BEIRUT -- Lebanese military prosecutors this week charged seven men linked to a political party with strong ties to the Syrian government’s intelligence services in a double car bombing in August that killed scores of worshippers as they left two mosques known for supporting the Syrian rebellion.
In issuing the arrest warrants, a military court judge also linked the men, all residents of a pro-Syrian neighborhood in the northern city of Tripoli, to a mysterious Syrian intelligence official who’s said to have directed the attack.
Judge Saqr Saqr charged the men with organizing and directing the Aug. 23 car bombing of two Tripoli mosques just as the best-attended prayer service was ending. At least 57 people were killed.
All seven men have personal or family ties to a pro-Syrian political party, the Arab Democratic Party, authorities said. The party dominates life in the central Tripoli neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, whose residents are predominantly Alawites, the branch of Islam followed by Syrian President Bashar Assad and much of the Syrian regime’s military and political elite.
Although Jabal Mohsen and the nearby Bab al Tabbeneh neighborhood, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims, are the scene of sectarian militia clashes, many Lebanese saw the mosque bombings as a response to two earlier car bombings in Hezbollah-dominated neighborhoods of southern Beirut, where support for the Syrian regime is strong. The Aug. 15 bombings, which killed more than 20 people and wounded hundreds, shocked much of Lebanon for having penetrated the militant Islamist group’s legendary security apparatus.
Only three of the men charged are in custody. The arrest of one suspect last Friday sparked a confrontation between the Lebanese military and gunmen suspected of belonging to the Arab Democratic Party. Two soldiers were wounded.
Rifat Eid, the party’s head, didn’t respond to requests for comment from McClatchy, but in an interview Tuesday night with the Beirut Daily Star newspaper, he denied that the accused men were guilty and said that only one of them belonged to his party. He warned Lebanese authorities not to try to arrest any more suspects.
“Today, I advise the (Police) Intelligence Branch not to enter Jabal Mohsen because the second time will not be as easy as the first,” he told The Daily Star.
A Lebanese security official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, told McClatchy the men were involved either directly with the Arab Democratic Party or had family members in important positions in the party.
“They’re all Jabal Mohsen guys,” he said, using a pejorative Arabic term for underemployed young men common to militia activity. “It’s not a big place up there.”
Local news outlets identified the Syrian military intelligence officer reportedly involved as Capt. Mohammed Ali. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been detained.
That a major politician would threaten the government’s security forces to warn them not to arrest multiple suspects in a mass murder is another example of the deterioration of Lebanon’s politics and security as the Syrian civil war approaches its third anniversary.
The political and sectarian agreements that keep Lebanon operating despite being one of the most religiously and politically divided countries in the region have come under tremendous pressure as much of the country takes sides in the Syrian conflict. When Hezbollah, a movement of Shiite Muslims, acknowledged that it had sent troops to Syria to fight for Assad, it said that one reason was Sunni support for the rebellion in Syria.
Since Hezbollah’s announcement that it had fighters in Syria, militant Sunni groups in Lebanon have threatened it, as have Syrian rebels. For the first time since Lebanon’s own civil war ended in 1990, attacks on Shiite areas by rival factions have taken place regularly.
Much of the country expects more violence, which was borne out Monday night, when the Lebanese military, acting on a tip from Hezbollah, intercepted a car rigged with explosives, according to the security official and local news reports. Hezbollah arrested the driver.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.