x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lebanon interrogating head of Al Qaeda-linked group responsible for Iran embassy bombing

Lebanese troops have arrested the leader of the Al Qaeda linked group that claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing at the Iranian embassy in November.

Lebanese security forces stand guard near a damaged building at the scene of a powerful blast in southern Beirut which killed at least 10 people on November 19, 2013 near the Iranian embassy, according to police and security sources. Anwar Amro / AFP
Lebanese security forces stand guard near a damaged building at the scene of a powerful blast in southern Beirut which killed at least 10 people on November 19, 2013 near the Iranian embassy, according to police and security sources. Anwar Amro / AFP

BEIRUT // Lebanon’s intelligence agents are interrogating the Saudi leader of a militant group that claimed a double suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut in November.

“He was wanted by the Lebanese authorities and is currently being interrogated in secret,” said the Lebanese defence minister, Fayez Ghosn.

United States national security sources had previously confirmed the detention of Majid bin Muhammad Al Majid, reported leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which operates throughout the Middle East and has links to Al Qaeda.

A Lebanese security source said Mr Majid had been arrested by the Lebanese army together with another Saudi militant, but did not say when they were captured or identify the second man. He said Mr Majid had been living in the city of Sidon.

A civil war in neighbouring Syria that pits majority Sunni Muslim rebels against the forces of president, Bashar Al Assad, who belongs to a sect close to Shiites, has deepened sectarian resentment in Lebanon, whose own 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Sunni militant groups, including Al Qaeda affiliates, have carried out attacks against the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah, an ally of Mr Assad and of Shiite Iran.

The Brigades’ Twitter account, on which they claimed the attack on the Iranian embassy, did not mention the arrest. The group had threatened more attacks in Lebanon unless Hizbollah pulled its forces out of Syria.

Mr Majid was among 85 individuals identified on a Saudi government list issued in 2009 as most wanted for their alleged involvement with Al Qaeda, according to the Long War Journal, a respected counter-terrorism blog.

The blog said that the Brigades, named after a founder of Al Qaeda and associate of the late Osama bin Laden, were formed sometime after 2005 as a spin-off of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The US designated the group as a “terrorist organisation” in 2012, and has in the past claimed responsibility for firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon. It also claimed responsibility for the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Mr Majid was revealed to be the leader in 2012, according to Islamist sites.

In 2009, Lebanese authorities sentenced Mr Majid in absentia to life in prison for belonging to a different extremist group, the Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Al Islam.

That organisation was involved in heavy fighting with the Lebanese army in 2007 in the Palestinian Nahr Al Bared camp in northern Lebanon, in which more than 400 people were killed, including 168 soldiers.

After the fighting, many members of the group took refuge in the Ain Al Helweh Palestinian camp, which is believed to house numerous Islamist extremists.

A Palestinian official in the camp said on Wednesday that Mr Majid had left Ain Al Helweh in mid-2012 for Syria.

“With the war in Syria, we decided that [non-Palestinian] Arab citizens would not be allowed to remain in the camp, after information that jihadists were fighting alongside the rebels,” the official said.

“He left the camp with five Saudis and Kuwaitis and they went to Syria. We didn’t know that he had returned to Lebanon.”

On Wednesday, a Twitter account belonging to Sirajeddin Zreikat, a member of the Brigades, appeared to have been suspended.

Mr Zreikat had claimed responsibility in the group’s name for the November 19 Iranian embassy bombing that killed 25 people.

Mr Zreikat also warned of more attacks in Lebanon if Hizbollah kept sending troops to support Mr Assad’s regime.

Street clashes and bomb attacks have increased in Lebanon as Syria’s 33-month civil war has intensified, the latest being a bomb attack on December 27 that killed six people including a former Lebanese minister who opposed Mr Al Assad. In Syria, more than 100,000 have been killed.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion (Dh11 billion) to Lebanon’s army. The move to prop up the army was widely seen as an effort to counterbalance Hizbollah’s influence in Lebanon.

* Reuters and Agence France-Presse