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Alex Rowell

Sidon bomb raises fears of jihadist escalation

Tuesday’s car bomb near a south Lebanese school puts rising extremist Islamist militancy in the city under renewed spotlight

Flames engulf the wreckage of a car following a bomb explosion in southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on April 12, 2016. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

It was only by sheer chance that the car bomb that killed Palestinian Fatah Movement official Fathi Zaydan in south Lebanon’s Sidon Tuesday afternoon – the first attack of its kind in the city in over seven years – did not take many more lives.

 

Detonating just meters from the National Evangelical School for Girls and Boys, the explosion took place at a time (shortly after noon) when students were still in class. “If this had happened at 2:45,” Amani Hamad, a Sidon resident who used to attend the same school, told NOW, “there would have certainly been more casualties.”

 

Deadly violence inside the nearby Palestinian camps of Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh is, tragically, all too common, and comparatively easy to ignore for Sidon residents, most of whom will not step foot in the heavily-secured camps in their lifetimes. That Tuesday’s bomb took place outside the confines of the camp walls has raised fears among the city’s Lebanese population, with several nearby schools closing early and some residents decamping to Beirut as a precaution.

 

Specifically, it has Sidonians both within and without the camp worried that an ongoing blood feud and turf war between Fatah and extremist Islamist factions will now intensify, possibly spilling further outside the camp’s borders. The past few weeks have already witnessed a flare-up in this contest, with a Fatah member killed by a gunman from the Salafist-jihadist Fatah al-Islam faction, prompting a revenge killing of the Fatah al-Islam militant’s brother. Though no group has yet claimed credit for Zaydan’s assassination, the impression is widespread that one of Fatah’s numerous Islamist foes stands behind it, with Fatah’s renowned security strongman Mahmoud Abd al-Hamid Isa, a.k.a. ‘Lino’ (himself the target of innumerable assassination attempts), saying Tuesday that, “Everybody knows the parties responsible.” On April 3, ‘Lino’ gave a hawkish statement regarding a coalition of jihadist factions in Ain al-Hilweh known as Al-Shabab al-Muslim (“The Muslim Youth”), saying they “threaten to take Ain al-Hilweh to the abyss if they are not confronted with force […] the time has come to take the necessary measures [against them].”

 

While ‘Lino’ may seek a martial reckoning with his Islamist foes, a competing faction within Fatah is resolved against violence, a Sidon resident told NOW on condition of anonymity. Given the grave humanitarian cost that would likely be incurred by Ain al-Hilweh’s estimated population of over 100,000 in any sustained intra-camp war, many Sidonians would understandably prefer that tensions were defused and disputes settled peacefully.

 

“I hope no clashes occur following this, because that camp is cramped,” said Hamad. “And [the residents] have nowhere to go. Their lives are miserable, and these people just worsen it.”

 

Yet the dilemma, as NOW has previously reported, is that in practice camp officials’ hands-off approach with extremist militants only gives them more room for maneuver.

 

An ISIS franchise in the making?

 

Ain al-Hilweh has been home to a small but troublesome Islamist minority since at least the 1990s. In more contemporary times, it has been the safe-house of choice for Lebanese jihadists ranging from Ahmad al-Assir and his celebrity sidekick Fadel Shaker to a string of militants responsible for launching car and suicide attacks on mostly Shiite civilian targets across the country. And, more recently still, a local media report this month, which cannot be independently verified by NOW, claims that over two dozen militants from the Islamic State (ISIS) group have entered Ain al-Hilweh from Syria with a view to establishing a franchise therein. With the assistance of an operative called Hilal Hilal, according to the report in the south Lebanese Janoubia site, these ISIS delegates hope to poach members of Al-Shabab al-Muslim and gradually expand their presence in the camp.

 

NOW was unable to reach a Fatah spokesperson for comment on these claims. A spokesman for Hamas, Ali Barake, told NOW “there is no organizational structure of this terrorist group Daesh in the camps” and “we refuse for this organization to exist in the camps.”

 

However, the cleric Sheikh Jamal Khattab, leader of Al-Harakah al-Islamiyya al-Mujahidah (“The Jihad-Waging Islamic Movement”) in Ain al-Hilweh, told NOW that while ISIS may not have a formal, organized presence in the camp, nevertheless “there are some individuals who embrace the ideas of the Islamic State.”

 

Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

Flames engulf the wreckage of a car following a bomb explosion in southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on April 12, 2016. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

“If this had happened at 2:45,” Amani Hamad, a Sidon resident who used to attend the same school, told NOW, “there would have certainly been more casualties.”