DUBAI – Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombers twice attacked the Lebanese Christian border town of Qaa in what appeared to be a shift towards soft targets close to the frontier instead of trying to reach further well-protected, Hezbollah-controlled Shia neighbourhoods and villages.
But the attacks, which left five civilians dead and some 20 wounded, were poorly planned and executed by the eight bombers, who were clearly young and lacked combat experience.
Nevertheless, the incident confirmed reports by security agencies of a plot by ISIS to strike several Lebanese targets simultaneously with the objective of spreading chaos and terror.
“We received intelligence reports in the spring that ISIS would send suicide bombers ready to strike in Beirut and other predominantly Shia neighbourhoods to undermine the security situation in the country and trigger a sectarian war,” said a senior Lebanese security official, who asked not to be named.
“The bombers would not be part of sleeper cells inside Lebanon but part of groups crossing the borders and heading straight to their targets,” he added. “ISIS has adopted this tactic to avoid having its cells picked up by the Lebanese military and security services that have broken up at least seven major terrorist cells in the past few months.”
The Lebanese military intelligence and other security agencies have conducted pre-emptive raids on suspected terrorists who then revealed information that led to the break-up of terrorist cells and subsequent foiling of attacks in Lebanon.
The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) enhanced border-control operations and closed many roads into Lebanon from Syria, which curtailed the terrorists’ ability to infiltrate the Lebanese frontiers. Also, Hezbollah, along with Lebanese military and security agencies, bolstered security measures around Shia towns and neighbourhoods.
Those defensive moves seem to have forced ISIS to adjust tactics and its targets are no longer confined to Shias but include Christian towns and tourist sites.
“The nature of the (Qaa) bombings and the attackers is perhaps the start of a new and different era in the confrontation with the terrorists,” said Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam. “Terrorism does not distinguish between neighbourhoods and sects and has now struck a Christian area.”
It is not clear where the eight bombers came from and what their final targets were. Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk asserted that at least seven of the bombers were from inside Syria and not refugee camps.
According to witness accounts, the first wave of bombers was seen early June 27th walking through the orchards of Qaa by a resident. Analysts said the terrorists were probably on their way to the nearby Shia town of Hermel when they were discovered.
However, the evening attack in front of a Qaa church appears to have been deliberate. Four attackers rode in on two motorbikes, threw grenades and then went in different directions. One apparently set off his explosive device before reaching a target, slightly injuring five people.
Using groups of suicide bombers is meant either to facilitate the breach of a parameter or to inflict the biggest number of casualties. To breach a parameter, first attackers destroy defensive points, opening a passage for other bombers to strike inside the targeted facility.
After the first bombers attack a relatively small crowd, rescue workers and security personnel responding to the first assault are targeted by the other bombers.
The first wave of Qaa bombers chose the wrong time for their attack — dawn — to cause mass casualties, which supports the theory that the town was not their target. The second wave of bombers had poorly trained members who did not seem to know what they were doing, setting off bombs and killing themselves but not inflicting other casualties.
The second attack prompted the Lebanese military and security services to focus their search on the makeshift camps for some 70,000 Syrian refugees in a remote area about 4km from town.
An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees are scattered in many makeshift camps throughout the country. The miserable conditions of the camps make them suitable sites for terrorist groups to base their cells and recruit suicide bombers.
The Qaa raids indicate ISIS is targeting Lebanon even though it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.