THE leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group that carried out attacks across the Middle East before shifting its focus to Syria’s civil war died yesterday in custody in Lebanon, the army said.
Majid al-Majid, a Saudi citizen, is believed to have been detained in Lebanon late last month and had been held at a secret location.
He was the commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades – a Sunni militant group with al-Qaeda links – and one of the most-wanted individuals in his native Saudi Arabia.
The group has carried out a number of attacks across the region, among them a bomb attack on Iran’s Beirut embassy in November.
In a short statement released yesterday, the Lebanese army said al-Majid “died this morning while undergoing treatment at the central military hospital after his health deteriorated”. It did not elaborate.
The Brigades have claimed responsibility for attacks throughout the Middle East, including the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and several rocket strikes from Lebanon into Israel.
The most recent attack claimed by the group was the double suicide bombing in November outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that killed at least 23 people and wounded dozens.
Al-Majid was believed to have serious kidney problems that require dialysis. A Lebanese army general said al-Majid died after suffering kidney failure.
He was an important figure and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades grew from a relatively small outfit to a larger terror group after he took over in mid-2012, when the organisation’s previous leader, Saleh al-Qarawi, was gravely wounded in Pakistan.
The group is named after a Palestinian jihadist who recruited mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviets.
The group has attracted hardline Islamist militants who fought in the Iraqi insurgency and has based itself in the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near Sidon.
The group was a smaller outfit under Saleh al-Qarawi, said Mustafa Alani, the director of the security department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.
Part of al-Majid’s recruiting success can be attributed to the war in Syria, where a rebel movement largely composed of Sunni Muslims is fighting to topple a government dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect and his Shiite allies from Lebanon and Iraq. The conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions across the Middle East, and acted as a magnet for Sunni militants and their Shiite counterparts.
While the Abdullah Azzam Brigades originally espoused an anti-western and anti-Saudi rhetoric, the group set its sights under al-Majid on the fight to oust Assad, Alani said.
Last spring, after Hezbollah announced that it was fighting alongside Assad’s troops against the Syrian rebels, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades began to target Hezbollah as well – and by extension the group’s Iranian patrons.
“Since Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, they started to focus their attention on Hezbollah,” Alani said. “Before that, they had no problem with Hezbollah.”
Iran had welcomed al-Majid’s arrest, and on Friday Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Islamic Republic was planning to send a team to Lebanon to assist in the process of questioning al-Majid. The official IRNA news agency said Zarif made the remarks in a telephone conversation with his Lebanese counterpart.
According to Lebanese newspapers, al-Majid was detained during the last week of December while on his way from Beirut to the eastern Bekaa Valley that borders Syria. The reports said that he was captured while in an ambulance after he had undergone dialysis at a hospital in Beirut.
Reports first surfaced about his arrest in Lebanon early last week. Security officials eventually confirmed that they had a suspect in custody, but said they were not certain of his identity. On Friday, the Lebanese confirmed his identity, following a DNA test.
Fayez Ghosn, Lebanon’s defence minister, confirmed he was being held by army intelligence in Beirut and was “being interrogated in secret”. But he provided no details on when and how the arrest took place.
But a Lebanese security source said al-Majid had been captured with another Saudi militant and had been living in the southern city of Sidon.