Lebanon waits uneasily for incursion from Islamic State
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The crowd at the Beirut music club roared approval when the band struck the first notes of a satirical song about Islamic State chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
A woman swayed her hips in a gentle belly dance. Another doubled up with laughter, slamming her table and rattling the whiskey glasses spread across it. Some captured the moment on phone cameras, as the musicians belted out the refrain: "You will lead God's servants to an abyss like no other."
The mood of mockery belied the nervousness among many Lebanese that they may be Islamic State's next target. The country is part of the Levant, where the militant group, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, seeks to extend the caliphate it has established in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State already knocked on Lebanon's doors when its fighters joined hundreds of militants who raided the border town of Ersal last month, clashing with the army and kidnapping more than 30 soldiers and security personnel. One of them was beheaded, reportedly by the Islamic State.
"The Islamic State is coming" has been spray-painted on the walls of two churches in north Lebanon, after a picture was posted online of three boys in a mostly Christian neighborhood of Beirut setting the group's black flag on fire.
"I'm having Da'esh nightmares," said animation video maker Joan Baz, 28, using the Islamic State's Arabic acronym. "The entire re-shaping of the region is what scares me. I don't know where we're headed."
Baz's fears were triggered by the Islamist extremist group's recent gains in Iraq and Syria and reports of the killings, beheadings and other atrocities it committed.
Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam said on Sept. 1 that the spread of Islamist militants poses "a big test that our destiny depends on." Lawmaker Nayla Tueni wrote in her Annahar newspaper column that "all the Lebanese are facing an existential threat" and that politicians should put aside their differences.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said his office is putting together an anti-terrorism strategy. "It's become imperative," Rifi said, according to the official National News Agency. "We need to be vigilant all the time."
Lebanon's population of 4.5 million is made up of at least 17 sects. Under the country's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite. The country fought its own 15-year sectarian civil war through 1990, and has more recently been dragged into the conflict in neighboring Syria.
Some analysts say Lebanon's unique makeup makes it less vulnerable to Islamic State.
The group's advances were made in its "natural Sunni Muslim" habitat, something that will not be easy to replicate in Lebanon, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut.
Islamic State "will no doubt attract individual recruits or win the allegiance of small jihadi groups that already exist in Lebanon, and it is able to send bombers and conduct attacks on occasion," Sayigh said. "But it will be unable to put down roots and establish itself as a socio-political movement with a real local base, even in Sunni communities."
The militants exploited conditions in Iraq, where Sunnis were excluded from power, and Syria, where the three-year war has led to a complete collapse of law and order. Lebanon is different, said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"Lebanon's major political communities are all in the power-sharing agreement," Salem said by telephone. "The Lebanese army and internal security forces are putting out fires when they emerge. It's not ungoverned space."
While there are hardline elements in each of the major sects, the Lebanese have mostly been able to co-exist peacefully over more than two decades since the civil war ended, and individual freedoms are largely respected.
Lebanon's more liberal lifestyle -- it is host to more than 40 wineries -- may offer a target for Islamist extremists.
Salim Wardy, a former minister of culture and CEO of Domaine Wardeh winery, said he's worried about the Islamic State attempting to come to Lebanon.
"We're being a little careful, but we haven't changed anything about our ways," said Wardy. The Temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, in Baalbek and Lebanon's tradition of trading wine have survived for centuries and "the vineyards will survive Islamic State," he said.
Khaled Soubeih, founder of the band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir, or the Great Departed, said he was motivated to write the song mocking Islamic State "because I was shocked to see how Da'esh statements start with talk about God's mercy, and then move to talk about killing people."
The song highlights that contradiction. "Because there's no duress in religion, we will wipe out the apostates," one verse has Baghdadi proclaiming. Another ridicules an edict he purportedly issued for the udders of cows to be covered: "I swear to God, if I were a cow, I would be wearing a bra."
And it resonated with the 120 people squeezed into the dimly lit Beirut club. When asked which song they wanted as an encore, the audience demanded the one about Baghdadi. After seeing how her fellow revelers reacted, animator Baz said she felt safer.
"Maybe I won't have my usual nightmares about Da'esh tonight," she said.