Beirut Bombing Widens Lebanon’s Shiite-Sunni Divide
Beirut Bombing Widens Lebanon’s Shiite-Sunni Divide
Deterrence between Israel and Hizbollah Must Hold
Deterrence between Israel and Hizbollah Must Hold
Residents inspect a burnt vehicle at the site of the two explosions that occurred on Thursday in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut, 13 November 2015.
Residents inspect a burnt vehicle at the site of the two explosions that occurred on Thursday in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut, 13 November 2015. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Beirut Bombing Widens Lebanon’s Shiite-Sunni Divide

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Lebanon Analyst Sahar Atrache explains the background and significance of the attack. 

At least 40 people were killed and more than 200 injured in a 12 November attack in Beirut that combined a suicide mission and an explosive device in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shiite neighbourhood in Hizbollah’s southern suburb stronghold.

What do we know about the attack? Was it linked to, or distinct from, previous bombings that ripped through Lebanon in recent years?

This crime prolongs a trend of attacks that, between 2013 and January 2015, targeted Hizbollah fighters, Shiite areas, Iranian assets, the Lebanese Army and the predominantly Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli. They were claimed by various Sunni Jihadi groups including the Islamic state, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Lebanon-based Kataeb Abdallah Azzam, which framed them as retaliation for the military support offered by Hizbollah and Iran to the Syrian regime.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack. What does this tell us about the Jihadi group’s intention and ability to destabilise Lebanon?

Although IS claimed the attack, so far we still lack accurate information as to who exactly executed it. IS and other Sunni Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra don’t enjoy, as of yet, a structured and solid presence inside Lebanon. Rather, individuals and small cells seem to have pledged allegiance to such organisations, and to carry out attacks on their behalf. Hardly a week goes by without security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.

Still, their margin of action remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in northeastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese army. Indeed, if Lebanese political actors can agree on anything, it is to keep extremists at bay. The Lebanese army’s crackdown on Sunni Islamists, which has enjoyed active Western support, has so far protected Lebanon from any major jihadi-related threat.

Can the Lebanese authorities bring such attacks to an end?

Their response has put the onus on security measures: deployments in sensitive areas, the arrest of alleged extremists, raids targeting refugees, and so on. However, very little has been done to address the root causes of violence. A widespread sense of injustice has spread among Sunnis in Lebanon, which can be traced back to the 2005 murder of Rafic Hariri, the starting point of an ever-growing sectarian polarisation opposing Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon. Hizbollah’s May 2008 takeover of central Beirut left deep scars on the Sunni community, and the Shiite movement’s military intervention in Syria in support of the regime has only exacerbated such feelings.

Moreover, the deplorable living conditions of Syrian refugees, their lack of any prospects for the future, the deteriorating socio-economic dynamics faced by Lebanese themselves, made worse by years of political paralysis, are all important factors playing into the hands of jihadis.

At the same time, sectarian tensions have radicalised Shiites, who now perceive Sunni extremists as an existential threat. Suicide attacks against civilians only fuel further enmity between the two communities.

In short, security measures can help minimise the risk of attacks, but they alone certainly cannot annul it.

How have key Lebanese actors reacted?

Political actors have tried to overcome their divisions. The main factions have, as if in chorus, condemned the attack and expressed their sympathy for the victims. However, it is unrealistic to expect a genuine change in their thinking and objectives, which nothing seems to be able to alter.

While the Hariri-led Future movement and important segments of the Sunni community generally blame Hizbollah for bringing on such violence, the Shiite party portrays Sunni extremism in general, and the Islamic State in particular, as an existential threat for Shiites, for its Christian allies and even for Lebanese society as a whole. The Shiite community will continue to close ranks behind Hizbollah despite the heavy death toll it is incurring in both Lebanon and Syria. These attacks serve to bolster Hizbollah’s initial defensive justification for its military intervention in Syria, but they also underline the limits of the party’s ability to block the expansion of so-called ‘takfiris’ (Islamists who decry others as apostates) into Lebanon.

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