Recent terrorist attacks targeting the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and U.S. embassy personnel in Beirut come as security measures are heightened in response to a series of assassinations and a rapidly deteriorating political crisis in the country. While UNIFIL forces have been targeted previously since their deployment under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in 2006, the attempt to hit U.S. embassy personnel is the first attack on U.S. interests in 23 years. The targeting of foreign entities in Lebanon presents additional challenges for a country already facing a litany of threats to its own security.
Although no one has yet claimed responsibility for either bombing, media statements issued by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired entities prior to these attacks suggest that these groups have been looking to undertake such action against foreign interests in Lebanon for some time. The wounding of Irish members of UNIFIL by a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) came less than two weeks after Osama Bin Laden issued an online audio statement condemning the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Another recent online statement by an individual claiming to be Shaker al-Abbasi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, renewed threats against the Lebanese Army (LA) and derided its leader and presidential compromise candidate, General Michel Suleiman for allegedly having political dealings with the United States (The Daily Star, January 9, 12; Reuters, January 7).
These statements have been accompanied by car bomb attacks over the past month targeting key figures in Lebanon’s security establishment. The first was the assassination of LA General Francois El-Hajj on December 12, 2007. El-Hajj, who led the military campaign against Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, was also expected to become the next commander of the LA after Suleiman’s presidential nomination (Elaph, December 12, 2007; Al-Akhbar, December 13, 2007). A more recent attack last week killed Captain Wissam Eid, a key terrorism investigator in the Interior Security Forces’ (ISF) intelligence branch. Captain Eid had been targeted previously and played a critical role as a communications specialist in the investigation of several attacks that have occurred since 2005. These included the assassination of former PM Rafiq Harriri and the Ain Alaq bus bombings early last year in which Fatah al-Islam was implicated (The Daily Star, January 26; An-Nahar [Beirut], January 26; Al-Mustaqbal, March 16, 2007).
While attacks on the LA and the ISF have made the overall security situation increasingly complex, recent indictments and arrests of remnants of Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda affiliated entities in Lebanon suggest that these groups remain a continuing threat. For example, indictments issued by the Lebanese military court over the past month shed light on the existence of an al-Qaeda-linked network in the country. What has come to be known as the “Bar Elias network” was allegedly in the planning stages of multiple car bomb attacks in Lebanon and has within its ranks members of various nationalities currently in custody or still at large (The Daily Star, January, 17; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December, 19; Al-Akhbar, December 19). More recently, indictments were issued against suspects belonging to a network allegedly tied to Fatah al-Islam that unsuccessfully attempted to carry out attacks against UNIFIL this past summer around the southern port city of Tyre, deep in the international force’s security zone (As-Safir, January 19; An-Nahar, January19).
In the northern city of Tripoli individuals tied to Fatah al-Islam have been apprehended by the ISF and the LA (The Daily Star, January, 12, Al-Mustaqbal, January 11). One of those taken into custody, Nabil Rahim, also stands accused of having ties with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and directly facilitating Iraq-bound militants (Al-Mustaqbal, January 11, 12; Al-Akhbar, January 11). These arrests in Tripoli come as the city has witnessed increased security measures taken in the wake of the confrontation between the LA and Fatah al-Islam militants in the nearby Nahr el-Bared refugee camp this past summer. Subsequently, additional LA and ISF units have been stationed in and around Tripoli to quickly respond to any threat stemming from neighborhoods known for being hospitable to radical Islamist entities. While the current situation in Tripoli is an example of how the LA and the ISF have been able to apply increased security measures locally with some success, the increased targeting of foreign interests in other parts of the country has proven a more elusive threat so far.
This is evident in how the perpetrators of these latest attacks against foreign personnel targeted individual vehicles on the fringes of relatively secure areas. For example, the attack on UNIFIL in Rmeileh was executed in an area of lighter security outside the port town of Saida, while the car bomb attack on the US embassy vehicle occurred on a secondary road often utilized to bypass afternoon traffic in Beirut’s immediate suburbs, thus avoiding significant security measures taken by the ISF and LA in the downtown area. This exploitation of security gaps and familiarity with the travel patterns of the targets suggests some level of surveillance had been undertaken in preparation for these attacks. Members of the Fatah al-Islam support network allegedly involved in the failed attacks on UNIFIL outside Tyre in July of 2007 also took such measures. According to local media, the culprits were residents of Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, recruited by a Fatah al-Islam operative to conduct surveillance and assist in the execution of attacks on the international force (As-Safir, January 19; An-Nahar, January, 19). Subsequently, foreign missions and members of the UNIFIL force will likely reevaluate their current security arrangements and place increased restrictions on the movement of their personnel in Lebanon.
Overall, these developments come at an inopportune time when Lebanon’s security establishment is already tasked with measures to maintain civil order in the face of expected street protests and road closures organized by the Hezbollah-led political opposition. The car bomb attacks against key figures in the LA and ISF have only further burdened these institutions. Lebanon’s preoccupation with these internal matters will require increased cooperation between Lebanese security services and foreign entities in order to counter the threat of attempts by al-Qaeda and its affiliates to target the international community in Lebanon.