Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arsal on a knife-edge

[Originally posted at NOW]

As Syrians flee new regime airstrikes, Arsal residents fear they may be next.

A girl from Qalamoun who arrived in Wadi Hmayed within the last week (NOW/Alex Rowell)

WADI HMAYED, Lebanon – High up in the rocky, khaki moonscape of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, to the east of the border town of Arsal, stands an army checkpoint that marks the de facto limit of the Lebanese state’s sovereignty. Beyond it lie a series of barren valleys that form a kind of lawless no-man’s-land, technically Lebanese soil but effectively annexed to the Syrian war zone, where regime air strikes, rebel rocket launches, and mutual ambushes and kidnappings happen on a regular basis. Because the Lebanese army itself has no presence in Wadi Hmayed, as the area is known, access is forbidden without special permission, and most international organizations, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), do not operate here.

And yet it is here that the bulk of the more than 10,000 new refugee arrivals from the adjacent Qalamoun region of Syria have settled in the past week, fleeing the intense bombardment of the nearby city of Yabrud to a few collections of tents erected by independent NGOs. They’re among the most vulnerable refugees in the country – none has registered with UNHCR so far, and many say they don’t want to – but, having made it out of Qalamoun, most said they were just grateful to be alive when NOW visited one of the camp sites Friday afternoon.

“Praise be to God,” said a remarkably cheerful old man, squatting on the gravel outside his tent, his six children and grandchildren sitting on slender mattresses inside. “We have everything we need here.”

“I haven’t showered since I arrived four days ago, and I have nothing but the clothes on my back, but praise be to God, we’re all happy here,” said a grinning adolescent at a second tent.

Asked what compelled them to leave Yabrud in the last week, they described scenes of immense and indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian air force.

“The airplanes were bombing our houses, what else could we do?” said one young man, as a crowd gathered outside his tent. “We have kids they killed there. I saw a tank run over a six-year-old boy. And all the time they were dropping barrel bombs. There are still many people buried under the rubble.”

“Initially the regime said they were targeting ‘terrorists’,” said another young man. “But they killed more civilians than fighters.”

Although from Wadi Hmayed they are still close enough to Qalamoun to see the fighter jets on occasion, the refugees said they had no plans to move further inside Lebanon. Some, indeed, were not aware it was even an option – the old man, for instance, was surprised when NOW suggested he could relocate to the Beqaa Valley. As for registering with UNHCR, they were generally divided between those who didn’t know how to and those who didn’t want to.

“Where’s Zahle?” asked a young man unsarcastically, when NOW inquired whether he would be traveling to the UNHCR registration center there (the nearest one to Arsal). The ones who did know where Zahle was were often unwilling, however, to make the trip, fearing harassment or worse at the numerous army and Hezbollah checkpoints on the road from Arsal (NOW was stopped and searched on the return journey by the army, the army intelligence unit, and Hezbollah gunmen). Unless and until they register, they will have to make do with the basic aid UNHCR is able to provide them via its independent NGO partners, as well as what those NGOs themselves can offer. UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid told NOW this pre-registration aid includes hygiene and baby kits, stoves, blankets, fuel vouchers, food supplies, and medical assistance where needed.

Arsal in the crosshairs?

Back on the other side of the army checkpoint, in Arsal itself the tension sparked by recent events is palpable. It is this town, after all, that Hezbollah accuses of being the gateway through which car bombs, allegedly rigged in Syria, make their way inside Lebanon, where seven have exploded since the start of 2014 alone. Indeed, just 10 days ago, the army intercepted an explosives-laden car on its way out of Arsal.

For residents here, such accusations are part of a longstanding campaign to target the town for supporting the Syrian opposition. Last month, a rocket attack on the town center killed eight people, including six children, and though a claim of responsibility by the Syrian jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham group surfaced online, Arsal residents issued a statement pointing the finger at Hezbollah.

“We are being punished, because from day one we were the first to support the Syrian revolution, and to treat the Syrian wounded, and receive refugees,” the town’s Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fleeti tells NOW in his office, looking drained as he drags on a cigarette.

Asked about reports that Arsal’s outskirts, including Wadi Hmayed, could be the Syrian regime’s next target should it succeed in Yabrud, Fleeti shifts nervously in his seat.

“If there’s anything we fear, it’s regime airstrikes. We’re not afraid of Hezbollah, because we think they’re smarter than to invade Arsal. If Hezbollah invades Arsal, it will be a civil war for sure, so it’s more convenient for them to let Syria do the work. Yes, who knows, maybe the regime will do in Arsal what it’s doing in Syria.”

One of Arsal’s biggest problems, Fleeti argues, is its negative media image as a hostile “terrorist” hub, which has increasingly turned public opinion against it since the recent wave of car bombings began.

“We’re not takfiris here, we’re Lebanese, and we want to be under the state’s authority,” he tells NOW. “Arsal’s residents are paying with their own blood for all these explosions. Look at Abdallah Izz al-Din, who was an innocent victim killed in the most recent Bir Hassan bombs, and at first they suspected he was the suicide bomber because it can’t be that someone from Arsal is a victim.”

Nevertheless, the more than two years of brutal warfare in Syria have undoubtedly drawn a minority of Arsal’s more than 80,000 residents (some 60% of whom are now Syrians) in the direction of militant fundamentalist ideology. Black-and-white banners bearing Islamist calligraphy decorate the back windows of several cars cruising through the cramped streets. A number of men, especially the youth, groom their facial hair in the Salafist style. And in the tents in Wadi Hmayed, one refugee scarcely out of his teens gave an ominous reply when asked what would happen if the regime succeeded in its Yabrud offensive.

“If the regime wins, all of us young men will go and join the jihad.”

Some names have been withheld at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

[Infograph] Vehicle explosions in Lebanon since 2011

[Originally posted at NOW, with accompanying infograph]

Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in early 2011, Lebanon has witnessed a multifarious deterioration in security, as tensions between domestic supporters and opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime have sporadically broken out into armed clashes, assassinations, rocket attacks and roadside bombings.

Moreover, since October 2012, the violent fallout from the civil war next door has increasingly taken the form of deadly vehicle explosions, including suicide bombings. These attacks have recently increased in frequency, with five in the first five weeks of 2014 alone, compared to eight in 2013 and one in 2012. Many of the latest bombings have been claimed by extremist Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, who have declared their intention to continue targeting predominantly Shiite civilian population centers until Lebanese Hezbollah fighters withdraw from Syria; a demand the pro-Assad group has repeatedly rejected. All in all, a total of 123 people have been killed so far by 14 explosions.

Above are two graphics illustrating the timing, location, and outcome of each of these vehicle explosions. Should more occur in the future, NOW will update the graphics accordingly.

So is the new cabinet 8-8-8 or 9-8-7?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Depending on who you talk to and what you read, Lebanon’s new cabinet is either an exact three-way divide between the March 14, March 8 and ostensibly “centrist” blocs, or it apportions each of them nine, eight, and seven ministers, respectively.

AFP, for instance, reported that the 24-member cabinet comprised three equal blocs of eight ministers. However, one leading local paper, which originally said the same, subsequently published a correction to the effect that one of the “centrists” was in fact part of March 14’s share, thus giving March 14 nine ministers and March 8 eight, leaving only seven “centrists.” Another local paper in some cases refers to an “equally divided” cabinet and in others implies March 14 has nine ministries.

The confusion stems from the question of incoming Information Minister Ramzi Jreij, who is either the third minister for March 14’s Kataeb Party or the third “centrist” among President Suleiman’s allotment. Initially, it was reported that Jreij’s known sympathies for the Kataeb were going to be politely overlooked, and were not be perceived as membership of their cabinet share per se. The party, however, later officially claimed him as their own, and he in turn declared himself an “ally and friend” of theirs.

For all intents and purposes, then, March 14 has a ninth minister. Why nobody in March 8 is crying foul over this is mysterious, though one suspects the answer won’t take long to emerge.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New Qalamoun offensive may further destabilize Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW]

The battle for Yabrud has already brought new refugees, and may further fuel jihadist attacks.

When in November 2013 the Syrian regime and its allies began their determined campaign to conquer Qalamoun, the rocky highlands extending for some 70km along the Syrian-Lebanese border, there was always inevitably going to come a day of reckoning for the town of Yabrud, the comparatively developed and prosperous multi-faith “capital” of the strategic region.

That day appeared to arrive Wednesday, as regime shelling of the rebel-held town – underway since Friday – escalated into at least a dozen air strikes, according to local residents, international monitors, and fresh video footage. “The battle has begun,” said Qalamoun-based media activist Omar al-Qalamouni to NOW. “And it’s going to be bloody.”

Indeed, observers point to several factors that suggest the coming offensive will be especially intense. Beyond Yabrud’s symbolic value, it’s also one of the last remaining lifelines connecting rebels in Qalamoun to allies in the adjacent Lebanese town of Arsal. “Controlling Yabrud, from the regime’s perspective, means cutting the path to Arsal,” said Qalamouni. The rebels’ continued dominance over the town also threatens the regime’s hold on the arterial Damascus-Homs highway.

Moreover, the prominent regime ally Hezbollah has made its own case for the significance of holding Yabrud. In a speech Friday, the Party’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem, claimed the town was “the original source of the explosive-rigged cars” that have targeted Lebanese civilian centers in recent weeks. Whether or not this is in fact true, it suggests Hezbollah will play an active role in the coming battle, said Qalamouni.

“Hezbollah will surely participate, because it’s mainly their battle. They’re the ones advertising it,” he told NOW.

The general strategy of the regime and its allies will likely take the form of fierce aerial bombardment followed by a ground campaign, according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

“The Syrian military has perfected a strategy of imposing a sustained level of bombardment on an area and its surroundings in order to flush out civilians and pave the way for a ground assault targeting any fighters that remain,” Lister told NOW. “As such, artillery and air strikes will likely continue to intensify in the next day or two and clashes around the town will steadily escalate to the point at which an actual offensive begins en masse on the town itself.”

As against this, it’s unclear what, if anything, the opposition can do to meaningfully check the offensive once it’s in full swing. According to both Lister and a source who has recently visited Yabrud several times, the vast majority of rebels in the town belong to local, comparatively ill-equipped brigades, as opposed to the more effective forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham which preponderate elsewhere (though the latter groups, Lister believes, may later decide to join the fight in Yabrud). The most probable overall strategy, says Lister, will be to try and divert the regime’s attention away from the town to whatever extent possible.

“As in the past, rebels in the wider Qalamoun region will seek to carry out diversionary operations in an attempt to force a division of military personnel away from Yabrud,” he told NOW. “Targeted attacks on military positions, car bombings, and suicide attacks are all possible.”

Adding to Lebanon’s woes

Lebanon was never likely to avoid feeling the effects of such a significant battle so close to its border, and indeed, Yabrud residents have already started arriving in Arsal seeking refuge, according to UN Refugee Agency spokesperson Joelle Eid. Should the population in Yabrud and its surroundings become entirely displaced, Arsal may be faced with a new influx numbering in the tens of thousands, according to the aforementioned source, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press.

“Approximately, we’re talking about some 70,000 residents who would move in the direction of Damascus, and perhaps 50,000 who could end up in Arsal,” he told NOW.

The refugee burden, however, may not be the worst of the repercussions for Lebanon. Reports earlier this week of Hezbollah’s preparation for Yabrud fuelled concerns among some analysts of a consequent increase in reprisal attacks on Lebanese civilians carried out by extremist Islamists. A number of groups with ties to Syrian jihadist brigades, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have claimed responsibility for deadly explosions and suicide bombings in predominantly Shiite areas of the country in recent weeks, typically justifying them as responses to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.

“A defeat [for the rebels in Yabrud] could potentially encourage further retaliatory attacks inside Lebanon, both in the Beqaa and in Beirut,” Lister told NOW, “although it should be noted that the motivation for such attacks already exists.”

Indeed, with five vehicle explosions in Lebanon in 2014 alone – four of them claimed by jihadist groups – there has already been unprecedented appetite among Sunni extremists for the kind of wanton slaughter of Shiite civilians more readily associated with Baghdad than Beirut.

And if Wednesday’s discovery by the Lebanese army of two cars rigged to explode – one of them in Arsal itself – is anything to go by, that appetite is showing little sign of abating any time soon.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Yazan Halwani, Beirut graffiti virtuoso, detained by gunmen

[Originally posted at NOW]

It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for Yazan Halwani, the artist who has, at the astonishing age of just 20, distinguished himself as arguably Beirut’s foremost graffiti talent. His striking renditions of Lebanese and Arab cultural icons from Fayrouz to Samir Kassir to Mahmoud Darwish to Ali Abdallah (a well-known homeless man who perished on Bliss St. last winter), often accompanied by intricate geometric and calligraphic embellishments, have in a short space of time been consecrated as landmarks on the city’s already-vibrant walls.

But that didn’t stop a group of philistine hooligans from inexplicably defacing two of his works in Hamra last month, erasing the faces of Darwish and Abdallah. Halwani has vowed to repaint and then cover them with acrylic glass (and, incidentally, says he would be happy to accept donations in this regard via his Facebook page).

And the thuggery continued Sunday, when a combination of hostile militiamen and armed Internal Security Forces personnel detained him, along with a television crew, for two and a half hours as they perused the journalists’ film and generally intimidated everyone, “shouting insults” and proudly “referring to themselves as ‘ze3ran’” (gangsters), according to a statement Halwani posted online.

It’s the sort of run-in with petty fascism that’s unfortunately become quite common for Beirut’s graffiti artists. (In 2012, at least three were arrested, with one, Semaan Khawam, even being charged for “disrupting public order.”) At a time when cars are exploding on a weekly basis, al-Qaeda has officially opened its first-ever local franchise, and the country’s second-largest city is in a state of near-permanent warfare, one might have thought the authorities would have more pressing concerns.

Friday, February 7, 2014

As bombs mount, Hezbollah edges back toward 'self-security'

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Party is struggling to stem a new wave of deadly attacks at home.

When on Tuesday a group of humanitarian NGO workers were leaving the remote northeastern border town of Arsal, the target of frequent, sometimes fatal shelling by Syrian regime air and land forces where the team had been aiding Syrian refugees, they might well have imagined they were putting the day’s danger behind them and heading for safer terrain.

If so, however, that illusion was dispelled when their van – clearly marked with the logo of their organization, the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (“LIFE”) – encountered an ad hoc checkpoint manned by plain-clothed gunmen near the town of al-Labwe, between Arsal and the highway that would reconnect them to the rest of Lebanon.

Ordered out of the vehicle, the five of them were detained for six hours, according to Nabil al-Halabi, LIFE’s director and a human rights lawyer, who told NOW they were subjected to hostile interrogation and even beating. Some, indeed, were left with “serious injuries,” according to a statement issued online. As a consequence, LIFE has decided to suspend all activities in Arsal for the time being, on account of the “chaotic insecurity” in the area and the “absence of control by the [state] security forces and army.”

Asked who he believed was manning the checkpoint, Halabi told NOW it was “obvious” it was Hezbollah, the party-cum-militia which has long maintained a significant presence in the wider Beqaa Valley region surrounding Arsal. The Party routinely crosses the Syrian border to do battle with Syrian rebels who, in turn, are largely supported by Arsal residents.

While Halabi’s claim could not be independently verified, recent appearances of temporary Hezbollah checkpoints in the same area have also been reported by NOW’s Beqaa correspondent, Abdallah al-Hojeiry. For around a month, wrote Hojeiry, Hezbollah gunmen have deployed on the Baalbek-Labwe highway, stopping and searching cars from Arsal and generating local resentment in the process.

Such measures, which come as the country’s security agencies struggle to stem a wave of deadly bomb attacks in predominantly pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods (including two in Hermel, the nearest large town to Arsal), are reminiscent of the abortive “self-security” program implemented in the wake of the August 2013 car bomb in the south Beirut suburb of Ruwais. For weeks, Hezbollah erected checkpoints at the entrances to the southern suburbs, a move that became increasingly unpopular, particularly after a dispute at one checkpoint led to the killing of a Palestinian refugee. In late September, the Party abandoned its program, handing over its checkpoints to the army, which maintains control of them to this day.

But with attacks now coming much faster – there have been five in 2014 alone – Hezbollah appears to be quietly edging toward taking security into its own hands once again. In the suburbs themselves (collectively known as “Dahiyeh”), the Party has markedly bolstered its street presence, according to local resident and political analyst Qassem Qassir.

“We noticed […] many of Hezbollah’s men are always on the ground – unarmed, but observing anything suspicious,” Qassir told NOW. “There is also talk of Hezbollah getting new tools and materials to check for explosives around the entrances to Dahiyeh. And many of the main roads leading to Hezbollah headquarters have been closed.”

In tandem with its own campaigns, the Party is also said to be pressing state security agencies to redouble their efforts. A forthcoming security plan for the south of the country, involving the erection of new checkpoints and increased surveillance of Palestinian refugee camps, reportedly comes at the request of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.

Above and beyond mere security-related decisions, however, a broader political or strategic response from Hezbollah to the recent spike in deadly bombings has been more difficult to discern. While Party officials continue to describe the attacks in terms of an international campaign of “takfiri terrorism” that underscores the necessity of its continued military intervention in Syria, there has been no word from General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah since a televised address in December 2013 – an uncharacteristic silence which, some observers say, may indicate uncertainty within the Party regarding its next steps.

“There have been [six] explosions since [Nasrallah’s] last appearance, which raises a lot of questions,” said Ali al-Amin, a political analyst and Dahiyeh resident. “Doesn’t he have anything to say? Or is he unable to reassure people that everything will be okay this time?”

“Many among Hezbollah’s supporters are asking themselves these same questions, and maybe this time the leadership has no answers. Hezbollah has no means of predicting or preventing the explosions now.”

Luna Safwan and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lebanon's new bombs: Killing fewer, but more frequently

[Originally posted at NOW]

Today’s suicide attack in Choueifat, south of Beirut, is the 14th vehicle bombing to have hit Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, and the 5th to have occurred in 2014 alone. I only know this because, since the November 2013 double suicide bombing of the Iranian embassy, I’ve felt the need to maintain a database recording the details of each attack; thinking it was an unhealthy sign when one started to lose track of the number of murderous explosions taking place in one’s own country of residence.

A more comprehensive analysis of these data, complete with interactive graphics, will be published by NOW in the coming days, but in the meantime, the following observations may be among the most salient:
  • While earlier car bombs tended to be infrequent, but massively destructive spectacles (e.g. the 15 August 2013 Ruwais bomb, killing 27, and the twin Tripoli mosque bombs 8 days later, which killed 45); the last seven have occurred with much higher frequency, but with lower death tolls (all claimed fewer than 10 lives)
  • Seven of the fourteen (50%) have occurred in Beirut and its southern suburbs, with the remainder taking place in Tripoli, the south, and the Beqaa Valley.
  • Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon is the only group to have claimed more than one attack (it’s claimed three so far). The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, the Aisha Mother of the Believers Brigade, and the 313 Special Forces Brigade have each claimed one. Seven attacks have not been claimed by anyone.
  • Two of the bombings have been assassinations (of police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan in October 2012 and former ambassador and minister Mohamad Chatah in December 2013).
  • The 14 bombings have killed a total of at least 122, with a number of wounded still hospitalized in critical condition.
Look out for much more detail in NOW’s upcoming interactive report.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Assir's media return buoys supporters, frightens others

[Originally posted at NOW]

ABRA, Lebanon – A first-time visitor to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque complex today in Abra, east of Sidon, might never guess there were several days of intense rocket and machine gun clashes here just over seven months ago, killing 18 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldiers and around 40 gunmen loyal to the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.

The once-devastated apartment block housing the mosque, which had entire wall panels blown out when NOW saw it after the June 2013 fighting, has now been immaculately repaired and restored, a “For Rent” banner hanging from one balcony indicating that it is inhabitable once again. Long gone, of course, are the young men standing guard outside with AK-47s hanging by their sides. (Those who weren’t killed or arrested have, like Assir himself, gone into hiding.) Gone too are the heavy-duty barriers installed by the sheikh on the side-streets leading up to the mosque complex, as well as a protective metal roof constructed above the mosque’s entrance. Some new shops have opened up in the adjacent small square; others have closed down. The whole block has the eerie air of the scene of an historic and infamous crime, mopped up and painted over but still evidently raw in the memories of those who witnessed it.

Thus when NOW asked local residents Friday about their thoughts on Assir’s recent reappearance in the media, many who still supported him would only say so in lowered voices. “Inshallah (God willing) he’ll return,” murmured one adolescent worker in a bakery before returning to the oven. Others would reveal their sympathies only in roundabout or implicit ways. A few, however, remained as outspoken as ever – seeing perhaps that NOW were journalists, the driver of one passing car raised his fist out the window and shouted, “Sheikh al-Assir, God protect you!”

For such people, the reemergence of the sheikh on social media networks has evidently been a great boon. Having not used his Twitter account since August 2013, Assir surprised followers with a new message on 14 January, and has since posted over 25 times. The messages generally address current events in Lebanon and Syria, peppered with Qur’anic citations and the derogatory references to “Safavids” (Shiites and/or Persians) and “Hizb al-Lat” (a pun on “Hezbollah” implying idolatry) that are the hallmark of hardline Sunni Islamism. On Syria, he sarcastically says the siege of the Yarmouk camp is the “true picture of the support of Iran and [Hezbollah] and Assad for the Palestinians and their cause,” and laments that “the world” cares more about “the mujahideen” in Syria than the regime’s “planes dropping barrel bombs, and chemical weapons, and slaughter with knives.” He also calls for the release of kidnapped Christian priests and nuns, “[even though] many Christian clergymen and politicians stood with Assad and justified his criminality against our people.” On Lebanon, he says the “main reason” for the recent wave of explosions is “[Hezbollah’s] criminality in Syria,” defending March 14, the Future Movement, and President Michel Suleiman from accusations of responsibility. At the same time, he accuses Future leader MP Saad Hariri of providing “cover” for the continuing presence of the army (labeled a “tool” of Hezbollah) in Abra, and mocks March 14’s recently-launched “civil resistance” campaign, the “first result” of which was “the approval of a unity cabinet with [Hezbollah] covering their criminality in Lebanon and Syria.”

As before, it is this posture as an uncompromising defender of “the Sunni people” (Ahl al-Sunna) that appeals to Assir’s supporters. “[Some] still say they don’t feel secure anymore [after his disappearance],” a butcher near the mosque told NOW. “They say he used to protect this area.”

Yet the violent legacy of his movement has also left many in the neighborhood fearful of his reemergence, particularly in the wake of rumors tying him to extremist groups. A Twitter account said to belong to one of his wives wrote on 16 January that efforts were underway to make Assir the head of the Lebanese branch of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda offshoot that has claimed two deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon* since the announcement of its formation in December 2013 and is believed to have around 170 fighters based in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Also in December, one LAF soldier was killed and three wounded in dual attacks on army checkpoints in Sidon, including one close to Assir’s mosque. And on Friday, concerns of possible further attacks in Sidon, including car bombings, prompted authorities to implement new security measures in the city.

“He could be affiliated with any extremist group, in my opinion, because the people who don’t know God tend to bond together. […] May God take his soul,” said a baker near the mosque (at which point his younger apprentice indignantly retorted, “May God protect him!”).

“Most of us were relieved when Assir left, as though a rock were lifted off our chests,” said the manager of a nearby money transfer outlet. “I can’t tell what his possible affiliations are, but I fear he’s affiliated to a group that is worse than Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, like Al-Qaeda itself.”

“His return to the media spotlight definitely caused tension, because we here still have a feeling that things aren’t okay and something is being prepared,” the manager told NOW. “His supporters still show up at the mosque, which is why I have a feeling something might happen, especially after his latest statements.”

All interviewees requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

* Since the time of publication, Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed a third suicide bombing, killing 4 in Hermel.