BEIRUT — Lebanese military authorities have detained the Saudi leader of an Al Qaeda-linked, Sunni militant group that claimed responsibility for a double suicide bomb attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November, according to Lebanese news media.
The militant, Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, is the head of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an offshoot of Al Qaeda. He was taken into custody just three days after Saudi Arabia pledged a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese army. The gift was widely seen as a Saudi attempt to counter the influence of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia and political party that is allied with the Shi’ite government of Iran and with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
The detention, which US national security officials confirmed to news agencies, provoked an array of political responses in the region — the latest sign that the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is helping to drive the bloody war in Syria, is intensifying in neighboring Lebanon.
An Iranian national security official, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, on Wednesday praised the Lebanese security forces for apprehending Majid, and blamed him for the embassy bombing. He also urged the Lebanese government to consider the fact that “the main element in the operation is of Saudi nationality,” Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported.
While there was no immediate response from Saudi Arabia, there is little sympathy in its government for Majid, who is on its list of people most wanted for links with Al Qaeda. A Lebanese newspaper, Asl-Safir, wrote that he was “wanted by Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and several other Western countries, mainly the United States.”
Abdullah Azzam Brigades has allied itself with extremists among the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which has also claimed responsibility for attacks in Egypt and Jordan, was formed in the crucible of the Iraqi insurgency in cooperation with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Al Qaeda franchise there. That was done on orders from Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Sunni militant who was subsequently killed by US troops, according to the Long War Journal, a website that follows counterterrorism efforts.
While founded well before the conflict in Syria, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades has allied itself with extremists among the rebels fighting Assad there and has threatened more attacks if Hezbollah does not stop sending its fighters to support him. Recently, Majid was reported to have pledged allegiance to the Nusra Front, another Al Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria.
Iran and Hezbollah, its ally and Lebanon’s most powerful political party, have backed Assad, while their Sunni Lebanese political rivals have supported the insurgency. Hezbollah has sent fighters to aid the government, and Lebanese Sunni militants have joined the rebels.
The Iranian official, Boroujerdi, said Lebanese security forces had arrested two people, including someone involved in “the assassination of the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon,” an apparent reference to the shooting death in December of Hassane Laqees, a senior Hezbollah militant. It was unclear whether he was blaming the Abdullah Azzam Brigades or Saudi Arabia for killing Laqees. Citing the killers’ professionalism, Hezbollah had blamed the hit on Israel rather than Sunni jihadi groups.
Majid’s detention was potentially sensitive in a divided Lebanon, especially under a caretaker government that has been in place for months because of political stalemate. The army has tried to maintain its reputation as the only largely neutral security agency, even as it remains too weak to challenge Hezbollah’s independent militia.
The war in Syria has been a fruitful recruiting tool and training ground for extremist Sunni militants in Lebanon, who have a long-standing presence but had been seen as fairly marginal before the Syrian conflict.