ISIS’s sectarian message in Beirut bloodbath
BEIRUT - In the arcane world of jihadist organisations, two suicide bombings in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold that killed 46 people and wounded more than 200 marked a departure as well as being the deadliest attack of its kind in the city since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990.
A third bomber was apparently killed when the second bomber detonated his explosives.
The devastating November 12th attack may be the opening salvo in an escalating battle between Sunni extremists and Hezbollah, Shia Iran’s prized proxy and its loyal ally in keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shia Islam, in power.
The double bombing in the Dahiya sector of southern Beirut was claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS), the first attack on Lebanon’s Shias that the jihadist group has acknowledged.
Hitherto, the 29 bombings since October 2012 had been claimed by ISIS’s rivals, primarily al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, named after Osama bin Laden’s Palestinian mentor.
In a statement issued on social media, ISIS bluntly declared that the objective of the November 12th bombings was simply to kill as many Shias as possible.
There were none of the usual denunciations of Hezbollah helping the Syrian dictatorship stay in power against the will of the Syrian people or calls for it to disengage from the Syrian war in which it has suffered heavy losses or to free Sunni extremists imprisoned in Lebanon where security is firmly controlled by Hezbollah.
The Lebanese Army, long neglected by sectarian leaders who wanted to keep the military weak, is in no shape to take on ISIS, despite recent US, French and Saudi efforts to build up its combat capabilities.
Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said on November 15th that Internal Security Forces arrested two masterminds of the attack, a Lebanese and a Syrian, along with seven others linked to the terror cell, including one would-be suicide bomber.
Machnouk said interrogations revealed that the plan was devised for five suicide attackers hitting the Rassoul al-Aazam Hospital where Hezbollah fighters wounded in Syria are treated. That plan was scrapped because of tight security, he said, but the overall aim is to “destabilise”.
However, ISIS’s message laid out for all to see the sectarian hatreds that are so prevalent between Islam’s dominant Sunnis and the smaller Shia branch that’s a pivotal element in the increasingly toxic Syrian war and the power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for domination of the Middle East.
Some analysts say the bombings stemmed from ISIS’s recent battlefield reverses in Syria and could be linked to recent attacks in Egypt and France that killed more than 350 people as ISIS extends its attacks across the Middle East and into Europe.
But it seems clear ISIS wants to use the Syrian war to destabilise Lebanon to draw off Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Damascus regime. ISIS wants to undermine Hezbollah as the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon and one way to do that is to bomb its supporters who are increasingly disquieted about the movement’s heavy casualties as Iran’s surrogate in an unpopular war. Forcing Hezbollah out of the Syrian war would seriously weaken Assad’s shaky regime.
“ISIS will try to strike again in any areas it can reach,” observed military analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general.
“The attack was intended to incite the people in Shia areas that embrace Hezbollah and to stand against the party and its intervention in Syria,” he said.
“The strategic goal is to undermine stability in Lebanon.”