In Lebanon, jihadist threat breeds fear, but also farce

As Islamic State fighters have advanced in neighbouring Syria and after the brutal beheading of two of its soldiers, Lebanon has reacted with fear but also dark humour mocking the jihadists.

AFP| Updated: Sep 19, 2014, 10:15 AM IST

Beirut: As Islamic State fighters have advanced in neighbouring Syria and after the brutal beheading of two of its soldiers, Lebanon has reacted with fear but also dark humour mocking the jihadists.

After a deadly battle between Lebanese troops and jihadists flowing from Syria into the town of Arsal in August, many Lebanese started greeting each other with a characteristic mixture of concern and jest. 

"So have they (the jihadists) reached Beirut yet?" some asked, while others queried: "Are your bags packed to leave?"

Outside of Syria and Iraq, no country has been as deeply affected by the rise of IS as Lebanon.

And for a country already suffering the psychological scars of decades of civil war and sectarian violence, the IS threat is especially terrifying.

"We`re very afraid... I worry about my children when they come and go. Every day we listen to the news -- one day Daesh (the Arabic acronym for IS) is here, one day it`s there," 65-year-old Lebanese housewife Berna Nehmeh told AFP.

Another Lebanese woman, who declined to give her name, said she could "barely sleep" in fear of the group.

"I have nightmares about killing and slaughter, I check that the front door is closed a hundred times before I go to bed," she said.

The country`s anxiety levels have been sky-high since the August battle in Arsal.

The clashes ended when the jihadists withdrew back into Syria, taking Lebanese soldiers and police hostages.

Since then, IS has beheaded two of the captive soldiers, distributing gruesome pictures and video footage.As well as a wave of fear, the beheadings prompted a backlash in some parts of Lebanon against the Syrian refugee population, which numbers more than 1.1 million.

Security forces arrested groups of Syrians in several places on various charges, including in Beirut`s Jdeideh suburb where they were allegedly taking photographs of government buildings.

"The municipality fears the presence of sleeper cells that may be preparing destructive acts," said Jdeideh official Mansour Fadel, adding that local authorities are "registering all the Syrians` names... taking their fingerprints, and asking them to keep us informed of their movements."

While Fadel said he thinks only a tiny minority of Syrians in Lebanon sympathise with the jihadists, the "state of panic" among Lebanese has created an atmosphere of suspicion.

That panic was fanned by recent text messages circulating on Lebanese phones -- purportedly from the army -- urging citizens to close their front doors and beware of Syrian refugees because of an "atmosphere of murder and the threats of extremist groups".

The army denied issuing the messages and also rubbished media reports of an IS cell in the town of Baskinta in central Lebanon.

But rumours, exaggerations and half-truths have helped contribute to a siege mentality among many Lebanese. 

Pro-IS graffiti scrawled on churches in the northern city of Tripoli and elsewhere have only made such fears grow.

One read: "The Islamic State is coming." Another: "The Christians must go."

Psychologist Fadi Yazigi said the national panic was no surprise, pointing to the accumulation of fear over decades of conflict in Lebanon, including the 1975-1990 civil war.

This legacy, he said, has left large numbers of Lebanese with "nervous disorders" in which "they have anxiety they can`t control, even if the fear is unjustified or the concerns are beyond their control."But some in Lebanon have chosen to respond to their nervousness with farce, mocking the jihadist group that rules larges parts of Syria and Iraq.

At the tiny Metro al-Madina theatre in west Beirut`s Hamra neighbourhood, a band called The Great Departed thrill the crowd with a song poking fun at IS.

Singing in fake praise of the self-proclaimed "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- head of the Islamic State -- the group chants: "Oh master, you who guide the faithful to the depths of the deepest abyss!"

On a Lebanese sketch TV show, one skit involves a man trying to buy a bra for his cow, in a reference to an alleged IS religious ruling claiming cows` udders should be covered up.

The show`s writer and director Charbel Khalil told AFP the sketches "lighten the burden of the panic people feel."

"Being able to laugh at something reduces its power," he said.