BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence recently with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen and camouflage-green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government’s limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the facade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.
The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaida-linked militants — just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.
Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah’s decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.
“I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates” in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. “The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything.”
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaida-linked group that is active in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the bombings and promised further attacks until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria. According to McClatchy, a Western intelligence agency warned Lebanese government officials over the past two weeks that such an attack was in the works, passing along audio evidence of contact between a Saudi operative affiliated with al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade’s top leader.
A U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that it was the U.S. assessment that the Abdullah Azzam Brigade’s Lebanese wing, the Ziad al-Jarrah Battalion (ZJB), conducted the attacks. “Sunni extremists in Lebanon see Shiites in Lebanon backing up the Shiite Alawi regime in Syria, and they are taking [revenge] on Shiites and Alawi inside of Lebanon,” the official said. “It will continue and possibly get worse as the [Syrian] insurgency drags on.”
The Iranian embassy bombing would be by far the largest operation ever conducted by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon. Previously, they had only seemed capable of comparatively small-scale attacks: They launched rockets into Israel in 2009 and took credit for a roadside bomb attack on a Hezbollah convoy near the Lebanese-Syrian border in March.
“What really concerns us now is that the ZJB — which is a relatively small, not an extremely well-known group — was able to conduct this attack against such a hardened target inside of a Hezbollah stronghold,” the intelligence official said. “So we can’t rule out that if they had the opportunity to strike a U.S. diplomat or a U.S. facility, whether it’s in Lebanon or outside . . . these groups may decide to conduct that attack.”
Nor is the Abdullah Azzam Brigades the only Sunni jihadist group that could try to bring the Syrian war to Lebanon. As the Wall Street Journal described it, Sunni groups in the northern city of Tripoli have been radicalized by months-long running clashes with the city’s Alawite communities. In March, followers of Salafist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir engaged in deadly clashes with the Lebanese army that left at least 17 soldiers dead.
A political vacuum in Lebanon has only heightened the power of these radical groups. The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which came to power from the support of Hezbollah and its allies, resigned eight months ago — but the failure to form a new government has left it in power. Those opposed to the Syrian regime criticize it for not doing anything to oppose Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, anti-Assad forces feel that the Lebanese army is too weak to protect them.
“If you go now to talk to the Lebanese Armed Forces, they will tell you, ‘We don’t talk to Hezbollah, we don’t have connections with them,’” said a retired Lebanese general. “But this is not the truth.”
In such an environment, jihadist groups have gained strength by making the case that Sunnis must protect their co-religionists — by whatever means necessary.
“I’m a moderate, I believe in a political solution,” said Machnouk. “ [The Iranian embassy bombing] will not change my position — I will not agree, and I will contest any time any radical reaction. But I cannot stop it.”
David Kenner is Middle East editor at Foreign Policy.