Aziz, who is close to Aoun, looked back at how the Nahr al-Bared battle was used to bring Sleiman to power in 2008, blocking Aoun. His implication was that the latest violence may be used in the same way, though Aziz underlined that he was not accusing Jean Qahwaji of complicity in such a move.
Too many pieces of the puzzle are missing to decisively conclude what is going on. But there does seem to be a calculated intention to scare the Lebanese after months of relative calm. Maybe that’s a response to a real threat from terrorism, or maybe someone is simply letting things happen to exploit this politically. Whichever it is, there is more than meets the eye to this affair.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling