TCS Daily

Old School Terrorism in Lebanon

By Michael Totten - October 18, 2005 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- Every couple of weeks, a car bomb explodes somewhere in Lebanon. Except for the 650 pound truck bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, all have exploded in Christian areas.

A handful of bombs were placed under the driver's seats of prominent anti-Syrian journalists and political figures. Democratic Left activist and journalist Samir Kassir was assassinated this way. Former Communist Party leader George Hawi was assassinated this way. Talk show host May Chidiac was seriously wounded when her own SUV exploded beneath her as she started the engine.

The rest of the car bombs have been placed on side streets in Christian neighborhoods of Beirut and Jounieh. These bombs easily could have been tools of mass murder. Both cities are packed with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, shopping malls, hotels, resorts, and nightclubs. Yet none of those places has been attacked. One bomb did explode near Monot Street, the hottest nightclub strip in the Middle East. But even "the Monot Street bomb" was planted off Monot on a quiet street with little foot traffic.

The bombs are small, considering that they are car bombs. Their purpose appears to be to frighten rather than to kill. This bombing campaign has more in common with those waged by Europeans such as the Irish Republican Army and Spain's Basque ETA than those waged by Hamas or Al Qaeda. In other words, Lebanon's terrorism is old school.

Four people have been killed by terrorists in Lebanon since February. That's four too many, but it still is only four. By contrast, 56 people were killed and more than 700 were wounded by terrorists in London this summer. Last year 191 people were killed and 1,460 were wounded by terrorists in Madrid. Yet no one I know is afraid to visit Madrid or London.

People are afraid of Beirut because, well, it's Beirut. But its reputation as the ne plus ultra of urban disaster zones is outdated. Fairly or not, it sticks more than its shakier reputation as the liberal party capital of the Middle East.

And that reputation is harming the local economy. The Daily Star reports fewer tourists visited Lebanon this year compared to last year. Anecdotal evidence supports this. "We're down about 25 percent," an employee at Brooke's restaurant in Beirut's bohemian neighborhood of Gemmayze told me. This decrease pretty much wipes out the profit margin. "The number of Lebanese is about the same. The number of international people -- journalists, NGO workers, and so on -- is about the same. But the Lebanese expats, they're the ones who aren't coming. They live in the UK, France, the United States, and they like to come here on holiday. They eat, drink, dance, and have a good time. But now they would rather go somewhere else, somewhere that won't stress them out."

It's understandable. Many left Lebanon in the first place to get away from terrorism, war, and dictatorship. Even the slightest whiff of those things in their hometown apparently is enough to make some say never mind.

Gemmayze is booming, even so. There are twice as many hip new restaurants and bars in that sector than there were in April during the revolution -- including two Tex-Mex places right next to each other. The Lebanese still manage to have a good time and expand their economic base in some parts of the country even without the injection of tourist money from overseas. Whole new blocks of a rebuilt downtown are finished that were still under construction six months ago. Rents are soaring and property values are rising. Someone here, clearly, is optimistic about the economic and political future of Lebanon.

No one knows for certain who is setting off bombs. No one has claimed responsibility. A handful of scattered crackpots blame Israel or the United States. But almost everyone else -- except for Hezbollah who claims they have no idea who it might be -- thinks it's Syria.

The Baathists next door have no shortage of motives. They were recently driven out of Lebanon by a dizzying groundswell of democratic anti-occupation opposition. It was humiliating. And humiliation in the Arab Middle East, especially humiliation of a police state that thrives on an image of strength for its survival, isn't tolerable.

There's another more complicated theory here, too. Whether it's true or not, it helps hold this country together. It goes like this:

Syria needs Lebanon's money. The 15 year-long post-war occupation was first and foremost the economic mugging of a weak state by its poorer and stronger neighbor. (There seems to be a pattern here where Baath Party states are concerned. Lebanon and Kuwait have something in common.) The Assad regime justified its occupation by pointing to Lebanon's civil war and claiming only they could bring peace and stability.

Now that Syria has been forced out, they may be trying to prove their own propaganda by attempting to reignite the civil war in the power vacuum. That's why all the bombs are in Christian neighborhoods. Syria hopes Christian militias will re-arm and retaliate against Muslims. Then, perhaps they hope, Syria will be invited back to resume its "peacekeeping" role.

The Christians will not take that bait. Bad memories, fear of the future, a tolerant post-war culture, and their own (relative) newfound political maturity prevent them from doing so. They also know what the Syrians are trying to do. At least they think they know. I've met a handful of far-right Christians whose visceral hatred of Muslims is an order of magnitude more extreme than anything you will ever encounter in the West. Even they don't seem to believe their Muslim countrymen are planting these bombs.

Bashar Assad threatened to "burn Lebanon" if his troops were forced out of the country. But he cannot burn Lebanon without facing severe international consequences. Earlier this year when the democratic opposition faced him down in the streets he told Time magazine: "I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate." He does not want to be "next." If he burns Lebanon, he could be "next."

All he can do is poke Lebanon from a distance and hope things go his way. Things are not going his way. Every bomb that explodes brings Lebanon's old enemies incrementally closer together and helps unite them against him.

Lebanese psyches are suffering. Their economy -- especially the tourist economy -- is hemorrhaging. But most Lebanese are unflappable. Only the expat Lebanese and some of the would-be tourists are frightened. Resist.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at



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