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How One Beirut Street Found Itself on the Front Lines of a Regional War

BEIRUT — At first glance, there is not much that distinguishes al-Areed Street, in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, from any other neighborhood in the Lebanese capital. It is lined with small clothing shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and modest apartment buildings. A large mosque stands nearby, guarded by thick cement barriers.

The area wears its support for Hezbollah on its sleeve. Pictures of the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and of its assassinated military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, line the walls of some shops, and portraits of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decorate a few street corners. Meanwhile, banners above the street commemorate young men "martyred" in the service of Hezbollah. But none of that really sets al-Areed Street apart from many other predominantly Shiite, pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.

This fairly typical Beirut street, however, unexpectedly finds itself on the front line of a regional struggle for political power in Syria and Lebanon. A car bomb exploded on the street on the morning of Jan. 21, killing four people and wounding dozens more. The al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was in retaliation for "the massacres of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] against the children of Syria."

And retaliations are occurring with worrying regularity. On Jan. 2, a different al Qaeda affiliate orchestrated a car bomb attack mere yards from today's blast, killing another four people. The twin attacks, coming less than a month apart, have residents scared -- but defiant against an enemy that they believe wants to wipe them out completely.

"If it was up to me, I wouldn't live here -- but it's where my shop is," says Mohammed, sitting inside his clothing shop down the street from the explosion. "Who can you blame? If there wasn't Hezbollah, they [the attackers] wouldn't do anything different. They want to erase the Shiites from Lebanon."

The once active commercial neighborhood, Mohammed said, grew quiet after the first bombing -- and things are now bound to get worse. "The business is dead, dead, dead," he said. "People are afraid to walk on the street."

The attacks on al-Areed Street are just one part of the sectarian violence that has recently gripped Lebanon. Two other car bombings have shaken the country in the past month: The Dec. 27 assassination in downtown Beirut that killed Mohammed Chatah, a senior advisor to a key anti-Assad politician; and a car bombing in Hermel, a northeastern town that Hezbollah uses as a gateway to Syria, which killed five people. Meanwhile, seven people have been killed since Jan. 19 in the northern city of Tripoli, where clashes between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods have become a regular occurrence.

Neither Hezbollah's supporters nor the predominantly Sunni anti-Assad opposition have given any sign that they are looking for a grand bargain to prevent the country from spiraling into chaos. When asked whether there would be future bombings, many residents of al-Areed Street responded with a bitter fatalism.

"As long as there are people without humanity, without religion, this will continue," said Mohammad Abbas, the owner of Abu Jaafar restaurant, which overlooked the bomb site. The culprit, at the end of the day, was Arab presidents and foreign powers who follow "the path of Satan," he said, wreaking havoc in residential neighborhoods.

"All we can do is go about our lives," Abbas said. "Everyone has their time to die."

Behind him on al-Areed Street, Lebanese Army soldiers and Hezbollah-affiliated guards protected a cordon around the shattered building that had borne the brunt of the explosion. Someone had hung a new Hezbollah flag from one of its balconies, which fluttered over the outraged crowd below. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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The Nine Lives of 'Russia's bin Laden'

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, used an unorthodox method of announcing the purported death of Russia's number one terrorist: Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service often used for celebrity selfies. Kadyrov, an Instagram fan, posted a photo of himself and used the caption to declare that Doku Umarov, the leader of the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya and self-branded "Emir of the Caucasus" had been killed. Kadyrov claimed that he had "received a recording of a conversation by so-called emirs, in which they announce [Umarov's] death, console one another, and discuss candidates for a new emir."

Several jihadi forums and a Twitter eulogy from a top sharia judge seemed to confirm that Umarov had indeed been killed. But the militant has been pronounced dead many times before, leaving many close observers of the restive Caucasus skeptical that this time he's actually been killed.

That leaves a big question mark hanging over the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Umarov, also known in Russia as the country's "Osama bin Laden," has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks, including a pair of suicide bombings in two trains of the Moscow metro in 2010 and a 2011 suicide bombing at a Moscow airport. The attacks killed dozens. Last summer, he called for attacks against the Sochi Olympics. On Sunday, a statement and a video surfaced where militants from the neighboring Dagestan claim that the recent suicide bombings in the North Caucasus city of Volgograd, just several hundred miles from the Russian winter resort, were carried out partially on Umarov's orders.

Kadyrov's Instagram statement about Umarov's death was, in fact, prompted by questions about the possible terrorist threat to the Sochi Olympics. Kadyrov claimed that Umarov's death meant that the rebels would be so busy finding new leaders that they'd be unable to mount attacks. "Therefore all talk about a threat to the Olympics is completely without foundation," reads the photo caption.

Simon Saradzyhan of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said Kadyrov's confidence may be misplaced. If the insurgents were preparing an attack for the Olympics, the plans would have already been set in motion - with Umarov, or without. "You can't execute something as complex as a terrorist attack in a short time," he told Foreign Policy.

Moreover, according to Saradzhyan, Umarov probably wouldn't be directly involved in any planned attacks. "I think that he has become an inspirational leader.... a brand, like Osama bin Laden." Umarov's predecessors had been killed while involved in planning hostile moves. "He's learned his lesson."

Umarov's biography mirrors the bloody history of his homeland. The Chechen region has been in continuous conflict with Russia for centuries. It was brought back under tenuous Russian control in the 1990s, though the situation there remains unstable.

The 49-year-old Umarov is a veteran of both of the most recent Chechen-Russia wars. In 1996, after the First Chechen conflict's conclusion, he served as Chechnya's security minister during Chechnya's brief period of independence. After the outbreak of the Second Chechen war in 1999, he returned to the ranks of rebel fighters and steadily advanced as other leaders were killed.

In 2007 Umarov announced the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate, while naming himself the its leader -- the Emir. The ultimate goal is to have a united, independent emirate in the Caucasus, ruled under sharia law. Umarov's leadership marked an era of increasing Islamic fundamentalism among the Chechen insurgency.

Saradzhyan doubts Umarov has been killed, but said his death would be a "tangible, but not mortal" blow to the movement.

"If they lose him they won't have someone else who has that political weight among their sponsors and supporters," he told FP. It would take "years and years" for someone to gain the same stature, he added.

The information available on Umarov's purported death is inconclusive. Umarov was allegedly killed in an operation carried out by Russian security forces, who have not confirmed this information. The Kavkaz Center website, the official mouthpiece of the Chechen rebel movement, has also been mum about the status of their leader.

According to Mark Youngman of the blog Extremist Russia, the Instagram-loving Chechen president has acted like the "boy who called wolf" by repeatedly claiming in the past that Umarov was dead -- statements that have been proven untrue.

"Maybe [Kadyrov] wants a self-fulfilling prophecy," Saradzhyan told FP. He argued that Kadyrov's aim could be to sow conflict between the leaders of the Islamic insurgency in Northern Caucasus.

Youngman offers another theory. Kadyrov, he suggests, might want to shift the media attention to Umarov's alleged death to "stem the flow of negativity" around the Olympics since the attacks in North Caucasus. Being Putin's ally, Kadyrov wants Sochi to be a success.

"Instead of people talking about the threat Umarov poses, they are talking about whether he is even alive to pose a threat," he wrote.

In a weekend update to his blog post, Youngman wrote that the Dagestani video and statement claiming responsibility for the Volgograd attacks that surfaced on Sunday suggest that the Caucasus islamists want to re-focus media attention on the security threat to Sochi, rather than their leader's supposed death. He argues that if they chose to show this video, rather than "proof-of-life" footage with Umarov, he may indeed be dead.

According to Youngman, "[i]f it is a coincidence that these have been released just as people are speculating over Umarov's fate, then it is a remarkable one."

But then again, the man has a remarkable tendency to come back from the dead.

EPA/INTELCENTER