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As ISIL surges, could Lebanon be the next domino to fall?

Three bombings in five days have boosted fears that the sectarian tinderbox of Lebanon could erupt

On Friday, Al-Qaeda-inspired armed group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which yesterday began calling itself the Islamic State in an apparent signal of its wide-reaching aspirations in the region, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on the chic Duroy Hotel in the heart of Beirut’s Raouche neighborhood, which is popular with tourists. The IS declared in a statement that the attack would be the first of many on Lebanese soil.

Though the bomb was a near miss meant to detonate at a popular Shia restaurant in southern Beirut — the Saudi suspect prematurely blew himself up when Lebanese security forces raided his room on an apparent tip — it nevertheless vindicated a prescient warning from Lebanon’s speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who said only hours earlier that Lebanon could feel shock waves of the IS’s astonishing surge across Syria and Iraq.

There has been speculation for some time now that the Sunni fighters of the IS might open a third front of their regional conquest in Lebanon, where its Shia rival Hezbollah is based and wields considerable political and military influence. The increasing number of IS attacks on Shia strongholds might help draw Hezbollah’s expeditionary forces back from Syria, where they fight alongside Bashar al-Assad's regime against a mainly Sunni rebellion that includes the IS. Though the IS incursion in Iraq could hardly be described as a diversion, the rising threat of an extremist takeover has forced Baghdad to recall some 30,000 Iraqi mercenaries who had been deployed to support the allied Syrian regime.

Embarrassing Hezbollah with a wave of suicide attacks in its homeland might also buttress the group's surging prestige among the global Salafist network, drawing even more funding and recruits for the IS as it aims to surpass Al-Qaeda, which spawned but is now a rival of the armed group.

Many Lebanese fear the IS will find ready tinder in Lebanon for a wider-scale insurgency that could ignite and send the fragile nation of 4 million into flames, similar to how the group has exploited Sunni hostility toward the hard-line prime minister in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki.

While Lebanon always seems to be on the verge of sectarian conflict, spillover from Syria's civil war has exacerbated tensions between the country’s Shias, who by and large support the Assad regime, and its Sunnis, who condemn it. That divide has worked to stalemate parliamentary politics for the past few years, as the pro-Assad, Hezbollah-allied March 8 movement and the anti-Assad, Sunni-led March 14 bloc have been unable to reach a consensus on just about anything.

Most pressingly, parliament has been unable to choose a president to replace Michel Suleiman, a Christian whose term expired on May 25. At a moment when more than 1 million Syrian refugees are straining Lebanon’s public finances and breeding resentment of whichever side one blames for the violence next door, the country is rudderless.

“Lebanon without a president is a nation without a head,” the country’s premier Sunni authority, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, said on Friday. “Events in recent years have increased hatred and grudges in the hearts of all Lebanese, and it is no secret that … sudden strife has become a real possibility.”

Unlike in Syria or Iraq, the immediate fear is not that Lebanon might devolve into bloody civil war, as it did in the 1970s and ’80s, when fighting among the country’s Shia, Sunni and Christian factions left more than 100,000 dead. Today the dynamic between the Lebanese Army and military intelligence and their Hezbollah counterparts is one of cooperation, not rivalry.

Though Sunni, Shia and minority Alawite militias have sparred in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and along the Syrian borderlands, those gunmen don’t have the capacity to wage a full-on war. “The Sunnis in Lebanon don’t have a strong culture of militancy, nothing that could contend with Hezbollah,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “And there isn’t much appetite for large-scale violence against Shias. That hasn’t changed yet.”

But Wednesday’s attack was the third bombing to strike Lebanon in five days, and the IS has promised more. “We tell the Party of Satan and its agent, the Lebanese army, that this is the first rain, and we tell you that there are hundreds of people seeking suicide, who love the blood of [Shia] rejectionists,” the group said in a statement, making a pejorative reference to Hezbollah, whose name means “Party of God” in Arabic. To many Lebanese, it was a declaration of war.

“I’ve been anticipating something like this for a few years now — that sooner or later jihadist groups would take the battle to Lebanon,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The fear on everyone’s mind is that IS, with its dramatic successes, may produce something of a magnet for young Sunni men from northern Lebanon or inner cities, who are attracted to the IS’ very proactive and aggressive approach of taking the battle to its enemies — everywhere,” he said.

“There is the real risk that a generalized feeling of resentment among Sunnis could become something more politically or ideologically committed, even radicalization,” Sayigh said.

In Tripoli, a flash point for Syrian spillover violence, IS flags have been strewn about the Sunni-controlled Nour Square, along with a banner that reads, “May the revolution in Iraq succeed.” Sunni residents there resent Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and worry the group is gaining in regional prominence, which could marginalize Lebanon’s Sunni minority even further. At a demonstration on Tuesday, Sunni protesters told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper that while they had no sympathies for the IS’ extremist ideology, their hatred for Hezbollah ran deep.

“If [the IS] comes here and battle Hezbollah, we will protect them and put them in our hearts,” 40-year-old Ahmed Basha told the Lebanese daily. While theirs is undoubtedly a fringe perspective in Lebanon, Basha and others echo the rationale of Iraqi Sunnis who have apparently consented to the IS takeover of their lands in the hopes it will pressure Maliki out of office.

Still, many have dismissed fears that extremism will proliferate in Lebanon, a country where Salafist networks like Al-Qaeda have always had a minimal presence. It remains to be seen whether the IS will be able to attract wider support among disaffected Sunnis, as it has in Syria and Iraq, or perhaps invigorate the existing extremist base.

There has also been some cause for optimism that rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively the region's Shia and Sunni powers, might actually cooperate in combating IS, which even Riyadh feels has gotten out of hand.

What seems clear is that attacks like the Duroy bombing will make regular Lebanese citizens begin to feel less isolated from the violence, which has previously targeted Sunni mosques, Hezbollah stronghold neighborhoods, and, in November, Iran's embassy in Beirut. That pattern “gave most Lebanese the sense that this was a fight somewhere remote between Shias and Sunnis that didn’t affect them,” Sayigh said.

“But when jihadists start showing up in hotels and touristic parts of Beirut, blowing up bars where people are watching football games, people are going to get nervous. The key security actors will have to cover all possibilities and get in the way of normal life, creating a climate of fear and suspicion,” he said.

As far as exacerbating sectarian tensions, “that could be even more worrying.”

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