In the first two months of 2014, Lebanon appeared to be descending rapidly, almost inexorably, into a mire of alarming bloodshed and instability. An unprecedented wave of al-Qaeda-linked attacks on civilians was accelerating, adding 34 deaths to the more than 50 men, women, and children that such attacks had killed in the second half of 2013. And then, almost without anyone noticing, the attacks ceased. April 2014 was the first month to witness no explosion since October 2013. Even before then, a slowdown had been detectable—from five suicide bombings in February 2014 to two in March, the latter confined to the Syrian border region. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stated confidently in an April interview that “the risk of [further] explosions has diminished very significantly.” While this was a plainly political statement—aimed at retroactively justifying his group’s controversial military intervention in the neighboring Syrian war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad—it appears to have held up so far, and has been echoed by the head of the Lebanese army.
How, then, did a weak and fragmented state like Lebanon manage to prevail against al-Qaeda? The principal reason was that al-Qaeda’s Lebanese franchisees, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, united Lebanon’s most powerful actors against them. Foremost among these actors is Hezbollah, which, in addition to its paramilitary manpower and hardware, also maintains its own intelligence-gathering and telecommunications networks that allowed them to keep close tabs on the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Abdallah Azzam Brigades made hostility to Hezbollah their raison d’être, branding it a heretical “Party of Satan” (playing on its name, which means “Party of God”) and stating after every attack that they would continue until the party’s militants withdrew from Syria. Then there are the state forces, which also run multiple and sizeable intelligence-gathering operations. The general outline of the response to the attacks, then, consisted of a manhunt carried out by state security forces in tandem with Hezbollah, based on their combined intelligence, with the blessing of the political establishment and its international backers, including the United States.
This manhunt involved both arrests and targeted killings. In March 2014, a militant wanted for involvement in at least one of the car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs was gunned down in a Lebanese army ambush in the mountainous outskirts of the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border. Less clear were the circumstances of the October 2013 killing of a suspect wanted in connection with two car bombings, whose vehicle was reportedly targeted by rocket fire in a remote area, also near Arsal. While state media described it simply as an “armed ambush,” Hezbollah was also accused. Similar mystery surrounded the death in custody of Majid al-Majid, the internationally wanted Saudi leader of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, credited with masterminding a double suicide attack on Beirut’s Iranian embassy in November 2013. His demise in December, just nine days after his arrest by Lebanese army intelligence, was officially attributed to natural causes—but the Brigades blamed Hezbollah, who in turn pointed the finger at Riyadh.
State authorities also made swift progress on other fronts. A jihadist cleric from Arsal arrested in January 2014 reportedly informed the army of the identity of one Naim Abbas, a Palestinian refugee who became Lebanon’s most wanted suspect and was arrested the following month. Abbas was charged with overseeing two suicide bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and reportedly revealed the locations of several explosive-laden vehicles, which were subsequently intercepted by the army. Various other associates of Abbas were also arrested.
As the arrests and indictments mounted, a clearer picture began to emerge of how the militants operated. Prosecutors identified a network linking the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon with the eastern border town of Arsal. A common denominator in more than one attack was the fugitive Lebanese cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who went into hiding after his militiamen fought a bloody battle with the army and Hezbollah in Sidon in June 2013. At least three suicide bombers claimed in video testimonies to have fought alongside Assir’s men in the clashes.
It was Arsal, however, that Hezbollah officials repeatedly branded as the principal gateway for extremists entering Lebanon from Syria. Three kinds of checkpoints were set up around the town—two manned by the army, and one by Hezbollah gunmen (aptly symbolizing the partnership between the two). Though the latter checkpoints became notorious for harassment and even violence against passers-through, and were eventually removed, the system did have some success as a barricade against attacks—both of the two most recent suicide bombings took place at these checkpoints.
Undergirding all these efforts was the carte blanche given to the army and Hezbollah by the political class, including the patrons of the Sunni community. This in turn was encouraged by influential regional and international powers, including the United States, which has reportedly been sharing intelligence with the Lebanese authorities since July 2013; this was apparently instrumental in the arrest of Naim Abbas. “What happened proves once again that the security situation in Lebanon is directly related to the political situation,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Whenever we have political agreement, the security situation suddenly becomes very good.”
With that said, the “mission accomplished” attitude struck by Nasrallah and the army commander may yet prove premature, as well as counterproductive. For while Hezbollah may tout its recent advances in Syria’s Qalamoun region on the Lebanese border as a “grand victory” against “terrorism,” this will only harden the hostility felt toward the Shia group by the many Lebanese Sunnis who continue to see the Syrian rebel cause as a just struggle against tyranny. While the country’s Sunnis are on the whole a moderate community, any inflammation of sectarian animosity can only be a boon to the extremist minority, which has grown in numbers and resources as a result of the Syrian war—particularly after Hezbollah’s intervention there.
That Hezbollah has given no indication it intends to withdraw any time soon—and is, indeed, believed to be eyeing new offensives in Aleppo and Daraa—means a fundamental underlying cause of the jihadists’ proliferation is set to remain for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it remains possible that Hezbollah’s displacement of Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked militants, from Qalamoun has in fact had the effect of drawing them across the highly porous border into Lebanon. New reports of Jabhat al-Nusra conducting kidnappings in Arsal, following a series of skirmishes between Syrian gunmen and the Lebanese army in the area, suggest this process may already be underway. In which case, Lebanon’s al-Qaeda problem may not have been resolved so much as merely interrupted.
Alex Rowell is a Beirut-based journalist reporting for NOW Lebanon, among other outlets.