Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Lebanon, where jihadists may roam

[Originally posted at NOW]

On Saturday, what appeared to be a claim by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), perhaps the most terrifying jihadist group in the world at present, to have carried out Thursday’s suicide bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs began circulating online. Assuming it’s genuine – and at least one analyst is skeptical – this would be the first confirmed ISIS attack on Lebanon, and likely not the last: the statement added the bomb was but “the first small payment of the heavy cost which awaits these immoral criminals [Hezbollah].”

This is obviously troubling for all sorts of reasons, not least being the timing. It comes scarcely two weeks after the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian al-Qaeda subsidiary and ISIS’ most formidable rival in the theocracy stakes, told Al Jazeera that his men too have now arrived in Lebanon, where they will “protect the Sunnis” from the “Party of Iran.” That announcement coincided with the release of a video showing the mujahideen of the all-new ‘Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon’ franchise launching ten Grad rockets at Hermel, accompanied by a press release now helpfully published on the group’s Twitter account.

A coincidence, possibly. But Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s 50-minute interview on the Arab world’s premier TV station put Nusra back in the limelight at a time when ISIS was making an increasingly catastrophic job of hearts-and-minds management in northern Syria (the further bungling of which would lead to this weekend’s extraordinary wave of attacks by numerous rebel brigades on ISIS positions across the country). The urge to one-up Nusra’s ballistic theatrics would only have been natural. Strikingly, Saturday’s ISIS statement even concluded with exactly the same quote from the Qur’an as did the Nusra one; selected – presumably not at random – from a chapter titled al-Munafiqun (“The Hypocrites”.)

In other words, Lebanon may soon become (if it isn’t already) an open arena of intra-jihadist showmanship and competition, in which ISIS, Nusra, the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, and any other takers outbid one another’s bona fides in the currency of civilian blood. Of course, in strictly military terms, this wouldn’t make a great deal of sense – Syria is still the battle that matters, and the road to Damascus doesn’t run through Dahiyeh any more than the path to Jerusalem went through Jounieh. Yet for the purposes of things like raising funds, attracting recruits, and general branding, jihadists still have a toxic sort of incentive to murder a lot more Lebanese civilians.

Back in August, a few days after the first in what has now become a series of deadly car bombs in Beirut’s southern suburbs, I suggested there were three necessary (if not sufficient) measures to prevent such a senseless descent into sectarian slaughter: full cooperation between feuding security agencies; containment by Sunni powers of the extremists among their ranks; and the immediate and full withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria.

Five months later, we’ve seen almost nothing to suggest progress on the first two fronts. As for the third, consider what the Party of God’s Sheikh Nabil Qaouq had to say yesterday on the subject: “No matter what the size of crimes and car bombs reached, we will not change our position in Syria.” That is a challenge, I fear, that Lebanon’s new jihadist arrivals will be only too happy to take up.

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