BEIRUT — Sunni militants subscribing to al Qaida-style ideologies appear to have expanded their operations into Lebanon, heightening worries that soon this country will be engulfed in the kind of sectarian warfare now engulfing Syria and Iraq.
A series of arrests and suicide car bombings already had raised tensions. But separate announcements over the weekend by two major jihadist groups active in Syria about operations in Lebanon pushed them even higher.
Lebanon has seen at least six suicide attacks in the past six months against targets associated either with the government or with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Authorities believe Hezbollah’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad drove the attacks, three of which were claimed by al Qaida groups battling to topple Assad – one by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and two by the Nusra Front.
On Saturday, ISIS announced that it had designated a previously known militant from the northern city of Tripoli, Abu Sayyaf al Ansari, as official leader for operations in Lebanon and promised an “announcement” in coming days, which many in Lebanon believe is a threat of impending attacks.
For its part, the Nusra Front warned Lebanese Sunnis not to “gather in areas controlled by the Party of Satan,” a common Sunni euphemism for Hezbollah, because these areas would be targeted for attack. The statement was seen by the United States, which denounced it, as a threat against Shiite Muslims.
Meanwhile, Lebanese security services announced the arrest and interrogation of a Sunni cleric on suspicion of ordering two suicide bombings that authorities said they had thwarted.
Shiekh Omar al Atrash was taken into custody by military intelligence officials on Friday, but his arrest was not formally announced until Sunday evening, after numerous media leaks said he had confessed to organizing a suicide bombing network that planned to target both Lebanese military and Hezbollah targets.
Atrash’s cousin, also named Omar, was accused of building a bomb that detonated in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut last summer, wounding a dozen people. He was reportedly killed in an ambush – allegedly by Hezbollah fighters – two months ago while escorting another car into Lebanon for another attack.
The arrest of Sheikh Atrash sparked a furor in Lebanon as dozens of fellow clerics representing Lebanon’s supreme Sunni religious authority, Dar al Fatwa, descended on the Ministry of Defense complex Sunday and Monday to protest his arrest and to claim he was being tortured.
Amid widespread leaks to Lebanese news outlets that the sheikh had confessed to instigating two separate suicide bombings – car bombs built in the rebel-held Syrian city of Yabrud were transported over the border into the Lebanese border city of Arsal before heading to targets in Beirut, it was reported – his fellow clerics immediately denounced his treatment.
On Monday, Lebanese authorities announced that the International Committee of the Red Cross found no signs of mistreatment or torture when it examined Atrash. The ICRC, which traditionally does not make public comments on its visits to prisoners anywhere in the world, declined to comment.
Responding to Atrash’s arrest, Mufti Mohammed Qabanni, the top official of Dar al Fatwah, said that his association was under attack by figures that wanted to topple its “moderation” toward Islamic law and blamed widespread arrests of Islamists by the government for aggravating tensions within his community.
He blamed the rise in extremism in part also on the continued jailing without trial of Islamist fighters detained in the aftermath of the 2007 siege of the Nahr Bared refugee camp.
Unlike Lebanon’s Shiites, who look to leadership from Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Sunni community is fractured, both politically and religiously. While Sunnis overwhelmingly support the rebel effort to overthrow Assad next door, there is no single Sunni position on the issue. With two Sunni former prime ministers out of politics – Nijab Miqati resigned in 2013 over political infighting and Saad Hariri has been in self-imposed exile in France since 2011 – younger and more radical elements are attempting to gain ground.
That leaves room for both ISIS and the Nusra Front to recruit followers.
“The Sunni street will align with these groups,” said Hajj Mohammed al Bakri, an Islamist fighter in the northern city of Tripoli, which has seen months of street battles with rival pro-Assad militias. “The youth on the streets are either Muslims or criminals. The criminals have been waiting for money and weapons; the Muslims have been waiting for leaders. The Syrian groups have both.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero