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Lebanese may doubt security agencies - but they still need to take threats seriously

The thwarting of an attack on a popular Lebanese street leaves questions about the state’s ability - but also the public response

The usual vibrancy of Beirut’s night life was briefly shattered on Saturday, as news broke of the arrest of a suicide bomber in Hamra Street, one of the most cosmopolitan quarters of the Lebanese capital.

Disturbing at it may seem, the Lebanese are no strangers to acts of violence such as the occasional explosions which, up until recently, were restricted to areas with a high Shia population.

The account of the operation that the security agencies provided to the media resembled a second-tier Hollywood production in many of its elements

Hezbollah’s full immersion in Syria, fighting on the side of the Assad regime, triggered a series of terrorist attacks from the Islamic State group, which has tried and succeeded several times at targeting Shia areas in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Yet the most interesting part of last Saturday night was not the dramatic thwarting of the terrorist attack, but the way in which the public reacted to this incident.

No sooner had the euphoria subsided over the capture of Omar al-Assi, the 25-year-old nurse turned suicide bomber, than many Lebanese, used social media to ridicule the theatrical fashion in which the security agencies (military intelligence and the police information branch) had seized the culprit.

Much of the debate and sarcasm centred on the relative ease with which the gullible suicide bomber was apprehended. This skepticism was enhanced by the account of the operation that the security agencies provided to both the media and the public, which in many of its elements resembled a second-tier Hollywood production.

Abduction fiasco

While the Lebanese have traditionally viewed their state with doubt and disrespect, their attitude was cemented by an earlier event. In a simple act of brigandage, 74-year-old Saad Richa was abducted in broad daylight in Qob Elias, in eastern Lebanon, by a gang of well-known criminals specialising in kidnapping businessmen.

The Lebanese state, by adopting a clearly unwise tactic in its fight against IS, has alienated the majority of the Lebanese Sunnis, who stand accused of supporting extremism

Richa’s three-day ordeal ended when the speaker of the house, Nabih Berri, delegated one of his party members, Bassam Tleis, to mediate between the hoodlums - some of whom belonged to the Shia Tleis clan - and the state, which was helpless to act and remained out of the spotlight.

What aggravated the situation further was that this was not the first and, potentially, not the last time that this gang has struck. But in this instance, the abduction of a Christian by a Shia gang threatened to unleash a spate of tribal and sectarian violence.

READ: Lebanon’s new government is winter and summer under the same roof

To many Lebanese, the thwarting of the suicide bomber in Hamra appeared a desperate attempt by the Lebanese state to save face, coming as it did after the authorities' epic failure to rein in a few ordinary thugs in Qob Elias.

But the hesitancy of citizens to support and trust in the abilities of their state and its anti-terrorism efforts is extremely damaging, if not fatefully lethal.

Hearts and minds

Any serious effort to understand and combat a terrorist organisation such as IS hinges on the ability to win the hearts and minds of the public. Much of the relative success of the US forces, under David Petraeus, in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, rested on its ability to appease and, at times, buy the allegiance of the main Sunni tribes, which gave al-Qaeda its legitimacy as well as its logistical backbone.

While Lebanon is far removed from some of the serious terror scenarios unfolding across the region - be they in Syria, Iraq or even Turkey - its ability to stay strong against any future terrorist threat rests on being able to make normal Lebanese citizens a weapon in the never-ending war.

Naturally, this weaponisation of the public does not include any military implications for civilians. Rather it requires the Lebanese state to win the confidence of the public by initially arresting gangs, such as the one which had the audacity to abduct an old man like Saad Richa.

More importantly, the Lebanese state, by adopting a clearly unwise tactic in its fight against IS, has alienated the majority of the Lebanese Sunnis, who stand accused of supporting extremism, a claim that is further peddled by Hezbollah and its allies. This fallacious accusation, more often than not, is also unfortunately adopted by many of Lebanon's more sensationalist media outlets which care only about ratings.

Ultimately, the Lebanese have to understand the implications of their cavalier spirit when approaching matters pertaining to security, especially terrorism.

The tale which the Lebanese security forces have thus far divulged concerning the wannabe Hamra bomber might not be convincing - but this doesn’t take away from the threat from IS or any other armed group, be they foreign or domestic.

READ: It's the end of Hezbollah as we know it

Omar al-Assi might have been a decoy or perhaps a lucky catch. But it's wise to remember that the bullet - or in this case, the bomb - that kills you is the one that you never hear.

- Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Lebanese security forces secure the street near the cafe in Hamra street in Beirut where a suicide bomber was arrested minutes before exploding himself on 22 January 2017 (AFP)

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