The Lebanese army at the site of the bombed Iranian Embassy. Photos by Sam TarlingYesterday, at around 9.30 AM, two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. The building is in Bir Hassan, a Hezbollah-controlled suburb in the south of Lebanon's capital. Targeting the Iranian embassy sent a clear message. Iran is a major supporter of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as the Shi'a political and paramilitary organization Hezbollah. At least 25 people were killed in the blast—including the Iranian cultural attaché, Ebrahim Ansari. About 145 more were injured.
Within hours of the bombing, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades—a Lebanon-based jihadist group with links to al Qaeda—claimed responsibility for the attacks over Twitter. Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the group’s religious guide, described the twin bombings as a "double martyrdom operation carried out by two heroes from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon." The attack marked the third time this year that areas in Beirut’s Bir Hassan suburb have been targeted, with previous attacks on July 9 and August 15 killing a total of 27 people.Lebanese politicians were quick to present a united front in condemnation of the attack. Caretaker Prime Minster Najib Miqati described the twin blasts as a "cowardly terrorist" attack, suggesting that foreign agents were using Lebanon as a "mailbox" for their own agendas, while opposition leader Saad Hariri stated that "the blasts should become a new impetus to steer Lebanon clear of the fires in the region". Iran, as it does with everything from political instability to natural disasters, pointed the finger at Israel.As I made my way toward the scene of the blast, Lebanese army tanks flanked the road ahead of me and ambulance sirens pierced through the noise. Meanwhile, plain-clothed Hezbollah operatives, many holding AK-47s, and representatives of the Shi'a political party Amal looked busy as they barked into walkie-talkies and checked the IDs of anyone passing by, including children on their way to school.
The blast site itself was heavily cordoned off by army tanks, making it difficult to see the extent of the damage. Many on the scene appeared to be in shock, struggling to come to terms with the attack. "I was just arriving to work down the road in Ouzai," said Khodr Ali, owner of a mobile phone shop close to the embassy. "I immediately got back in the car and drove here. My entire family lives in this area. I have spoken to my family—they are all fine, but I can’t get hold of my aunt."Ali continued, visibly concerned, "There are foreign powers backing these terrorist attacks and bringing them to Lebanon," he said, before being cut short by his cell phone, taking the call as he stepped across the shattered glass of windows blown out from buildings next to the embassy.Nabil Houwary, a 27-year-old worker in the local municipality, was at home at the time of the bombings. After hearing the explosions, he rushed to the scene. Houwary was quick to link the attacks with Syria’s ongoing civil war, "Of course these attacks are a result of what is happening in Syria," he said. "But, in particular, they are linked to current events in Qalamoun."Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah are currently fighting the Syrian opposition in Qalamoun, a Syrian town bordering Lebanon's eastern mountains that has recently become an Islamist stronghold. In the last week, over 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled the town to Lebanon, and Lebanese media has reported a rising death toll among Hezbollah operatives fighting in the area.
Despite linking the Iran-backed Hezbollah’s presence with the twin bombings, Houwary stood by the Shi'a party’s presence in Syria. "Everybody has their own work," he said, somewhat cryptically, before clarifying his position. "There is no state here in Lebanon. Hezbollah protect the Lebanese people."
Windows smashed by the blasts.Just before noon, a number of cordons set up around the blast site were dismantled as several army vehicles left the scene. They were soon replaced by a greater Hezbollah presence, evident in the influx of men wearing yellow bands sporting the party's logo around their biceps. Civilians at the scene began to seem more apprehensive about talking to me, and after a few minutes one of the guys wearing an armband beckoned me over."What are you doing here?" asked the armband-wearer, a guy named Ali who looked no older than 21. I explained that I was a journalist reporting on developments, and he asked for my press card. I reached into my pocket and found nothing: I’d left my press card at home. Ali then led me to his superior—a man in aviators with a greying, manicured beard—who promptly escorted me to a black, plateless 4x4. A couple of members of the Lebanese army tried to interject, but were ignored. It was clear who was in charge.Once in the 4x4, Ali, who was now beside me, pulled my cap from my head and held it over my eyes. We passed a checkpoint operated by the Lebanese army, but Hezbollah once again asserted their dominance and drove straight through. The car made a few more turns before I was taken from the vehicle and had my shirt pulled up over my head to ensure that I really couldn’t see where we were. Ali led me over to a plastic chair facing the corner of an airy room that I assumed was some sort of garage. He then whispered in my ear. "Ma bitkhayf." [Don’t be scared.]
Of course, there's nothing that reassuring about a stranger whispering in your ear while you're hooded, have no idea where you are, and can't see anything bar the vague outline of a man walking toward you with an assault rifle.After 45 minutes of sitting around with my shirt over my face, Ali returned, explaining that my press credentials had been verified. He removed the makeshift hood and told me I could leave. As I walked away from what I could now see was a large, barren, concrete-floored marquee, I noticed seven others lined up against the wall, 50 feet from where I’d been sitting. From the way they were dressed they looked more Syrian than Western. I couldn’t help but think they were due a rougher time than me.
Debris from the twin bombs."Allah ma’ak,” [God be with you] said Ali as I left the facility. Near the entrance, some locals gave me a few strange looks before easing up and offering me directions to the best place to catch a cab back to downtown Beirut. Jumping in the cab, I felt more of an idiot than a victim, especially taking into consideration the morning’s events outside the Iranian Embassy."Ten thousand lira," said the driver, quoting a price five-times the average. I told him that I’d pay the usual fare. "After what happened today, there will be no work, no tourism," said the driver wryly. "This is not the end of it," he continued, accepting my fare.Since the outbreak of Syria's civil war, this kind of thing has become a fairly common taxi conversation. While Lebanese politicians universally condemned today’s attacks, the dividing lines over the Syrian conflict were drawn long ago, both among those holding the reins of power and their supporters.
Days before the strikes, Hezbollah were nervously overseeing Ashura—the Shi'a commemoration of the third Shi'a Imam, who was martyred in the year 680—hoping that nobody took retributive action for their ongoing military activity across the border in Syria. Or, for that matter, the collusion of members of Tripoli’s Alawite community in twin car bombings in Lebanon’s majority Sunni second city in late August. Ashura passed by peacefully, but the strike came five days later.Only the most optimistic would believe yesterday's attack to be the last violence Lebanon will suffer for its involvement in Syria. And with the Syrian conflict gradually edging its way further into the country, optimism is already increasingly thin on the ground.
Skip to the one-minute mark into the video to watch footage of what appears to be the second blast.@scotinbeirutMore news from Lebanon:"Tripoli is Crying": Lebanon's Second City Is on the Brink of BattleTwin Blasts in Lebanon Signal Intensifying UnrestHezbollah Stronghold in Beirut Bombed