The January 2 bombing in southern Beirut marks the third attack against Hezbollah’s stronghold for its military support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. The first bomb to hit Dahyeh occurred on July 9, followed on August 15 by the most devastating bombing to hit this stronghold to date, which killed 21 and wounded another 250. However, the nature of bombing and the claim of responsibility separate the January 2 attack from the previous two. This attack was carried out by a suicide bomber identified as Qutaiba Mohammad al-Satem, a 20-year old Lebanese citizen and university student from the Akkar district of the Northern Governorate; he is also the first agent of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to target Hezbollah on Lebanese soil. While the circumstances around why al-Satem decided to blow himself up are still murky, the act points to two disturbing trends: the growing radicalization of underprivileged Sunni Muslims and the entry of al-Qaeda’s two Syrian factions into Lebanon.
The Northern Governorate, from which al-Satem hails, is the poorest in the country. Bordering the Syrian governorates of Tartus and Homs, it has seen an influx of roughly 250,000 refugees over the course of the almost three-year conflict next door, bringing its residents face-to-face with the plight of their coreligionists. Furthermore, the Northern Governorate and in particular its capital, Tripoli, suffered tremendously under the boot of successive Assad regimes. Whether during Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war or the resulting Syrian occupation until 2005, Sunni residents have cultivated a shared historical memory of the atrocities committed by both the elder and younger Assad. Animosities run so deep that armed clashes between Tripoli’s Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the city’s Sunni areas, including Bab al-Tabbaneh, have been ongoing since June 2008. It is this void of poverty, despair, and sectarian animosity—exacerbated by the Syrian civil war and its winner-take-all mentality—that has allowed for the rise of a group of influential sheikhs.
These Salafi leaders, though concentrated in Tripoli, have cultivated a following among poor Sunnis in the Northern Governorate, Sidon in the south, and various Palestinian refugee camps dotted across the country. Characterized by their willingness to both threaten and chastise the Syrian regime, they have been instrumental in mobilizing their followers to fight in Syria and at home against its interests. These preeminent Salafi sheikhs can be divided into two camps: those that have utilized the pulpit and others that have taken an active role in hostilities. While their tactics differ, they are intrinsically linked by ideology and association.
Those that have confined their actions to religious sermons include Zakaria Abdel Razzaq al-Masri and Salem al-Rafei. Both of these religious leaders hail from Tripoli, have condemned the Assad regime, and have held numerous rallies in support of the Syrian rebels. Al-Masri, the leader of the Hamza Mosque in Tripoli, is a spiritual guide for many of Tripoli’s Sunni combatants and has been a vocal critic of Hezbollah. Viewed as the most important Salafi figure in Tripoli, al-Rafei has repeatedly told Lebanese Sunnis to join the fight next door, stating, “Our calls for jihad will stop once Hezbollah withdraws from Syria.” Whether in response to the direct actions of his followers or as a message to Tripoli’s Salafi community, Syrian intelligence targeted al-Rafei’s congregation on August 23. On that day, two car bombs exploded, including one parked outside of the al-Taqwa mosque, where al-Rafei usually gives Friday sermons. Though al-Rafei was not at the mosque, a total of 47 people were killed and 500 wounded in both explosions. The act, viewed as retaliation for the August 15 bombing against Hezbollah, did not result in a cessation of attacks against the group. Rather, it seems to have undercut the capacity or willingness of their attackers—only one failed car bomb targeting Hezbollah was found between August 15 and this latest bombing on January 2.
The second group of sheikhs has taken a more active role in hostilities. Known as the “Sunni Lion” among his followers, the Sidon-based Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was the most outspoken critic of both Hezbollah and the group’s abundant weapons stockpile. He was known for his firebrand sermons, a number of which were coordinated with al-Masri in Tripoli and Sidon. In April al-Assir began to send followers to fight in Syria and even posted a video of himself purportedly near the battleground of al-Qusayr. After his fighters attacked an army checkpoint near Sidon on June 23, a two-day battle left seventeen Lebanese soldiers and dozens of al-Assir’s men dead. The cleric then fled and may still be hiding in the neighboring Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh. Though on the run, security sources believe that al-Assir’s followers were responsible for simultaneous suicide attacks on army checkpoints around Sidon on December 16. There is even the possibility, according to a piece in The Daily Star, that some of the attackers may have been members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is one of the two al-Qaeda franchises in Syria (alongside ISIS) and is thought to have a presence in Ain al-Hilweh.
Salem al-Rafei has been photographed alongside another shadowy sheikh, Hussam al-Sabbagh. A resident of the Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, he is thought to have 250 followers. Though this number is small when compared to that of the abovementioned Salafi leaders, al-Sabbagh boasts the résumé of an experienced jihadi: he has fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Lebanon’s civil war. Known for smuggling fighters into the Syrian governorate of Homs, he is reported to have fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. He may even act as the representative of al-Nusra and other Syrian Islamist factions in Lebanon.
If reports on Sheikhs Ahmad al-Assir and Hussam al-Sabbagh are correct, they point to a more worrying trend: not only have all of the aforementioned Salafi leaders radicalized many of their followers, they have also created the conditions for the active involvement of Syria’s two al-Qaeda affiliates in Lebanon. The January 2 bombing and the claim of responsibility by ISIS should act as a wake-up call for both Hezbollah and Lebanese politicians of all stripes. As the Syrian civil war continues, the links will strengthen between Lebanon’s Salafi preachers and the radical Syrian groups fighting the Assad regime. Given the pivotal role of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict, radical groups will increasingly target the country’s Shia population both for retribution and in an attempt to force the group to limit its involvement. Among the Lebanese cadres of Salafi leaders they will find a wealth of recruits, some of whom may be willing to emulate the actions of al-Satem.
While Sunni extremism in Lebanon is a multifaceted issue, the country’s current political vacuum has allowed it to grow. Lebanon has been without a government since the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March over a dispute with Hezbollah. This inability to form a government acceptable to all parties, a common theme in Beirut, has a direct impact on Lebanon’s security situation. Without the guidance of a cross-sectarian executive branch, the country’s main guarantor of security, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), cannot effectively police Sunni extremism and other violent symptoms of the Syrian civil war. This situation is made worse by the fact that Hezbollah-aligned MPs, including the caretaker Foreign Minister, are now downplaying a pledge of $3 billion by Saudi Arabia aimed at bolstering the LAF’s capacities. Thus, it seems that the Lebanese state will be unable to deal with the growth of violent Salafism and the exacerbation of Sunni-Shia tensions.
Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with The Atlantic Council of Canada and a blogger with the Foreign Policy Association.