The powerful blast that killed 21 people and wounded more than 200 on Thursday in a southern suburb of Beirut was likely triggered by a jihadist suicide bomber, say Lebanese intelligence sources, who fear more attacks are on their way.
The attacker struck in the evening, timing the car bomb to detonate as residents in the Ruwais neighborhood, a stronghold of the militant Shia movement Hezbollah, were returning home from work, ensuring the consequences would be bloody and the death toll high.
The force of the bomb, which detonated between two residential buildings, also paid testimony to the objective: to cause maximum damage and loss of life in a densely populated Shia suburb. Limbs were scattered around at the heart of the site, with scorched bodies of drivers and passengers in crumpled and twisted cars nearby. The façades of surrounding buildings were severely damaged, and on Friday morning rescue workers were still scouring the wreckage for bodies.
Some Lebanese politicians blamed Israel for the bombing, the second in the Hezbollah suburb of Dahiyeh in a month, arguing it may have been a reprisal for the Hezbollah killing earlier in the week of four Israeli soldiers who had crossed into southern Lebanon. But Lebanese intelligence sources said they see al Qaeda’s hand.
“I think it an action to punish Hezbollah for fighting against Sunni Muslims in Syria,” said a senior Lebanese army official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In July, bombers managed to breach heavy security and maneuver a car bomb into Hezbollah’s so-called security square, where many of the movement’s leadership work and live.
“The fact that today Hezbollah is intervening on the side of the Syrian regime has really only exacerbated a problem that has been there for several years.”
A week before the July 9 blast, which injured 50, U.S. intelligence officials tipped off their Lebanese counterparts that they believed operatives with al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, were planning to launch two bomb attacks on Dahiyeh.
Through the CIA station chief in Beirut, they also warned the head of Lebanese army intelligence, Edmond Fadel, about the smuggling of substantial amounts of explosives into Lebanon in preparation for attacks on Lebanese politicians, army generals, and foreign diplomats, said U.S. officials.
The targeting of Hezbollah by jihadists has been telegraphed since the spring, when Hezbollah redoubled its military support for its patron in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. Several groups served notice of their intentions to retaliate, from homegrown Sunni radicals, frustrated by Hezbollah’s increasing dominance in Lebanon and furious with Lebanese Shiites for their loyalty to Assad, to al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. The jihadists were particularly angry at Hezbollah swinging a two-week long battle for the strategic border town of Qusair in Assad’s favor in the spring.
The Free Syrian Army’s military commander, Gen. Salim Idris, warned also that Hezbollah’s backing of Syria’s president would be met with retaliation and the targeting of the Shia movement’s heartlands in Lebanon. Recent episodic rocket attacks from rebel-controlled areas in Syria on Baalbeck and other Shiite towns in the Bekaa Valley close to the border with Syria are likely linked with that warning, said Lebanese security officials.
A previously unheard-of group calling itself the Brigade of Aisha, the Mother of the Faithful, claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bombing and hinted it was also behind the July blast.
Syria’s sectarian-based civil war and Hezbollah’s role in it is worsening divisions between Lebanese Sunni Muslims and Shia, said Lebanese author Michael Young. “The fact that today Hezbollah is intervening on the side of the Syrian regime has really only exacerbated a problem that has been there for several years,” he said.
Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian conflict next door. The majority of Sunnis support the opposition, while Shiites back Assad, one of Hezbollah’s regional patrons along with Iran. As violence spills over from Syria with increasing frequency and intensity, many Lebanese now fear they can’t escape being dragged into full-scale Syria-linked sectarian conflict.
The biggest fear is that if such bombing attacks such as Thursday’s blast continue, they will spark a civil war. The last one stretched from 1975 to 1990, left 120,000 dead, and wounded one in four Lebanese.
Retired general Hisham Jaber said he believes the situation can be controlled and that neither Hezbollah nor Sunni militants want a full-scale conflict on Lebanese soil while Lebanon is useful as a logistical base for both sides in Syria. But he warned that may not always be the case.
“If the situation in Syria changes in a dramatic way, let’s say the regime collapses, let’s say there is any dramatic change in Damascus ... In this case it will move directly to Lebanon and we will lose control,” he said.
So far Hezbollah has been restrained in responses to the attacks on its Beirut suburb, aware that retaliation is probably what the bombers want. Whether that forbearance will continue after Thursday’s attack, the biggest and deadliest bombing so far, will be key to the next few weeks. As the traditional protectors of Lebanon’s Shia, Hezbollah can’t afford to be seen as unable to defend its own strongholds.
The dangers for Lebanon are mounting fast. Jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda have been infiltrating Lebanon in recent weeks, forming alliances with radical Sunni groups. Much of their activity has been focused on recruiting, but Lebanese army sources are becoming increasingly alarmed at the destabilizing sectarianism they are bringing in their wake.