On September 29, Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli witnessed its second bombing in a month against members of the Lebanese Army (LA). The attack, which targeted LA personnel traveling through the city towards Beirut, came after a similar bus bombing on August 13 in Tripoli, considered to be one of the worst attacks of its kind in years in Lebanon.
These incidents coincided with a number of developments straining the overall security situation in north Lebanon, namely a significant Syrian troop deployment along Lebanon’s northern border and recent sectarian fighting between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods of Tripoli. While these bombings have highlighted the vulnerability of the Lebanese Army, political tensions and agendas may overshadow and undermine any cooperative efforts to combat what appears to be a growing threat.
Previous Recent Attacks against the Army
This latest series of attacks against LA personnel was foreshadowed by smaller-scale strikes on the army. On May 31, a suicide-bombing attempt against an LA checkpoint outside the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp was foiled. That same day witnessed an explosion that killed one soldier at a Lebanese military intelligence outpost near the Nahr el-Bared camp (AP, May 31). When observed in their entirety, the apparent variety of means employed in these attacks may not suggest one clear perpetrator; however, the targeting of transportation used by members of the LA in Tripoli does signal an intensification of efforts by those looking to intimidate and inflict damage upon the force.
Means, Execution, and Targeting
The targeting of Lebanese Army personnel has been a consistent theme over the past year, kicking off with the assassination of General Francois El-Hajj in December of 2007. This high-profile assassination was followed by attacks against the LA’s rank and file. The perpetrators of these attacks appear to have identified the vulnerability of LA personnel when traveling.
Both of the recent bus bombings involved the remote detonation of a roadside device, with the second attack involving a smaller-sized charge either placed underneath a car or inside a motorbike (As-Safir [Beirut], September 30). The August Tripoli bombing occurred in a busy area frequented by buses carrying both military and civilian passengers (AFP, August 14). While circumstances suggest that the LA was the intended target, the nature of the latest attack leaves no doubt as to its objective since it involved a vehicle with military license plates and occurred in the relatively remote outskirts of Tripoli, away from the city’s gathering places. The bus departed from Akroum in the northeastern reaches of the country and was on its way to Beirut via Tripoli. It was subsequently hit as it maneuvered through traffic turning onto a side road to access the main highway leading to Beirut. The bus itself was publicly known to transport military personnel, earning the nickname “the Akroum bus” (Al-Akhbar [Beirut], September 30).
Both attacks appear to have targeted soldiers traveling from the northern region of Akkar. The timing and location of the second attack suggests foreknowledge of the route taken by the military bus, which would require some surveillance and preparation by its perpetrators. The fact that the attack was executed only a few hundred meters from an LA checkpoint, as well as the apparent public knowledge of the LA’s travel routine, reveal serious security gaps that have left the force vulnerable to terrorist attacks. This has perhaps made it possible for even an upstart organization to strike at the core of Lebanon’s primary security force.
The Perpetrators and their Objectives
Two plausible objectives for these attacks come to mind. The first would be to undermine the army’s ability to carry out its duties, which would be significant given the fact that the LA is the only relatively apolitical “national” security institution in Lebanon. Some might speculate that the attack is part of a series of reprisals for the army’s campaign against Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in the summer of 2007. These two motives, however, are not mutually exclusive. A number of parties have an interest in weakening and intimidating the LA.
Jihadist groups, such as Fatah al-Islam, have in the past directly threatened the army. While a number of Islamist and Salafist groups denounced this latest attack, it remains possible that more militant entities, such as the remnants of Fatah al-Islam, could have undertaken the attack. While circumstantial, supporters of this theory would also point to the fact that both buses were carrying soldiers traveling from the northern region of Akkar, an area known to have long been a source of army recruits and home to many who fought against Fatah al-Islam (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 3, 2007).
Others in Lebanon’s anti-Syrian political camp argue that the bombings are part of an intentional destabilization orchestrated by Syria, with the intention of providing a pretext for a Syrian military incursion into Lebanon. Syria has justified the deployment of a reported 10,000 troops in the Abbudiya border region last month as part of an anti-smuggling campaign. The inclusion of tanks and Special Forces in the “anti-smuggling” force has alarmed Lebanese authorities (Middle East Times, October 2). Against the backdrop of these and other recent attacks in Tripoli and Damascus, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad declared days ago that north Lebanon has become a base for extremism that constitutes a threat to Syria (AFP, September 30).
Within the context of the Syrian army’s activity near the Lebanese border, the motives behind al-Assad’s sudden concerns over terrorism have been questioned by those in Lebanon’s anti-Syrian “March 14” political bloc (Al-Mustaqbal [Beirut], October 2). Despite this, Syria appears to be signaling that it intends to cooperate with Lebanon’s security establishment in responding to these threats. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has called for security cooperation between the two counties along the border (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 1). Muallem stated that current conditions make it impossible to control the border and an arrangement is needed between the two countries.
There are also reports that President al-Assad and Lebanese president Michel Suleiman met to speak about coordinating efforts to combat both terrorism and smuggling (Al-Hayat, October 2). According to Al-Hayat, al-Assad brought this issue up with Suleiman during a summit in Damascus only days after the first Tripoli bombing in August. Thus, despite the political bantering that these developments have triggered, there appear to be legitimate concerns over a deteriorating situation in north Lebanon, one that would require some level of cooperation between Lebanese and Syrian security forces. Whether Syria ultimately intends to curb or foster these threats remains to be answered and continues to be questioned by both local and international actors.
While there is a great deal of debate being devoted to the greater geo-political aspects of these attacks, they highlight a more immediate concern: the vulnerability of Lebanon’s army to terrorism. The perpetrators of these attacks appear to have correctly identified the vulnerability of LA personnel when traveling. Although the LA will likely respond by placing travel restrictions on its personnel, mobile force protection measures do not appear to be a realistic scenario.
The need for such action reveals the dangerous irony of Lebanon’s security environment. Rather than being built as a formidable deterrent force, the LA has developed into a de facto internal security entity susceptible to internal threats. The attacks on the Lebanese Army reinforce the need to develop the capacity of Lebanon’s national police and security force, the Internal Security Forces/Forces de Sécurité Intérieure (ISF/FSI), so that internal security missions are not completely dependent upon the army.
In terms of the country’s overall security sector, joint operations amongst the country’s various security services are still in a nascent phase, due to both political and material challenges. These shared operations will at some point need to adopt a preemptive, not just responsive, capacity in order to address the challenges the country will face in the future. Meanwhile, the prospects of Syrian-Lebanese cooperation remain to be tested. Integral issues, such as border demarcation along the northern border, need to be settled before such efforts can be orchestrated in an effective manner. For many, Syria still has yet to prove itself as an honest partner in combating terrorism.