Beirut – Cafe Omran, a popular hangout for the residents of Jabal Mohsen, was packed on Saturday night when a suicide bomber walked in and blew himself up at approximately 7:30pm. A second bomber was said to have detonated at the entrance.
“One of the terrorists walked into the cafe, but the other didn’t come in,” one eyewitness and resident of Jabal Mohsen said. “The other stayed at the door and blew himself up there.”
At least nine people were killed and another 35 wounded in the twin suicide attacks, the first to rock the country in seven months.
Within hours of the attacks, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility, saying the “double martyrdom operation” that targeted the cafe of the “nusayri” (a derogatory term used against Alawites) was done in “revenge for the Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon”.
Abdelatif Saleh, the spokesperson for the Jabal Mohsen-based Arab Democratic Party, said one of the suicide bombers came into the cafe by himself and sat down before blowing himself up. “The second stood at the door, shouted religious slogans before blowing himself up.
“One man in the cafe saw what was happening and jumped onto the second suicide bomber as soon as he shouted,” preventing a higher death toll, Saleh added, noting there were about 200 people in the cafe that night.
According to Lebanese army sources, Tahar Samir Kayyal, 22, and Bilal Mohammad al-Meraayan, 29, were each strapped with several kilos of explosives. They came from Mankobeen – a poor neighbourhood adjacent to Jabal Mohsen.
Local media reports said the two men had trained alongside al-Nusra Front in the al-Qalamoun mountains before returning to Tripoli to conduct their suicide operations.
“There’s no more than a few metres between us and Mankobeen,” said Saleh. “We know these terrorists don’t represent the families of Mankobeen.”
Tripoli has witnessed numerous deadly clashes over the past four years following the outbreak of violence in Syria. Alawite-dominated Jabal Mohsen and Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh, two of the poorest neighbourhoods living side by side in the city, have clashed with each other over conflicting political allegiances regarding Syria; residents of Jabal Mohsen have voiced support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh support the Syrian opposition. Several residents on both sides are reported to have participated in the fighting in Syria.
Mankobeen has also seen its own involvement in the Syrian crisis, when several of its residents in 2012 snuck into Talkalakh in Syria to fight alongside the opposition and were then killed in a surprise ambush by the Syrian army.
Tensions reached an all time high about a year ago, when tit-for-tat attacks were taking place and clashes erupted on a frequent basis. For some time, residents of Jabal Mohsen were being targeted by assailants as they left their neighbourhood, forcing many to drop out of school and stop their work in Tripoli to avoid attacks.
Until Saturday, tensions had eased after the Lebanese army entered Bab al-Tabbaneh in October to conduct several security sweeps, resulting in heavy clashes between the army and gunmen.
Following Saturday’s blasts, the army quickly cordoned off Jabal Mohsen, and a curfew until 7am was imposed on the neighbourhood and its surroundings. By Sunday morning, several checkpoints were erected at the entrances of the neighbourhood, with tight security measures being conducted on all individuals entering the area.
“We are not afraid here in Jabal Mohsen. We are aware of the situation and we hope our neighbours in Bab al-Tabbaneh realise the takfiri issue and also realise that what’s happened in the past [in Bab al-Tabbaneh] has now happened to Jabal Mohsen,” another resident of Jabal Mohsen said. “The goal is [to fuel] sectarian strife and we wish for our neighbours to not incite this.”
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Saturday’s incident was the first major attack inside Lebanon by al-Nusra Front since August 2014, when both al-Nusra and ISIL militants clashed with the Lebanese army in Arsal.
The two groups have reportedly kidnapped 36 Lebanese soldiers and police officers. They are still holding 25 of them after having executed four soldiers and releasing the others.
The last suicide attack in Lebanon was in June 2014, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Tayouneh, a neighbourhood in southern Beirut, outside another popular cafe as residents watched the World Cup.
Lebanese residents were shocked that such a brutal attack took place and remain concerned the country could return to another cycle of violence after months of a very fragile lull. Voicing solidarity for the victims of Jabal Mohsen, the hashtag #JeSuisJabalMohsen trended late Saturday night, mimicking the recent hashtag that emerged for France’s Charlie Hebdo murders: #JeSuisCharlie.
On the political front, Lebanese officials across the political spectrum were quick to condemn the attacks and keen to ensure the situation does not spiral out of control.
Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq, who hails from Tripoli, vowed to confront terrorism “with all possible means,” denouncing the vicious attacks “on all Lebanese”.
He went on to say that Lebanon’s situation will continue to escalate as long as the crisis continues in Syria.
Hezbollah released a statement condemning the attacks, adding that “targeting Tripoli at such a time is an attempt to restore seeds of discord”.
As the families of the victims prepared for the funerals on Sunday, officials from both Mankobeen and Jabal Mohsen vowed to work together to prevent any escalation or revenge attacks.
“We don’t hold [the attacks] against Mankobeen; they are our family, like the people of Tripoli are our family,” said Saleh.