Failed attack on Beirut café suggests Islamic State will shift focus to soft targets due to limited capabilities and increased security
A 25 year-old man from the southern city of Sidon, Omar al-Assi, attempted to conduct a suicide bomb attack in a crowded Costa coffee shop in the upscale Hamra area of Beirut late on 21 January. According to local reports, he was arrested by members of the Lebanese Army before he could trigger his explosives, although other accounts suggest that his bomb malfunctioned. Four other individuals from Sidon were subsequently arrested on 23 January. They were reportedly supporters of the imprisoned Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, who is also from Sidon.
No group has claimed responsibility; however, jihadist groups rarely claim unsuccessful operations. Al-Assi’s links to Sidon – and the subsequent arrests there – suggest that he may have had links to al-Assir. Following al-Assir’s arrest in August 2015, his supporters built links with various jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State (IS). Accordingly, it seems most likely that this was an attempted attack by a member of al-Assir’s network sympathetic to IS. However, the failure of the attack suggests that the bomber was not an experienced militant, although he may nonetheless have been directed by IS figures outside Lebanon.
IS’s preferred target in Lebanon is most likely Shia facilities, and particularly those linked to Iran or Hizballah, as this would be popular among jihadists given the role played by both in Syria, especially following the Government’s re-capture of Aleppo. Attacks on such targets would also heighten sectarian tensions that IS could exploit for recruitment purposes (see our 20 December Report). A major strike would also allow IS to demonstrate its strength and ability to expand its operations despite ongoing territorial losses in Iraq and Syria.
The targeting of a western coffee chain in a wealthy area of Beirut may have been an attempt to target foreign interests due to the role of international forces in the anti-IS coalition. However, it also reflects that increased security in Hizballah-controlled areas has made it difficult for jihadists to hit significant Shia targets. The cafe was therefore most likely chosen as it was a relatively soft target that would allow the group to maximise the number of casualties and the propaganda impact. An attack in Beirut would also allow IS to demonstrate expansion, as its militant operations have so far been largely confined to the Bekaa Valley.
Consequently this incident suggests the potential for further IS sympathiser attacks in Beirut and other urban centres in the coming months, most likely against similar unsecured targets. However, occasional more sophisticated attacks by trained militants against better defended targets, such as Government or Hizballah-linked entities, are also plausible. Attacks may increase as IS loses further territory, or if the Sunni community in Syria suffers further setbacks. However, IS will remain unable to significantly expand its operations outside the Bekaa Valley, in part due to improving coordination between differing branches of the security forces, which will limit the overall threat. Despite the potential for further attacks, the security situation will therefore remain largely stable.