Suicide Bombers’ Fixation with Ordinary Targets

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A shattered shisha lies on the floor of the Abu Umran Cafe which was destroyed in a suicide bombing on January 11, 2015. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Thursday, January 15, 2015

Time after time, the same question arises: Why do suicide bombers choose to blow themselves up in places that ordinary people frequent? Why do they kill people who resemble them, whether in mosques, cafes, or markets? When was the last time a suicide bomber attacked a presidential palace or government building? Such questions are repeated every time a bombing takes place, along with the stories about ordinary people who were apparently slain just for being ordinary.

For nearly two months now, Abu Umran had stopped showing up in the coffee shop he owns in the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli that bears his name. He is old and tired. Umran, his son, took his father’s place. Umran was there when the twin suicide bombing hit the coffee shop. He was injured and was taken to Our Lady of Zgharta Hospital.

Some Zghartans have a special bond to the coffee shop. Moreover, the ties between Zghartans and Jabal Mohsen, and Tripoli in general, are deeper and bigger than a cup of coffee. Zgharta is next door to Tripoli, and people from the two cities are united by kinship, marriage, business relations, and common interests.

Zghartans are frequent patrons of this and other cafes, so it was not surprising to overhear names like George, Elie, and Tony in the loud conversations here.

Zghartans and other northerners could freely put their alcoholic drinks on the table here; the same goes for the nearby Majzoub (locals call it al-Ashqar) cafe, which was also hit by the explosion. These customs persisted even though we had entered the era of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its ilk. Young men from Tripoli know this, and are also patrons of these cafes, and come all the way from Zahrieh, Al-Tall, Qobbeh, al-Miatayn Street and elsewhere.


Many are not aware that in the past years, during the repeated rounds of fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, youths participating in the battles from Bab al-Tabbaneh would go to Jabal Mohsen after the fighting stopped. They would come to the coffee shop and other establishments in Jabal Mohsen.

Why did they come? People will tell you about individuals, whom they mention by name, who came to buy alcohol. These were not religious or extremist folks, and what they did was not unheard of among Tripolitans. They just happened to be Sunnis during the battles, and had to fight their friends in Jabal Mohsen because they are Alawis.

One hears many stories about enemies during the battle becoming friends afterwards, sometimes brought together by shishas around the same table. Some of them took up arms as a way to make a living; they could receive around $14 for each day of fighting, paid by “alleyway commanders” or politicians.

Impoverished people fighting each other has often been seen as something surreal. Indeed, many of these men grew up together and were childhood friends. But things changed when they became adults, because of a virus called sectarianism.

These intermittent friendships are also interrupted by bombings such as the ones that targeted al-Salam and al-Taqwa mosques in Tripoli, and suicide attacks like the one that took place in Jabal Mohsen, with scores of lives claimed in each attack. Each time they return to the cafes that bring them together, the gulf between them has grown wider and wider.

The mancala

This may sound like a cliché, but it was indeed possible to hear names like Ali, Omar, and George in Abu Umran’s coffeeshop. These names didn’t stop the suicide bombers, natives of a nearby area, from hitting the coffee shop.

There is consensus about maintaining this more tolerant climate — let’s call it nationalistic — in such spots. In popular coffee shops in Lebanon, which have declined in number in recent years, it is usual to find people playing backgammon or checkers. But in Abu Umran and al-Majzoub, another board game is popular: the Mancala. Many in Lebanon have not heard of it, but across the Syrian coast all the way to North Lebanon, it is too popular to require introduction.

The game consists of a wooden board with holes carved in it and a large number of stones. It is a traditional game, familiar in particular to older people.

Abu Kifah, who is in his 70s, is one such person. We once met with him shortly after a round of violence had subsided. “Curse sectarianism,” he said. He was familiar with the history of the area and the events it had seen.

Abu Kifah remembered children who were almost born in front of him, and who today are young men in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. He could not believe that some of the youths whom he used to carry in diapers would now open fire at him. He knows all of them by name.

Abu Kifah was not wounded in the recent bombing. He lived to experience the bitterness, and see children he once knew become suicide bombers.

A resting place for the army

That coffee shop, which is more than 20 years old, was open day and night. It never closed down even during the battles, serving its signature high-quality shisha tobacco that people in Jabal Mohsen are known for. This was another reason it was popular with patrons from surrounding neighborhoods.

The coffee shop was also popular with Lebanese army soldiers. When they were off-duty, they would come to the cafe from their positions in Jabal Mohsen and surroundings for some rest and recreation.

On the night of the explosion, they were inside the coffee shop, leaving an hour before it occurred, luckily for them. After the bombing, and for the following days, full cups were still standing on some tables, stained with blood. The same goes for playing cards, which were scattered everywhere. The patrons here are known to play a game called Morto.

The cafe attracts two types of patrons, those who come in the morning and others who come in the evening. There are older people, who come from work to spend a few hours here before they go home, and there are unemployed patrons. The latter, like many young people in Lebanon, struggle to find work. Some even have their own special corners in the coffee shop, named after them and their favourite coffee type. Abu Umran and al-Majzoub memorized this by name; this is one advantage that old-fashion cafes have over modern ones.

In June of last year, a suicide bomber struck the Abu Assaf Cafe in the southern Beirut suburb of Tayouneh. The stories of popular cafes, from Tayouneh to Jabal Mohsen, are almost the same, with customs that are more similar than they are not — stories of friendship, games, discussions, relaxation, and recreation.

The owners of these cafes and their patrons may have more reason to be concerned than ever before. But that doesn’t mean they should stop living the way that they do — in defiance of the harbingers of death and the fear that they spread.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Historical note: 1st terror bomber of random civilians was French anarchist Emile Henry. 1894 at Cafe Terminus. His justification? There are no innocent bourgeoisie."

You may be trying to make sense of a phenomenon that is somewhere between insanity and evil. Good luck explaining either.

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