The Socioeconomics Behind the al-Nusra Bombings

Syria’s Nusra Front has claimed two bombings on Lebanese interests in the last month. The first targeted Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Damascus, Syria; the second was a suicide bombing that rocked Tripoli, Lebanon last January. The two bombings underline the growing Lebanese agenda of the Nusra Front, which has prioritized its fight against the Assad-aligned Hezbollah and its support base, whether Shia or Alawite. These attacks also suggest the growing appeal of the Nusra Front and other extremist organizations in the region, as well as the manipulation of local Lebanese specificities to their advantage namely, persistent poverty, the widening gap between political leaders and the Sunni youth population, and a crackdown on religious figures.

The Damascus bombing, targeting a bus of Lebanese pilgrims, led to the death of nine people and the injury of twenty-two others. Similar to the Tripoli explosion last month, a suicide bomber carried out the attack: a Saudi national, known as Abu Ezz al-Ansari. According to al-Nusra’s statement, the group launched the attack in response to Hezbollah’s actions against the “Sunni people in Syria and Lebanon.” The terror attack also comes on the heels of a speech by Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, who accused al-Nusra of allying with Israel.

The Tripoli bombing in January targeted the Alawite region of Jabal Mohsen, killing nine and injuring thirty-seven. The attack appears to be a retaliatory strike following October’s clashes when the Lebanese army attempted to uproot militants linked to the Nusra Front, headed by local Sunni insurgent leaders Osama Mansour and Shadi Mawlawi. In response to the attack, the authorities arrested twenty-eight suspects. Tripoli sources believe that 200 of the city’s youth have gone into hiding. A Tripoli Salafi source, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned, “Over 100 [young recruits] are believed to have joined the Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), while eighty are believed to be hiding in Lebanon. A dozen or so might be used in possible suicide attacks.”

Mawlawi and Mansour, currently on the run, have successfully recruited many young people to join the Nusra Front. Many believe that the pair recruited Bilal Mohammed Taha al-Mariyan and Samir al-Khayal, the two suicide bombers linked with the January attacks, according a Lebanese intelligence officer. The two suicide bombers and recruited collaborators hail from the impoverished areas of Mankoubin, Qobe, Bab Tebaneh—among the poorest in a city where 67 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 33 percent live in extreme poverty. Hunger and basic needs are neglected, and education is a luxury.

Extremists exploit these dire circumstances by offering financial incentives in the form of salaries and opportunity for the young recruits. After joining ISIS and other extremist groups, members can send money to support their families. The more money that groups like ISIS can provide, the more recruits they can obtain. The Nusra Front in Aleppo and the Islamic State in Raqqa have used similar tactics to attract successfully these young Lebanese militants, according to sources within the Lebanese intelligence, corroborated by Salafi sources.

Monetary incentives aside, extremist organizations also take advantage of the political climate in Lebanon, and more particularly in Tripoli or on border villages such as Ersal in the Bekaa where the youth feel disconnected from traditional political representation and suffer from indiscriminate crackdowns.

Omar, a young Tripoli resident, captures the grievances of many youth:

Our politicians do not represent us. They have forgotten about us. We have no jobs, no security, and if we chose to support our brethren in Syria, they let us go to prison, while Hezbollah fighters cross the borders freely.

Omar’s statement echoes throughout Lebanon, particularly in the impoverished areas of Mankoubin, Qobe, and Bab Tebaneh. Extremist organizations provide a means of expression and representation for young voices.

Across Lebanon, the arrest and detention of Islamists also drive young conservative youth into the arms of extremists. Lengthy trials of religious figures reinforce their doubts in the government and its ability to achieve justice. The crackdown on traditional Salafi figures also creates a leadership vacuum that radical organizations such as the Nusra Front successfully fill. Salafi Sheikh Dai Islam Chahal and Sheikh Bilal Dokmak have been prosecuted for weapons possession and are currently in exile. Lebanese authorities even target moderate figures: Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a moderate religious leader under prosecution for a crime for which he had already served time, said, “[The] growing void in the country’s Islamic scene, the absence of leadership… can be exploited by Syrian radical organizations.”

The recent attacks show an alignment of interests within radical organizations and a focus on attacking Hezbollah and its Alawite and Shia civilian support base. Given the current security crackdown in Lebanon and the collaboration of the various intelligence services, terror attacks have decreased in the last year, particularly in Hezbollah bastions such as Dahieh and the Bekaa. To inflict pain on Hezbollah’s core constituency, the Nusra front has focused on soft targets where security is lax and where it has more freedom to operate—whether outside of Lebanon (such as the Hamidiyeh attack in Damascus) or inside (as seen in the Jabal Mohsen dual attack).

With the inability to land powerful blows on Hezbollah and its allies, the Nusra Front appears to have expanded its soft goal approach, by focusing on tourism and other civilian targets, as seen in new reports warning of attacks on the Casino du Liban and the Royal Hotel in Dbayeh. An officer in the Lebanese army believes that this type of targeting will continue in regions with lacking security and easy access—whether in Syria or Lebanon and specifically in regions where Alawites and Shia coexist with other communities.

The Nusra Front has spearheaded the war against Hezbollah. Exploiting the grievances of Lebanese Sunnis, it has used some members of its youth as cannon fodder in what seems to be a never-ending conflict—one in which borders are slowly disappearing. As days go by, the Nusra front brings the Syria war closer to Hezbollah’s home turf in a direct challenge to Nasrallah’s 2013 speech when he called on Lebanese factions not to bring the Syrian war home. If the Lebanese government does not address the inequity and basic needs of its most vulnerable citizens, it will merely fuel a fire that has already consumed Syria.

Mona Alami is a French Lebanese journalist and Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami.

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Image: A Lebanese Army soldier stands guard inside a cafe where a suicide bomb attack took place in Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli January 11, 2015. At least seven people were killed after a cafe was attacked by a suicide bomber in the Lebanese city of Tripoli on Saturday.The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attack on a Twitter account describing it as revenge for the Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban