Was Al-Qaeda Behind Beirut Bombing?

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Firefighters extinguish burning cars at the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon Friday, Jan. 25, 2008.

As a top Lebanese police investigator into a spate of bomb attacks as well as the activities of al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country, Captain Wissam Eid had no shortage of potential enemies. One of those foes got to Eid Friday morning, killing him and at least three other people in a powerful car bomb explosion, nearly identical to the attacks he had been investigating.

"We got the message but we will carry on our mission in protecting Lebanon," said Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon's paramilitary Internal Security Forces, at the scene of the attack. The 31-year-old Eid ran the technical department of the ISF's intelligence branch and was a communications specialist.

So who killed Eid? Neighboring Syria seeking to re-impose its grip on Lebanon? Al-Qaeda-related groups attempting to destabilize Lebanon? A combination of the two, perhaps?

The explosion below an overpass in an eastern suburb of Beirut turned Eid's car into a tangled wreck of fire-blackened metal, destroyed or damaged at least 20 other vehicles, shattered glass in a nearby office building and sent a plume of dark smoke into the sky from burning vehicles. Soldiers sealed off the area as fire engines and ambulances raced to the scene of the blast.

Most Lebanese have become grimly accustomed to the sporadic bomb blasts blighting Lebanon since October 2004. But the rate of attacks has sharply increased in the past month, matching rising tensions in Lebanon as a prolonged political crisis between pro- and anti-Syrian factions shows every sign of worsening. The majority of bomb assassinations in the past three years have targeted anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, spurring many Lebanese to blame Damascus. These latest attacks have struck senior Lebanese security officials and foreign targets, and come amid heightened activity by al-Qaeda-related groups in Lebanon.

At the end of December, Osama bin Laden described the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon as "Crusaders" sent to Lebanon "to protect the Jews" of Israel. On January 7, another taped message was aired on a jihadist website purportedly from Shaker al-Absi, the fugitive leader of the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group, which waged a bloody three month battle against the Lebanese army last summer. In the 58-minute message, Absi threatened attacks against the Lebanese army. "The mill of war has started to grind ... between the infidels and the believers," he said.

The next day, suspected Sunni jihadists fired at least two rockets from south Lebanon into Israel, and hours later a roadside bomb exploded beside a U.N. vehicle, lightly wounding two Irish peacekeepers. On January 15, a vehicle driven by American embassy security personnel was damaged in a car bomb explosion. Three bystanders were killed — although the occupants of the embassy car survived — in what was the first attack against an official American target since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Furthermore, Western intelligence sources tell TIME that Al-Saadi Nahed, a Saudi extremist and veteran of the insurgency in Iraq, has been appointed "emir" for al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Nahed, who, according to intelligence sources, arrived in Lebanon earlier this month, has replaced Fahd al-Mughamis, who was arrested last June in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley along with other members of his cell while plotting to carry out bombings. Last month, an indictment against Mughamis stated that he was al-Qaeda's coordinator for Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and that his cell had been trained by Esbat al-Ansar, a jihadist faction based in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.

"Bin Laden's statement seems to have heralded an al-Qaeda resurgence here," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "There is a logical correlation between these recent [bomb] incidents and this latest one [Eid's assassination] related to al-Qaeda activity."

But other analysts and commentators suspect Syria is to blame, arguing that Eid's murder fits the pattern of past professionally conducted car bomb assassinations in which Syrian involvement was strongly suspected. Writing in the anti-Syrian Al-Mustaqbal newspaper last week, columnist Fadi Shamieh said that recent attacks in Lebanon suggest a convergence of interests between Syria and some Sunni jihadists operating in Lebanon. "Even if there are no ideological links between these two sides, both are diligently working to create trouble as soon as possible which would serve the interest of the extremists ... [and] the objectives of hostile intelligence service," he wrote.

Omar Nashabe, security and judicial affairs correspondent of the Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, said that Eid's involvement with investigations into past bombings had made him a potential target. "He told me that he felt he was under threat," Nashabe told TIME. He added that while Eid could have been killed by Sunni jihadists, other suspects should not be ruled out. "He was helping in the investigation into Rafik Hariri's death," he said.

Hariri, a former Lebanese Prime Minister who opposed Syrian dominance of Lebanon, was killed in a massive truck bomb blast in February 2005. His death, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria, sparked protests that compelled Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon two months later. Since then, Syria's critics in Lebanon accuse Damascus of seeking to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon through assassinations and intimidation. Syria denies any involvement in Hariri's death and the subsequent assassinations.

Still, as with other killings in Lebanon over the past three years, the truth behind Eid's death lies lost in the depths of Lebanon's Gordian knot of intrigue, conspiracy, prejudice and deceit.