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Alex Rowell

Suicide bomb rampage spells trouble ahead for Lebanon

For eight bombers to get past army and Hezbollah lines and launch successful attacks suggests country more vulnerable than previously thought

Lebanese soldiers stand guard in front of a church where a suicide bomber blew himself up the previous day in the village of Al-Qaa, near the Lebanon

A stunning torrent of no fewer than eight suicide bombings in a single day in a single town in northeast Lebanon Monday has left the nation in mourning, anger, and no small amount of confusion.

 

Al-Qaa, a mostly-Christian town situated 5km from the Syrian border, has come under occasional rocket fire over the past five years, but never on the scale of the carnage it experienced from before dawn yesterday till after 10pm. The attacks, which left 5 dead and more than 30 injured, appeared to confirm fears that jihadist groups were preparing to strike the country during Ramadan, and raised questions as to how so large an operation was able to slip through the many nets of the Lebanese state’s – and Hezbollah’s – various security and intelligence agencies.

 

The attacks began shortly after 4am, when local resident Shadi Muqallad was said to have become aware of movement in a field outside his house. Walking outside, he discovered four men, claiming to be army intelligence agents. Suspecting them of lying, Muqallad retrieved a rifle from his house, and began firing on the men, one of whom quickly detonated an explosive vest he was wearing. Shortly afterward, the other three also blew themselves up on a nearby street, killing 5 residents.

 

Some eighteen hours later, at 22:30, a fifth suicide bomber then alighted from a motorbike and threw a hand grenade at a gathering of people outside the town church before blowing himself up, according to a Lebanese Armed Forces statement. A sixth suicide bomber similarly dismounted a bike and detonated his explosive vest moments later. Finally, two further suicide bombers hoping to reach an army position were pursued by military intelligence forces and forced to blow themselves up without injuring any third parties, the LAF said. No deaths were caused by any of the night-time bombings.

 

The attacks have not been claimed by any group at the time of writing, but a prime suspect is the Islamic State (ISIS), several hundred of whose militants are holed up in the mountains immediately southeast of Al-Qaa, as NOW contributor Nicholas Blanford reported in detail in February. The modus operandi of using motorbike-mounted attackers was also seen in ISIS’ suicide bombing of Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh neighborhood in November.

 

 

 

Yet while there are no doubts ISIS would have a general motive to strike the town, it’s unclear why they would dispatch as many as eight operatives for a single target of comparatively low strategic or other significance. Moreover, previous jihadist attacks in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian war have almost exclusively targeted majority-Shiite or Alawite population centers. For these reasons, some including LAF Commander Maj. Gen. Jean Qahwaji have concluded the attackers had not originally intended to hit Al-Qaa, but were forced to do so after “the alertness of the army and citizens caused their plans to fail,” in Qahwaji’s words. One local newspaper speculated the nearby Shiite-majority town of Hermel, struck three times by the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in 2014, may have been the attackers’ real target.

 

Bashir Matar, Al-Qaa’s mayor, himself admitted in a phone call to NOW Tuesday that he couldn’t think why the town was targeted. Retired LAF General Elias Hanna, however, said it was not necessarily such a mystery.

 

“It’s not about the target itself,” Hanna told NOW. “It’s about the consequences and the ramifications of the incident. It [may be] a small, Christian town, [but] the ramifications are all over Lebanon. This is the real intention […] for them, it’s a win-win situation.”

 

Whatever the exact details of the original plan, perhaps a more important question concerns how the bombers were able to carry it out. On Tuesday afternoon, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nuhad al-Mashnouq stated that “the suicide bombers entered from Syria,” adding there was “no link between [Syrian refugee] camps and the explosions.” While presumably meant to reassure the public, this revelation is also troubling, because – as Blanford documented in the aforementioned report – both the LAF and Hezbollah maintain some of their strongest defenses in precisely those parts of the border zone closest to Al-Qaa.

 

“The approaches to Ras Baalbek and Qaa from the east and southeast respectively are […] protected by army positions and observation towers built on mountain tops with overlapping fields of view,” wrote Blanford. The LAF’s equipment in these areas includes “Cessna aircraft […] pilotless reconnaissance drones, observation towers, snipers and most recently observation balloons.” At the same time, “Hezbollah fighters man a series of mountain crest posts facing ISIS’ positions southeast of Qaa.”

 

If ISIS has now discovered ways of sneaking past these lines, that could well bode poorly for security in eastern Lebanon over the coming period – as Al-Qaa’s mayor Matar acknowledged to NOW.

 

“Anything can happen. I hope no other bombings will happen, but we are ready.”

 

Asked what steps the LAF could take to stave off further attacks, Gen. Hanna told NOW it would have to be a case of brain over brawn.

 

“This kind of warfare is not really about military force. It’s about intelligence, it’s about social [factors,] it’s about politics.”

 

“This is information warfare.”

 

 

Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

The quiet border town of Al-Qaa was hit by no fewer than eight suicide bombings Monday (STRINGER/AFP)

Both the LAF and Hezbollah maintain some of their strongest defenses in precisely those parts of the border zone closest to Al-Qaa