Abdullah Azzam Brigades alive and well, despite key arrests

BEIRUT: Both were twin suicide missions carried out during the morning rush, both made use of stolen cars, both were executed in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria. These are the markings of the attacks carried out by the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon. In the three months that separate the Iranian Embassy attack of Nov. 19 from Wednesday’s twin bombing incident outside the Iranian Cultural Center in Bir Hasan, Lebanese authorities have made significant strides in cracking down on the group’s activities, but this might not be enough to crush the multi-cell network or halt its terrorist activities.

From the outset, the similarities were stark, notwithstanding the familiar post-bombing images of wrecked cars, debris and the dazed expressions of civilians.

The Iranian Embassy bomber had driven a stolen Chevrolet Trailblazer laden with 50 kilograms of explosives; the Bir Hasan bombers used a stolen Mercedes and BMW, laden with 75 and 90 kilograms of explosives respectively.

The driver of last November’s attack was prompted to detonate his rigged vehicle after a suspicious police officer approached him; a soldier, Mohammad Dandash, was apprehensive about one of the vehicles in Wednesday’s attack, leading the bomber to detonate the bomb when he came forward.

The Bir Hasan attack is the first to be claimed explicitly by the brigades since the death of its leader, Saudi national Majid al-Majid, from kidney failure while in custody last December. The group has vowed to continue Majid’s legacy.

The leader’s loss likely had a negative impact on the senior command and control structure of the brigades, said expert Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

“However, the group likely operates a semi-autonomous urban multi-cell structure, which means militarily, the group has been able to continue operations almost as normal,” he said.

Lister predicted that the structure of the group, paired with a continued motive for operation, would ensure its survival, despite senior leadership losses.

“So long as the foot soldiers remain and each localized cell maintains an operational leader, continued operations are likely,” he told The Daily Star.

Security sources would identify the Iranian Embassy bombers as Sidon resident Mouin Abu Daher and Palestinian Adnan Mousa Mohammad, from Ain al-Hilweh.

But true to Al-Qaeda form, the two were mere tools in a scheme concocted by “highly professional people,” according to investigators.

The Army also arrested Jamal Daftardar, once thought to be the group’s second in command, who was charged with belonging to Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front, in addition to the brigades. His links to other networks indicate how they might work in tandem.

For instance, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed joint responsibility with the Nusra Front for several Grad rocket attacks in Hermel in both December and January.

The pair could have expanded their reach in Lebanon as far as attacks go. The country now faces a three-pronged threat from jihadists, with the inclusion of ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

“[The] Abdullah Azzam Brigades have proven themselves a highly competent and capable organization. Though still relatively small in number, they clearly enjoy the capacity to infiltrate Beirut’s tightly guarded southern suburbs and to deploy militarily damaging explosive devices,” added Lister, who attributed the group’s strength to the eruption of the conflict in Syria and its connection to the Nusra Front.

September 2013 was a turning point for Abdullah Azzam Brigades, when Majid declared the group’s support to the Syrian rebels, and began launching operations against Hezbollah. The group was originally established in 2004 by Saudi national Hamad bin Saleh, who focused the group’s energies against Israel.

The arrest of the young Sheikh Omar Atrash in January contributed to major advances for the authorities, something they hoped would curb bomb attacks. Investigators said Atrash’s confessions led them to Palestinian Naim Abbas on Feb. 12 in Beirut’s Corniche al-Mazraa, a senior member of the Azzam brigades who also lived in Ain al-Hilweh.

In his confession Atrash had said a BMW vehicle would be used in future attacks, according to a senior security source. The vehicle used in Wednesday’s attack was a BMW X5, a detail that will prompt investigators to question the detained sheikh further, the source said.

The identity of the new leader of the brigades has not been verified, but many report that Mohammad Toufic Taha of Ain al-Hilweh has assumed the helm. The southern Palestinian camp appears to be the point where all the dots pertaining to the investigation into the Azzam brigades connect; it was where Majid and other senior members reportedly lived, where certain suicide bombers were supposedly recruited, and if Taha has assumed leadership, where future attacks will be planned.

“Mohammad Toufic Taha assuming the leadership of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades would signal a potentially significant coming together for elements with previous links with Fatah al-Islam and other extremists based out of Ain al-Hilweh,” Lister said. “The Palestinian refugee camps are a key recruitment base for extremists in Lebanon and acquiring the influence of Toufic Taha could prove very valuable.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 20, 2014, on page 2.




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