Terror Attack on Iranian Embassy in Beirut Shows Growing Sectarian Divide

By Patrick Goodenough | November 19, 2013 | 6:02 PM EST

Lebanese people gather at the scene of two explosions outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(CNSNews.com) – Tuesday’s massive suicide bombing outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut comes 30 years after the American Embassy in the same city was bombed by terrorists linked to Iran, in what was at the time the deadliest such attack ever against a U.S. diplomatic mission.

Iran reflexively blamed Israel for the twin bombing of its embassy, but it was an al-Qaeda affiliate that claimed responsibility for the attack, the latest and most significant sign of the spreading sectarianism fueled by Syria’s civil war.

At least 23 people were reported to have been killed. According to Iranian state media, they include Iran’s cultural attache, the head of the embassy’s security team and five security guards.

The embassy is in southern Beirut’s stronghold of Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’ite ally. Hezbollah members reportedly serve as guards at the mission, although there was no early indication whether any were among the dead.

Iran quickly accused Israel. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham said Iran holds “Zionists and their mercenaries” responsible, echoing a claim by Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Qazanfar Roknabadi.

The semi-official Fars news agency quoted head of Iran’s supreme national security council Ali Shamkhan as saying the bombing would not deter Iran from supporting Hezbollah.

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the “senseless and despicable terrorist bombings” and extended condolences to the victims and families.

“We urge all parties to exercise calm and restraint to avoid inflaming the situation further,” he said in a statement. “The United States knows too well the cost of terrorism directed at our own diplomats around the world, and our hearts go out to the Iranian people after this violent and unjustifiable attack claimed the life of at least one of their diplomats.”

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan honor the victims of Americans killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, at Andrews Air Force Base on April 23, 1983. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Kerry did not elaborate, but in one particularly deadly attack directed at American diplomats around the world terrorists in April 1983 targeted the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, 17 of them Americans, including USAID and CIA employees.

Six months later, terrorists struck again, targeting the U.S. Marine barracks and a French military barracks and killing 241 American and 58 French personnel. It was the biggest single-day death toll for the U.S. Marine Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.

The U.S. blames that series of suicide bombings on Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) set up by Iran in the early 1980s.

The commanding officer of the Marines attacked that October wrote later that the National Security Agency had intercepted a communication between Tehran and Iran’s ambassador in Syria ordering an attack on the Marines in Beirut.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani this year appointed as defense minister who, according to an Israeli think tank, was sent to Beirut a year before those bombings to help set up Hezbollah’s military wing, and was linked to the Marine barracks blast.

Designated terrorists on both sides

In the Syrian conflict, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting the regime of President Bashar Assad, an adherent of the Shi’ite Allawite sect. The mostly Sunni rebels fighting to oust Assad, backed by Sunni Gulf states, include jihadist groups including al-Qaeda affiliates.

Hours after Tuesday’s bombing, an al-Qaeda affiliate called the Abdallah Azzam Brigades

The aftermath of the April 18, 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. (Photo: USMC/Wikimedia Commons)

(AAB) claimed responsibility in a message posted on the Twitter account of AAB spokesman Sirajuddin Zurayqat. It said two Lebanese Sunni “heroes” had carried out the suicide blasts, and that attacks would continue until Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria. The account has since been suspended.

Formed around 2004 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq and designated as an FTO in May 2012, the AAB operates in Lebanon and the Arabian peninsula, according to the State Department.

Last year it named a wanted Saudi terrorist, Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, as its leader. Another leader, Saleh al Qarawi (aka Najm Al-Kheir) – also a Saudi – has been designated as a terrorist under U.S. executive order since December 2011.

Earlier attacks by the group have included a 2010 suicide bombing targeting a Japanese-owned oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, and rocket attacks on Israeli towns from southern Lebanon.

The group is named for Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric who opened a center in north-west Pakistan in the 1980s to facilitate the mujahedeen campaign against the Soviet Union in neighboring Afghanistan. After Azzam was killed in a 1989 bomb blast, Osama bin Laden took over the Peshawar bureau, the precursor of what would become al-Qaeda.

Tuesday’s bombing is the latest in a series of violent incidents in Lebanon believed to be linked to the war in neighboring Syria. Last August a car bombing also in Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut killed 27 people.

Then, too, Israel was blamed – by Lebanon’s U.S.-backed President Michel Sleiman, among others – even though a Sunni Islamist group claimed responsibility for what it said was a “message” to Hezbollah.

A week later, in what was widely seen as a retaliatory attack, two blasts outside Sunni mosques in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli killed more than 40 people.

Both Tripoli and Beirut have also seen deadly clashes between Sunnis supportive of the anti-Assad rebellion, and Shi’ites backing Assad.

The Syrian conflict has similarly poured fuel onto sectarian divisions in Iraq, which this year is experiencing its worst violence since 2007, stoking fears of a full-blown civil war there too. According to U.N. Mission in Iraq figures, more than 8,300 people were killed in terrorist violence there between January and the end of October this year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow