BEIRUT/ARSAL, Lebanon: In a day of dramatic developments Wednesday, the Lebanese Army enjoyed a major breakthrough in its battle against national terror, arresting a leading figure of an Al-Qaeda-linked group, dismantling two explosive-laden cars and raiding a major arms cache.
But despite a successful day for the Lebanese security services, sources warned that the threat of new attacks in several Lebanese areas remained high.
The string of security breakthroughs came after the arrest early Wednesday in Beirut of Palestinian Naim Abbas, who the Army said was a member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
The Army said Abbas, in his 40s, had been under close surveillance after information emerged of his involvement in the preparation and detonation of car bombs.
“He was monitored from the moment he left Ain al-Hilweh,” the military said in a statement.
The Palestinian refugee was arrested during an Army raid in the Afif al-Tibeh neighborhood near Corniche al-Mazraa in Beirut.
“Immediately after interrogation began, he confessed that he had prepared a car bomb to be set off at a later date and that the car was left in Corniche al-Mazraa,” the Army said, adding that Abbas also confessed he was involved in prior bomb attacks.
The confession led soldiers to a parking lot near Al-Halabi Nuts in Corniche al-Mazraa, where they found the rigged car.
The Army said the 100-kilogram bomb was safely disabled, adding that explosive belts and several rockets were also removed from the car.
Pictures taken by a photographer for The Daily Star near the scene showed packs of explosives wrapped with wire after they were pulled from the black Toyota RAV4. Other pictures showed explosives hidden in the vehicle’s upholstery.
Mohammad Mahmoud, who was in the same apartment as Abbas, was also arrested by the Army, according to a security source.
The sources said Mahmoud was intended to be the suicide bomber who would have driven the rigged Toyota to a destination determined by Abbas. Three individuals the Army found in the warehouse of the building where Abbas lived were also arrested, the sources added.
A high-ranking security source described Abbas as a “leading figure” in the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed responsibility for last year’s twin suicide bombings outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. Thirty people, including an Iranian diplomat, were killed in the Nov. 19 attack.
The security source described Abbas’ arrest as a “big catch” that could help thwart future attacks.
“This is a big catch given the role Abbas played in terrorist acts and the recent wave of car bombings across the country, particularly in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northeastern town of Hermel,” the source said.
The source said the arrest would likely help security agencies curb future bomb attacks and may help identify the suicide car bombers involved in the Jan. 2 and Jan. 16 attacks in the Beirut southern suburb of Haret Hreik and the Bekaa Valley town of Hermel.
Abbas’ name emerged following the recent arrest of two men: Omar Atrash, a Sunni sheikh who was charged over two separate bombings in January in the southern suburbs of Beirut; and Jamal Daftardar, once thought to be the No. 2 in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the source said.
According to a security report obtained by The Daily Star last week, Atrash confessed during interrogation to delivering explosive-rigged cars, belts and potential suicide bombers to Abbas.
On its official Twitter account, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades denied that any of its leaders were arrested, calling the reports “a desperate attempt to create fictitious acts of heroism.”Abbas, whose actual name is Naim Ismail Mahmoud, was initially a member of the Palestinian Fatah Movement, before he left to join the Islamic Jihad group. He was believed to be residing in the Hittin neighborhood of the Ain al-Hilweh camp in south Lebanon until he disappeared from the area a week ago.
Abbas entered Iraq more than once, where he took part in fighting U.S. troops and recruited young men to join him. His stays in Ain al-Hilweh were always short. He is suspected of involvement in the assassinations of Future Movement MP Walid Eido and Lebanese Army Gen. Francois al-Hajj in June and December 2007 respectively. He is also suspected of being behind attacks against the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
The Army said Abbas’ confession also led the military to car bomb hideouts “that are currently being raided.”
It added that based on information from Abbas, an Army unit raided a warehouse in the coastal Chouf village of Saadiyat, where it confiscated a number of 107-mm caliber rockets, bombs, materials to manufacture bombs, government stamps, fake identification documents and equipment used to forge official papers.
Also Wednesday, the Army said it thwarted an attempt to deliver a vehicle stuffed full of explosives from Syria to suicide bombers in Lebanon.
The Army said a silver Kia was seized and that its occupants – three women – were all arrested. The Kia had come from Yabroud in Syria and was destined for Beirut, the Army said, adding that the three women intended to transfer the car to suicide bombers.
Security sources in east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley said the Kia was rigged with 50 kilograms of explosives and was dismantled by military experts where it was stopped on the main Arsal-Labweh road.
The women were identified as Joumana Hmeid, Hala Rayed and Khadija Awdeh – all residents of the northeastern border town of Arsal. The sources said they were taken in for interrogation.
The Army added that it also discovered four rockets in the outskirts of the nearby village of Debbieh aimed at a Lebanese district.
A security source said the rockets were to be launched at the Beirut southern suburbs Sunday, when Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah is expected deliver a speech.
The sources said the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch also arrested H.A., a member of the police in charge of security at the Central House, the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Downtown Beirut, on suspicion of him being Abbas’ accomplice.
However, an ISF statement denied that its member had any links to Abbas or to any security incident.
The Army’s achievements were lauded by various Lebanese officials and political parties.
President Michel Sleiman congratulated commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and the general directorate of the Army on the arrest of Abbas and the dismantling of the two rigged cars, expressing his full support for the work of the military and the Internal Security Forces.
Meanwhile, Speaker Nabih Berri discussed the security situation with MPs attending his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
The MPs quoted Berri as saying that the Lebanese should unite behind efforts to combat terror, which targeted everybody in the country.
The speaker also reportedly praised the Army’s crackdown on terrorist cells in Lebanon and the pre-emptive operations it was carrying out.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri telephoned Kahwagi to praise Wednesday’s successes, according to a statement by the Future Movement leader’s office. Hariri said the Lebanese Army’s work Wednesday foiled several terrorist operations that would have targeted innocent Lebanese, and therefore the entirety of Lebanon.
Hezbollah also hailed the major breakthroughs made by the Army, saying all Lebanese should support the military establishment. – With additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari, Rima S. Aboulmona and Rakan al-Fakih