TRIPOLI, Lebanon: As the new head of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades is set to be appointed in the coming days, experts close to the group expect it to launch attacks against the Lebanese Army in retaliation for the arrest of its deceased leader Majid al-Majid.
“The leaders of the organization believe that they have a score to settle with the Lebanese Army,” one expert told The Daily Star Tuesday, requesting to remain anonymous.
The expert said that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization had made the decision irrespective of whether Majid had died of natural causes. “This keeps the Lebanese arena open to all possibilities,” the expert added.
Majid, a Saudi national, died in a military hospital in Beirut Saturday before Lebanese investigators could question him about the twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Nov. 19, an attack that was claimed by his group. Majid was arrested by the Lebanese Army last month.
He was a wanted man in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Iran and other countries.
Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said Majid died due to kidney failure, lung problems and a virus infection.
Websites close to the Brigades said the group had lost contact with another Saudi member in addition to Majid, but that the Lebanese authorities had only revealed that Majid had been arrested.
Tripoli-based Sheikh Omar Bakri, an expert in Islamist groups, said he expected the Brigades would appoint a successor within three days following the confirmation of Majid’s death. The body of Majid has yet to be delivered to his family.
“The person who will succeed Majid could remain a secret figure just like those from many other Islamist organizations, particularly because everybody is trying to determine who the successor will be,” Bakri said. “Most members of this organization will continue to operate secretly, now that they have received such a great blow.”
Media reports said that Palestinian Mohammad Toufic Taha, who resides in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, could be a potential successor to Majid.
The Brigades came into the media spotlight as a major Al-Qaeda group active in Lebanon after they claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 30 people, including an Iranian diplomat.
The operation raised fears that Al-Qaeda was transforming Lebanon into a field where jihad is waged, from an arena where they enjoyed some support.
September 2013 was a turning point for the Brigades, after Majid announced in a recorded message that his group had joined the war in Syria alongside Syrian rebels and would also launch military operations against Hezbollah and its main backer, Iran. Prior to that, the group’s operations had chiefly targeted Israel.
Factors prompting his decision included the Islamic Republic’s support of U.S. efforts to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and its backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Syria crisis.
The Brigades are among the second generation of Al-Qaeda groups that saw light after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad in April 2003, in the wake of the U.S.-led military invasion.
The group was established in 2004 by Saudi national Hamad bin Saleh as a regional organization with the aim of launching military operations against Israel.
The Brigades were named after Abdullah Azzam, an influential Palestinian preacher who championed calls for jihad in support of the Afghani mujahedeen, who fought the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s. Azzam –who was the mentor of Osama bin Laden, the late founder of Al-Qaeda and his successor Ayman al-Zawahri, along with others – was killed in an explosion in Pakistan in November 1989.
Saudi Sheikh Hamoud bin Uqla al-Shuaibi is believed to be the ideologue behind the Brigades, as he used to preach about its establishment in the Middle East.
Following the death of Hamad bin Saleh, Saudi Saleh al-Qaraawi became the head of the group.
Qaraawi was an influential figure in the Brigades who called for using Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the Sinai desert in Egypt to launch attacks against Israel. The group claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks against Israel from Egypt and south Lebanon in recent years. The operations were carried out using rudimentary methods.
Prior to joining the Brigades, Majid formed another group, al-Haramayn Brigades, which was also affiliated with Al-Qaeda and operated in Saudi Arabia. Inspired by Qaraawi, whom he met in a military training camp in Waziristan, Pakistan, Majid re-established himself with the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
Sources told The Daily Star that shortly before the start of battles between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in summer 2007, Majid, who was a military commander for the Brigades, spent a few days in Tripoli. During his stay, he contacted several Lebanese Salafist groups in an attempt to establish a jihadist group that could operate in Lebanon.
In the meantime, Qaraawi’s health deteriorated significantly when his legs and his arm were amputated after he was targeted in a U.S. raid in Afghanistan. Due to Qaraawi’s health condition, Majid was appointed head of the Brigades.
Unlike Qaraawi and Saleh, who wanted the Brigades to operate as a regional network against Israel, Majid advocated limiting the activities of the group to Lebanon, from where attacks could be launched against the Jewish state.
As of 2012, he resided in Ain al-Hilweh and believed that Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were ideal locations to establish bases for his group.
Majid established cells in the south and in the Bekaa Valley. Joining his group were Palestinians Osama Shehabi and Taha, who reside in Ain al-Hilweh, along with Abdel-Ghani Jawhar, a former member of Fatah al-Islam.
Jawhar is believed to have been killed in Syria in 2012.