What the Suicide Bombings in al-Qaa Tell Us about Terrorist Tactics in Lebanon

On Monday June 27, Eight suicide bombings struck the predominantly Christian town of al-Qaa on the Lebanese border with Syria. Lebanese security officials believe the attacks to be the work of the Islamic State (ISIS), though the terrorist organization has not claimed responsibility. Whether or not ISIS is responsible, the attacks reflect a shift in terrorist tactics in Lebanon.

On Monday morning, four suicide attacks rocked the town of al-Qaa, located a few kilometers from the Syrian border. At about 10 PM that night, four more suicide bombers detonated their explosive belts in different parts of the town. In total, five people were killed and over 21 injured.

The attack, which occurred after a relative lull in the country’s security situation, underlines shifts in terrorist organization’s behavior in Lebanon, ranging from the size of planned operations, choice of targets, nationality of cell members, and the nature, structure and means of communication networks.

First, the suicide bombers intended to strike a much bigger target than Qaa. According to an officer in the Lebanese army intelligence interviewed on June 27, two cells were deployed in Qaa on Monday morning. The first cell was discovered accidentally by the Mkaled family, who mistook the intruders for thieves and shot at them, forcing the bombers to detonate their explosive belts on the spot to at least inflict some damage. At 10 pm, four other suicide bombers targeted the central square of the town, a Lebanese army outpost, and a post manned by intelligence services, according to an officer in the army counter terrorism unit.

“Al-Qaa was definitely not the initial target,” said an army intelligence officer in a private interview. The first cell members were waiting for a transporter who would smuggle them out of al-Qaa and provide them with fake identity cards that would enable them to reach another destination, possibly the cities of Baalbeck or Hermel (two Hezbollah bastions) or even Beirut. Members of the second cell detonated their explosive belts as a last resort, after failing to get through the Lebanese army’s checkpoints. “The number of suicide bombers, all who were well trained, makes us believe they were destined for a larger operation,” added the security source.

Second, the al-Qaa attack and Lebanese authorities’ recent string of arrests of terrorist cells are a reflection of ISIS’s preeminence on the terrorist scene and its prioritization of civilian targets, and more broadly the development of jihadist networks in Lebanon. “We have arrested over six cells in the last three to four months. Some were planning attacks on malls, others on the Lebanese casino,” said a source in the Interior Ministry in a private interview. In May, the Lebanese Interior Ministry thwarted an ISIS scheme to carry out an operation in an area crowded with cafes and nightclubs in Beirut, in the style of the November 13 attacks in Paris. Last November, shootings and bomb blasts left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded in the French capital.

Several factors account for the shift in target priority, namely the Nusra Front’s receding role in Lebanon. The al-Qaeda affiliate decided to curb its activity outside of Syria to avoid any backlash on the Syrian refugee population, according to the salafi sheikh Nabil Rahim. Another factor is the difficulty terrorist organizations face in organizing revenge operations on Hezbollah areas in Beirut, due to the Shia group taking increased security measures. The increased pressure on ISIS in Syria and Iraq has also made it more desperate. Large suicide attacks feed ISIS’s “global jihad” narrative and divert attention from its losses in Iraq and Syria. In general, the focus on civilian targets allows terrorist groups to maximize damage, beef up their reputation among their members and potential recruits, and deepen divisions between religions, sects, and refugees and nationals.

Third, most cells arrested are composed of Syrian nationals. “These Syrians are not refugees officially registered with the government or the UNHCR, and they came to Lebanon illegally,” said the Interior Ministry source, adding that some of the al-Qaa bombers were identified as being from Raqqa. Officials estimate terrorist cells are comprised of between 65% to 90% of Syrians. “In addition, it is easy for terrorist organizations to recruit informants or support among Syrian refugees who feel marginalized in Lebanon,” says another security source. Over 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Lebanon, of which around 400,000 are in the Bekaa and 250,000 in northern Lebanon. Security sources explain that areas of concern are those bordering Syria that can be easily infiltrated by militants, such as Wadi Khaled (in northern Lebanon), Mashariea Qaa (located next to the town of Qaa in the Bekaa) and Ersal (also in the Bekaa). “The triangle formed by these three regions is the most vulnerable because it is accessible to terrorists coming from Syria,” said the Interior Ministry source. The fact that the presence of refugees is not circumscribed to camps and thus difficult to trace further complicates counter-terrorism efforts.

Fourth, security services have observed a change in the structure, nature and means of communication of cell networks. “Cells are now operating in parallel [but separately]. We are no longer seeing communication between various members, in contrast to the case of the perpetrators of the Bourj al-Barajna bombing,” says the Interior Ministry source, adding, “This means that cells are now operating independently.” Last November, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed over 40 people in the Palestinian area of Bourj al-Barajna, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah bastion. Security services were able to track down other members of the cell and dismantled a wide network of militants planning other attacks.

Another trend pertains to the communication between cells and operation centers. Radicalized individuals were previously working in conjunction with jihadist leaders in Roumieh Prison (where jihadists imprisoned there often gave directives to outside elements), Wadi Khaled, and the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Helwe, the last being home to the jihadist militias Fateh Islam, Jund Cham, and Bilal Badr. “This is not the case anymore, we are seeing direct communication… with Raqqa, and Roumieh is no longer an active center,” added the source.

Finally, improved cooperation between various intelligence services and strengthened border control have allowed for the arrest of Lebanese jihadists returning home or planning terror activities on their home turf. However, a threat to Lebanon could stem from freshly radicalized youth. For example, some youth from Tripoli are arrested on flimsy charges, only to be released when the charges are dropped. Although not charged, they spend time in prison alongside hardened jihadists, and their feelings of anger toward the state would make them receptive to jihadist rhetoric.

Terrorist groups have been changing tactics in Lebanon to focus on civilian targets, because of increased security measures taken by Lebanese forces, difficulty in reaching Hezbollah targets, and loss of ground in Iraq and Syria. Lebanese security forces have successfully thwarted several attempts, but the al-Qaa attacks show that suicide bombers can still wreak havoc.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Mona Alami

Image: Photo: A Lebanese soldier stands outside a church where the funeral of men who died after a suicide bomb attack is being held in Qaa, Lebanon, June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Hassan Abdallah