Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lebanon on edge with threat of more car bombs

By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT/ABRA, Lebanon – A week of deadly car bombs has pushed security agencies in Lebanon to increase security measures as the country continues to suffer the effects of the war in neighboring Syria.

Various buildings around the country, including political offices and mosques, have blocked off parking in response to the bombs thought to be repercussions to areas deeply involved with the war in Syria.

Lebanon is a Mediterranean country slightly smaller than Connecticut with some of the most tumultuous borders in the Middle East. To the south lies Israel, a country with which Lebanon has a history of conflict and no diplomatic relations, and to the north and east is Syria, embroiled in a nearly two and a half-year civil war that has Lebanese deeply divided between support and opposition of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

On August 16, a car bomb exploded killing more than 20 people in Beirut’s southern suburb, where Assad enjoys swathes of support. Eight days later, two more blasts followed in the northern city of Tripoli, an area that holds great ire for Assad’s regime, killing dozens and injured hundreds. The blast in Beirut’s suburbs was in an area with heavy traffic while Tripoli’s twin explosions targeted crowded mosques.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Twin blasts rock city in north Lebanon

Photo by Justin Salhani
By Justin Salhani
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli was rocked Friday by devastating twin car bombs that left at least 29 dead and more than 300 wounded in a coordinated attack that appears to be connected to the war in Syria on neighboring Lebanon.

The bombs were detonated outside crowded mosques ran by sheikhs known for delivering fiery sermons against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Lebanon rests on tenuous geopolitical fault lines with Israel to the south and Syria bordering the north and east. Tripoli, a bastion for Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, is 10 miles from the Syrian border and overwhelmingly sympathetic with the Syrian opposition. In certain parts of Tripoli, armed men roam the streets in a show of power without interference from local security forces. Political cover or support from portions of the local population protects the armed groups, some of which are Salafist.

On Friday, the first explosion took place outside Taqwa mosque, located on the outskirts of the troubled Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, turning nearby parked cars into heaps of twisted scrap metal and shattering the glass of surrounding buildings. The street flooded with water where the blast left a crater, as somber faces looked on at charred trees and the other destruction encompassing the mosque.

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New actors in Lebanon’s north threaten Tripoli’s stability

 I wrote a blogpost about this a few months back. Here is the final story of my investigative report into what was fueling the fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The intro to the story is the usual caveats but the interesting information is further down. I've put a few graphs here.

In the past, prominent Tripoli politicians have provided funds to Bab al-Tabbaneh street leaders in exchange for popular support and votes, multiple sources said.

Mouin Merhabi is a representative in parliament of the Future Movement, an anti-Assad party led by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the son of the Rafik al-Hariri. He said, “More than 90 percent of people in [Bab al-] Tabbaneh are poor. They used to buy the bullets themselves and sometimes they would ask people from the city to [fund their fighting].”

Portraits of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Mohammad Kabbara, a Tripoli parliamentarian from the Future Movement, are commonly found plastered on Bab al-Tabbaneh’s bullet-ridden walls.
But Tripoli’s politicians are finding it harder to control the conflict. Sitting behind his desk in his Beirut office, an adviser to one of Tripoli’s most prominent politicians said, “The politicians are no longer in control [of the men on the street].” The adviser, who is not affiliated with the Future Movement, asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Future Movement parliamentarian Ahmad Fatfat, said, “Politicians cut all attempts to try and control [Bab al-Tabbaneh].” Now, “[street leaders] found a way to keep [their funding] alive.”

According to the Tripoli-based political adviser, “Gangsters [in Bab al-Tabbaneh] have direct access to primary funding. They don’t go to politicians anymore.” In the latest round of fighting, when Mohammad Kabbara asked for a meeting to organize a ceasefire he was ignored by fighters once loyal to him, said the adviser of the Tripoli politician.

The adviser said that Gulf state intelligence agencies are funding street leaders, or “gangsters” as he labeled them, in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “High-level experts on the other side go to Damascus or Tehran,” he said.

When fighting erupted in Tripoli in June, the Lebanese English online publication Naharnet reported that Saad al-Masri, a prominent street leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh and one-time ally of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, had traveled to Turkey to obtain financial support. Fighters on the street however said al-Masri was “on vacation.”

“If you are a Salafist or Islamist, you go to Saudi Arabia or Qatar,” said the adviser to the Tripoli politician. “Gangsters go to Turkey, but not to meet with the Turks,” he added. Fadda, the ADP spokesperson, also accused the Bab al-Tabbaneh fighters of receiving funding from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The adviser said that leaders like Masri broke from their political allies because of constraints placed upon them regarding buying arms and fighting with Jabal Mohsen. Today, they have no constraints.
Requests for an interview with Saad al-Masri went unanswered.

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Rockets launched from south Lebanon at Israel

By Justin Salhani 

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Two rockets launched from south Lebanon hit non-residential areas of Israel, local media reported Thursday. No casualties or damages were reported.
The Israeli Army’s official spokesperson said via Twitter that initial assessments were that “Global Jihad terrorists” fired the rockets. Israel said it believes Hezbollah is not behind the attacks.
The National News Agency reported that the Lebanese Army found wooden platforms in the Batoulieh valley southeast of Tyre, a city 12 miles north of the Israeli border. One pair of rockets made it past the border while the other pair landed in the Lebanese border village of Alma.
The Rashidieh refugee camp, a short distance from the Batoulieh valley, is believed to have a Sunni Islamist presence. No group took immediate credit for the attack.

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Armed group kidnaps Turkish pilots in Beirut, demands release of Shi’a in Syria

By Justin Salhani

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Armed gunmen intercepted a shuttle bus transporting Turkish Airlines crew members from the airport Friday morning, kidnapping two.
Local media reported that the bus left Rafik Hariri Airport Friday morning at 3 a.m. for a hotel in Beirut. Shortly after, while driving along the old airport road the vehicle was stopped by two cars filled with eight gunmen. Four of the gunmen allegedly approached the bus and asked the passengers about the Turkish pilots before kidnapping them.
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Rida, which roughly translates to “The Visitors of Imam Ali al-Rida,” claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of pilot Murat Akpinar and copilot Murat Agca, both Turkish nationals. Shi’a Muslims believe Imam Rida was the eighth of the Twelve Imams.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel claimed to have no information on the group but said authorities were looking into the situation to determine if the group was authentic.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Beirut blast kills at least 20

Bomb blast in Beirut August 15, 2013.
Bomb blast in Beirut August 15, 2013.
By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A car bomb exploded Thursday afternoon in Beirut’s southern suburbs, an area where Hezbollah enjoys heavy support, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 100 more, according to local media.
The explosion took place on a road between the Bir al-Abed and Rouess neighborhoods and initial reports suggested it might be a suicide bomb. According to Al-Manar, the Hezbollah-affiliated local television station, the bomb weighed between 60 to 80 kilograms and was heard in the mountains. Local stations reported that some residents are still stuck inside their apartment buildings near the blast.
Shortly after news of the explosion broke, a group calling itself Saraya Aisha Um al-Muqmeneen released a video on YouTube claiming responsibility for the attack. In the video, the group addresses Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, telling him to expect more attacks in the near future. The group also took credit for a bomb that went off last month in Bir al-Abed and wounded 53 people. The group’s accent hints that they are not Lebanese.

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Security worries strike Lebanon’s economy

Beirut stock exchange

Beirut stock exchange
By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon ‒ Lebanon’s volatile security situation is negatively affecting the country’s economy, which will continue to spiral downward short of a major political breakthrough, say economists, business owners and members of the banking sector.
“Every major dip [in revenue] is due to a security incident like a demonstration, a bomb or an assassination,” said Ziad Kamel, 32, treasurer of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, from his office in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood.
In years past, political assassinations and large-scale protests briefly scared consumers off the streets, but before long they resumed frequenting Beirut’s famous nightlife.
Today, although clashes have been restricted to a few specific neighborhoods throughout Lebanon, the tourism industry has been knocked by consistent instability, political chaos and the war in neighboring Syria. Sources say tourism comprises as much as 20 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lebanese keen to avoid sectarian war

by Justin Salhani

This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post

BEIRUT, Lebanon ‒ In Lebanon, memory is still fresh of a vicious civil struggle that lasted 15 years and took the lives of over 100,000 people. Lebanese today fear a return to the violence and sectarian friction of the civil war that ended in 1990. This fear has been worsened by the war in neighboring Syria.

The Syrian civil war has stoked sectarian divisions in Lebanon, a small country on the Mediterranean that borders Syria and Israel, leading to some of the worst bouts of armed clashes in years.

Lebanon’s second biggest city Tripoli in the north has witnessed repeated skirmishes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Select villages in the east Bekaa Valley have been subject to shelling from both the Syrian armed opposition and the al-Assad regime, and late last month followers of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric clashed with the Lebanese Armed Forces in the southern city of Sidon.

But despite the increase in tension and violent repercussions, many analysts believe Lebanon will, at least for now, avoid a return to the full-scale war of years past.

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Ramadan observance in Beirut more muted than elsewhere

by Justin Salhani

This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The holy month of Ramadan is an important holiday for the world’s Muslims, including those living here in Beirut. Lebanon’s capital, however, observes the month in a more muted fashion than other Arab and Muslim capitals.

“Nothing really changes in Beirut during Ramadan. In other countries I’ve been to, like Egypt, Ramadan is more festive, and Cairo is full of Ramadan decorations,” said Nada Zanhour, 28, an assistant director at a Beirut art gallery.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is both joyous and somber for the world’s followers of Islam. During Ramadan, Muslims are asked to fast, meaning they abstain from food, liquids and sexual activity each day. At night, Muslims break their fast at iftar as the sun goes down.

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The Atlantic Post

The Atlantic Post is an online journal based in Washington DC. It was launched today Saturday, 10 August. I have signed on as their Lebanon Correspondent and will be contributing regular features and news.

Please take a chance to check it out at