Jihadist groups in Lebanon are coordinating a bombing campaign against Shiite Muslim neighborhoods in Lebanon and fanning the flames of sectarian hatred, say Lebanese security sources.
Cooperation extends to transportation and logistics, according to Lebanese army sources, and factions are coordinating suicide bombings carried out in Lebanon – there have been a dozen in the past seven months—trading bomb-makers and smugglers as well as sharing intelligence.
The biggest public expression of jihadist coordination came when three separate jihadist groups issued in mid-January explanations justifying their waging war in Lebanon.
One of the groups, the Lebanese wing of Jabhat al-Nusra, urged in its online statement Lebanese Sunni Muslims to avoid Shiite neighborhoods because more bombings are on the way.
Syria war spillover
The group says the series of suicide bombings that have struck Beirut and other towns in Lebanon are in retribution for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement, sending fighters to assist President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war raging next-door in Syria.
“The statements appeared to have been coordinated and timed to go out the same day to ensure maximum propaganda effect,” says a Lebanese military intelligence officer who declined to be named for this article.
The current spate of bombings on residential and shopping areas are outraging Shiite Muslims. The dozen bombings, the first came on July 9 in the mainly Shiite South Beirut, have killed 130 people and wounded more than 1,000, according to the Lebanese interior ministry.
The latest blast came on February 3 south of Beirut in Shoueifat. After that bombing, former civil war-era Lebanese president Amine Gemayel warned Lebanon was at risk of being engulfed in Iraq-style sectarian violence.
A change in tactics
Al-Nusra front claimed responsibility for the February 3 bombing. The attack marked a change in tactics. Most of the suicide blasts have involved suicide bombers using cars stolen in Lebanon and rigged with explosives, but the Feb. 3 blast was triggered by a lone bomber boarding a microbus and then detonating an explosives belt he was wearing.
Lebanese officials warn that jihadist bombers are likely to shift their tactics to try to penetrate Shiite districts. Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have redoubled security in Shiite neighborhoods. They suspect jihadist bombers will start using explosive-laden cars once again.
“There are approximately 550 cars that were stolen over the span of several months,” the country’s interior minister Marwan Charbel told a local television station recently. “The series of bombings will continue and the situation is very difficult.”
Hisham Jaber, a former top strategist for the army and onetime military governor of Beirut, argues that veterans from the Iraq insurgency and from the conflict in Syria are fueling the threat but that jihadists are being successful in recruiting among hard-line Lebanese Islamist groups in Lebanon.
“We have many cells,” he says.
According to Jaber, jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida started forming alliances several years ago with radical Sunni groups in Lebanon
, infiltrating the country in a bid to recruit for the civil war in neighboring Syria. But now they seem determined on destabilizing Lebanon and using the country as a launch pad for global jihad.
A Palestinian connection
Much of that recruitment, security officials suspect, is happening in Palestinian refugee camps such as Ain al-Helweh outside Sidon. The camp’s population before the Syrian civil war was 80,000 but another 30,000 refugees from Syria have swelled it in the past three years, primarily Palestinian Syrians.
The influx includes hardcore Islamists adding to radical elements that were in the camp before.
Palestinian officials deny any large-scale recruitment is taking place in Ain al-Helweh but the onetime head of the jihadist group Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Majid al-Majid, who was arrested in January and died in custody, lived in the camp until 2012.
Security officials are also bracing for jihadists to start targeting the Lebanese army as well as Shiite neighborhoods.
Another foreign-led jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, known as ISIS, has telegraphed its intention of targeting the army as well, saying in an online statement that Lebanese security forces are fair game. The group has also warned it intends to strike at Israel from Lebanon.
Lebanese are becoming increasingly nervous by the threat of violence. Recently in Sidon, a town south of Beirut, pedestrians mistook a thief who was fleeing toward a mosque for a suicide bomber and jumped for cover. Jittery guards at the mosque started firing.