Two car bombs rocked Tripoli—Lebanon's second largest city—Friday outside mosques frequented by Salafist preachers who have been vocal in their support of the Syrian opposition and critical of Hezbollah’s military intervention across the border.
Sitting on a street corner about 60 feet from the Salam Mosque in the Al-Mina district of Tripoli, 21-year-old Yasser looked sorrowfully into the distance. His head and left hand were wrapped in bandages. A line of dried blood snaked its way down from his temple to his chin. Fragments of glass and small chunks of concrete covered the concrete around him next to a pile of tomatoes rotting under the summer sun. Farther up the road surrounding a crater, about ten-feet in diameter and six-feet in depth, the carcasses of burnt out cars lay at unnatural angles across the tarmac. The windows of surrounding buildings were blown out.
“I had just finished my work for the morning and was in the mosque praying,” said Yasser, who moved to Lebanon from Damascus two months ago in an attempt to flee Syria’s ongoing civil conflict.
“I spend a lot of time here at the mosque, not just to pray but sometimes to sleep,” he continued explaining that he has no fixed abode.
“I remember I was kneeling to pray and then suddenly I opened my eyes and I was in a hospital ward.”
“Sometimes I just feel like there is no escape.”
During Friday prayers, Tripoli—Lebanon’s second largest city—was rocked by two car bombs, placed strategically outside mosques frequented by Salafist preachers who have been vocal in their support of the Syrian opposition and critical of Hezbollah’s military intervention across the border on behalf of the Assad regime. At least 45 people were killed and more than 500 were injured. Only last Thursday, a car bomb intended as a warning to Hezbollah to discontinue its activity in Syria left 30 dead and more than 300 injured in Ruwaiss, an area in the Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut.
While Lebanese politicians and the international community were quick to condemn the attack in Tripoli, local MPs and religious leaders debated whether “private security” measures should be adopted to prevent further violent acts. The attacks came on the same day that the Israeli Air Force conducted a retaliatory air strike near the base of an armed Palestinian faction south of Beirut after rockets from south Lebanon were fired into Israel on Thursday.
Unrest is intensifying in Lebanon, as Syria’s civil war continues unabated next door.
On Saturday morning a large crowd stood congregated outside the Salam Mosque. Locals, foreign media, Lebanese Red Crescent workers, volunteers cleaning up debris, and even a couple taking a selfie with their camera, all moved freely around a site that a small team of military investigators were trying to scour for evidence. The attitude of the Lebanese Army at checkpoints approaching the area seemed a touch more laissez faire than it had in the Dahiyeh the previous week where locals under the employ of Hezbollah and Amal had stood at regular intervals along the road.
Ahmad Majdi, 51, a former municipality representative of the Tripolitan district of Bab al Tabbaneh stood surveying the damage. Clashes between inhabitants of Bab al Tabbaneh who support the Syrian opposition and the adjacent mainly Alawite, pro-regime neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen have become commonplace over the course of 2013. Majdi interpreted the twin blasts as further evidence of Syria’s civil war spilling into Lebanon. He was quick to point the finger of blame at the Syrian regime.
“The Syrian regime is responsible,” said Majdi matter-of-factly.
“They know that Tripoli is the heart of the Syrian revolution here in Lebanon, so that is why they target us here.” In the background a Red Crescent aid worker placed what appeared to be a charred, severed limb, into a black plastic bag.
“When Hezbollah started fighting in Syria, these attacks became inevitable.”
Though Majdi described the twin explosions in terms of their relationship with Syria’s current civil war he was also quick to draw reference to the state of Lebanese-Syrian relations over the last 50 years. He spoke of both Syria’s 30-year occupation of Lebanon and the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (Syrian involvement is widely suspected) that brought it to an end.
In Majdi’s eyes the twin explosions represented an attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“It’s as if the occupation never finished,” concluded Majdi with a shake of the head.
Others at the scene expressed fear that such attacks could become increasingly common.
Zacharia Nasr, 40, usually attends Friday prayers at the Salam Mosque but found himself caught up with work and had decided instead to pray at home. Upon hearing the blast he rushed to the scene, where he was struck by falling glass, resulting in a 25-stitch head wound.
“I am very worried that this could happen again,” said Nasr. “Whoever did this is trying to spread sectarianism in Lebanon.”
The conversation was interrupted by a passer-by in a baseball cap with a well-coiffed Salafist beard who shouted ominously:
“The fitna (an Arabic word for chaos that also carries deeper religious and apocalyptic connotations) is coming to Lebanon.”
A thousand feet away in the emergency ward of the Islamy Al-Khor Hospital where many of the blast’s victims were treated, a doctor who requested anonymity stated that the treatment of victims was ongoing.
“We had over 200 people coming in yesterday. The working conditions, treating so many at one time, were incredibly pressurised. But now the situation has stabilized.”
Across town beside the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, the façade of the al-Taqwa mosque appeared less damaged than the Salam mosque. However nearby shops had been reduced to burnt-out shells. When I arrived there a group of men on motorbikes carrying Salafist flags paraded around the adjacent Abu Ali roundabout firing Kalashnikovs in the air.
The first of Friday’s explosions occurred outside the al-Taqwa mosque at 1:30 PM followed by the second explosion seven minutes later outside the Salam Mosque. At the time Salafist Sheikhs Salem Rafei and Bilal Baroudi, staunch opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and leading figures in Lebanon’s Salafist movement, were delivering sermons. Neither was hurt.
“This is the work of Hezbollah and the Assad regime,” said Mohammed Zabi, 32, standing beside a charred Peugeot. Zabi expressed a complete lack of faith in the Lebanese army’s ability to keep the peace.
“What army? There is no army, and there is no security. We will have to defend ourselves.”
Beside the al-Taqwa mosque men cleared rubble from shop fronts whilst a bulldozer attempted to clear rubble from around the massive crater ripped open by the 220-pound bomb. Mohammed Amin, 35, stood outside the entrance to his convenience store. Surveying the damage he tried to strike an optimistic tone.
“I don’t have insurance but at least the damage here isn’t as bad as next door. We will rebuild it again and make it better,” said Amin before reflecting on measures the Lebanese state could take to prevent further escalations of violence.
“Well, you could try and bring all of Lebanon’s political groups to the dialogue table and then establish a plan whereby all militias disarm,” said Amin, before cracking a wry smile.
“But I’m not optimistic that will happen. We don’t even have a government.”
Departing Tripoli my colleague and I parked up near the center of town to get a bite to eat before heading back to Beirut. Returning ten minutes later a man looking apoplectic with rage stood outside our car. As we got closer we realized what the problem was. The man had spotted an unfamiliar car parked outside his shop and feared the worst.
Times are tense in Lebanon.
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