The day before the massive terror attacks in Paris, at least 43 people were killed in Beirut when two suicide bombers struck a neighborhood in the city’s southern suburbs — commonly referred to as a “stronghold” of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militia that exerts much power in Lebanon. A third bomber was killed before he could detonate his explosives. The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the blasts on social media. For those studying the security situation in Lebanon, more attacks of this type seem almost inevitable, as ISIS has begun ramping up a presence and flexing its muscle in the country. In Beirut there is growing alarm around the widely shared sense that more sleeper cells are waiting in the wings to wreak destruction on Lebanon’s population. Yesterday’s terror attack is the clearest indication yet that the worries are justified.
The trajectory of ISIS’s growth in Lebanon is both illuminating and chilling as I look back on more than two years of observing and reporting about it. I first ran into signs of ISIS in Lebanon during the spring of 2013 while working on a Foreign Policy story about Roumieh, Lebanon’s most notorious prison. By that time, it was obvious that Sunni fundamentalists — ISIS’s broader demographic — were becoming increasingly entrenched in Lebanon, and they were being sponsored by some very wealthy people. Local Salafist sheikhs were suddenly driving shiny new SUVs and toting expensive weapons. Ahmed al-Assir, a radical Sunni sheikh, was increasingly vocal in his calls for a jihad against Hezbollah, which fights alongside president Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless regime in neighboring Syria. The civil war was already in full swing by then, as was the burgeoning Islamic State. Just a few months previously, ISIS had announced the creation of its Lebanese division in a video recording.
Inside Roumieh prison, something new and disconcerting was taking place: Radical Sunni Islamists were taking over the place, becoming so powerful (thanks to foreign and local patrons, who provided them with all kinds of amenities) that they would routinely hold the prison guards hostage until their demands were met or a truce negotiated.
“There are a lot of prisoners from the Gulf, and consulates from their embassies come and make sure they have everything they need,” one former Roumieh inmate told me. “One of the guys I was friends with was Algerian. He said he was arrested while traveling from fighting in Syria.” Many prisoners had already begun identifying as ISIS, referred to by many in the Middle East (except ISIS itself) by the derogatory Arabic term Daesh. Roumieh is now a well-known ISIS hotbed, and the group has threatened violence if its jailed supporters are not freed.
ISIS massacres Shia (and brutalizes other minorities such as Christians and Yazidis) wherever they go. As the group began making itself known in historically radicalized Sunni areas of Lebanon, Hezbollah stepped up their efforts against ISIS — including military campaigns inside Syria. The Shia group has proved to be a powerful foe, so it should hardly be surprising that ISIS might choose to bring the war to Hezbollah’s home turf — in the case of yesterday’s bombing, south Beirut.
The first recent bombing in Hezbollah territory happened in July 2013, wounding 50 people but causing no casualties. A car bomb quickly followed suit in August, killing 21 people. ISIS didn’t openly claim responsibility for either attack, but many in Lebanon believe the extremist group was behind them. The car bomb was claimed by a couple of little-known groups and generally blamed on Al Qaeda affiliates in Lebanon, which of course doesn’t exclude ISIS, an Al Qaeda offshoot. Then in January 2014, ISIS explicitly signed their name to a bombing in Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, this time killing four people. More suicide attacks in the area followed. While not all were claimed by ISIS, it seems likely that the group had a hand in at least some of them.
By the time I went to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a historical flash point for sectarian violence, in September 2014 to report on rumors of the group’s presence there, it was clear that Lebanon’s ISIS problem was becoming chronic. A man selling flags at a memorabilia shop furtively held up the notorious black banner to show me. “People buy the Daesh flag,” he told me. “A lot of people support them, and their number will grow.” One of the men I interviewed for that story, a local sheikh who denied his ISIS affiliation at the time, would later end up in Roumieh as a known supporter.
Meanwhile, tension on the Syrian border between Hezbollah, ISIS, and Jabhat Al Nusra, another Al Qaeda affiliate, continued to flare into violence. This past June, ISIS tried to capture the Christian village of Ras Baalbek, inside Lebanon’s borders. While the townspeople defiantly maintained that they would fight to the death to protect their town, it didn’t hurt that Hezbollah was there to beat back the incursion.
Despite Hezbollah’s public insistence to the contrary, it has become obvious to most that the group is increasingly strained by its role in the civil war raging next door. The last time I was in Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburb at the end of September, I asked a woman from the neighborhood if Hezbollah was feeling pressure from the Syrian war. She pointed at a building a few hundred yards away.
“See that school?” she asked. “They take most of the boys who graduate from there straight to fight in Syria, and many come home in a body bag. We bury fighters almost every week now.”
It seems undeniable that Hezbollah must be stretching itself thin — possibly giving ISIS an easier path into the country — since in addition to sending forces into Syria, it must also keep a heavy military presence on the southern border with Israel, with which it is still officially at war. The most recent violent flare-up between the Shia militia and the Jewish state occurred just last January, forcing Hezbollah to maintain a high alert in the area.
And then there’s Beirut’s festering garbage crisis, which has added to the environment of instability and chaos in the country. During recent protests against the government on the matter, I interviewed a Hezbollah captain who informed me that his superiors were becoming increasingly concerned by ISIS sleeper cells they believed were forming across the country. It was something I had also heard from other Hezbollah members.
“We are worried that the cells will detonate simultaneously while at the same time Daesh attacks us near Arsal,” the captain said, speaking of a town near the Syrian border. This kind of open concern is rare in a militia famous for its culture of bravado.
Yesterday’s attack came less than two months after my interview, making the captain’s words eerily prophetic. If the rumors are true and there are still other sleeper cells operating locally, it seems likely that the tiny, politically exhausted nation will be forced to watch more people fall victim to ISIS terror. For now, Lebanon will clear the debris, tend to the wounded, and bury its dead, as it has many times before.