Syria War Crossing Into Lebanon, Bringing With It Al-Qaida Style Jihad

Latest suicide bombing against Hezbollah could ultimately have severe consequences for Israel.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The suicide bombing on Tuesday in Hezbollah’s home turf in Beirut is yet another sign that Al-Qaida-style Sunni jihadists are now going after the powerful Shi’ite organization in Lebanon, just as Hezbollah has gone after them in the Syrian civil war.

Responsibility for the bombing in the Lebanese capital’s Dahiyeh neighborhood was claimed by an organization called the Lebanese Nusra Front, apparently an offshoot of the Nusra Front in Syria, an extremist Sunni organization that draws inspiration from Al-Qaida and operates mainly in southern Syria.

This was the second bombing in Dahiyeh this month. In the first, a booby-trapped car exploded about 100 meters from one of Hezbollah’s main command posts.

The Nusra Front fighting the Assad regime’s forces and their Hezbollah allies in Syria recently announced the opening of an office in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. It’s not clear how credible this announcement, published on a Twitter account affiliated with the group, actually is. But its implications, like those of many other incidents in Lebanon in recent months, are clear: The Syrian civil war has reached Lebanon – and with it, Al-Qaida’s ideological children, the global jihad organizations.

Extremist Sunni groups were also behind this month’s explosion in the Shi’ite city of Hermel, several rocket attacks on Dahiyeh, and a November attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut. In addition, a senior Hezbollah official, Hassan al-Laqis, was assassinated in Beirut; some Lebanese believe Sunni militias were responsible for that as well, but others blame Israel.

Though Hezbollah currently seems as if it is absorbing more blows than it is landing (via the exact same methods it has used to impose a reign of terror on Lebanon for three decades), the organization isn’t remaining idle. Less than a month ago, former minister Mohamad Chatah, a leader of the anti-Syrian camp, was murdered in Beirut, an attack attributed to Hezbollah. At his funeral, the black flags of Sunni jihadi groups were visible, to the surprise of many participants – further evidence of the growing extremism sweeping the country.

Lebanon’s transitional government and its security services are both trying to maneuver between the warring camps, but don’t always exercise the requisite delicacy. Earlier this month, Majid al-Majid, leader of an extremist Sunni group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, died in a Lebanese jail. His organization was behind several attacks on Shi’ite communities in Lebanon, as well as rocket fire on Israel. Lebanese intelligence had pursued Majid, who had serious kidney problems, for some time, and finally caught him after discovering that he periodically checked into a hospital in Sidon – the only one in southern Lebanon that offers dialysis treatments suited to his case – under an alias. His death in prison was apparently due not to torture, but to lack of dialysis.

The Sunni groups’ increased activity has already raised tensions between Lebanon and Israel, due to two incidents of rocket fire on northern Israel (in August and December 2013) and the murder of soldier Shlomi Cohen at an Israel Defense Forces outpost in Rosh Hanikra on December 15. Cohen’s killer, a Sunni soldier in the Lebanese Army, turned himself in to the Lebanese authorities the next day. He is currently under arrest, and Lebanon has promised both the United Nations and Israel that he will be court-martialed. Israel suspects he was influenced by extremist Sunni organizations, even though he didn’t officially belong to any of them.

Feverish consultations between Israel and Lebanon on the night of Cohen’s killing prevented a serious escalation on the border. The United Nations gave Israel regular reports from the Lebanese authorities, starting about an hour after the shooting, and contributed to calming the situation. A trilateral commission of Israeli, Lebanese and UN representatives met the next day, at which time the Lebanese Army reported the suspect’s arrest. The commission is slated to meet again next week.

When questioned, the suspect claimed he thought Cohen was threatening him – a story not supported by the facts. But in the same breath, he admitted that he shot at the IDF vehicle carrying the soldier while it was driving on the Israeli side of the border.

Israel was quickly convinced that the shooter had acted on his own initiative, and that Lebanon would work to restore quiet to the border. Nevertheless, Jerusalem recently protested to both Beirut and the United Nations over a speech by a senior Lebanese Army officer in Marjayoun, in which he promised that the army would continue to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty. That was interpreted as a statement of support for the soldier who shot Cohen.

Meanwhile, another danger also hovers in the background: the possibility of a clash between Israel and Hezbollah, precisely because of the latter’s deteriorating situation in Lebanon. Senior defense officials don’t consider this an immediate danger; they think Hezbollah is currently too bogged down in the Syrian civil war, and too fearful of a harsh Israeli military response, to risk military action against Israel. Nevertheless, Israel must prepare for the possibility that the enormous upheaval in Syria and Lebanon could ultimately have severe consequences for Israel’s northern border as well.

Lebanese army soldiers and forensic inspectors gather to examine the site of an explosion in the Dahiyeh neighborhood of Beirut, January 2014.Credit: Reuters

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