The blast occurred amid reports that the Lebanese authorities have arrested a Saudi member of an Al Qaeda-affiliated organization which claimed responsibility for a twin suicide bomb attack in November against the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The explosion occurred about 200 yards from the political office of Lebanon's Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, although it was unclear whether the building, which sustained no damage, was the target of the attack.
At least three cars were burned in the explosion, which shattered windows and shopfronts and scarred the facades of surrounding apartment blocks. Lebanese army green berets cordoned off the blast site while Hezbollah men, some carrying AK-47 rifles, others with walkie-talkies, marshaled rescue workers and ambulances to the scene. At least 60 people were wounded by the blast.
“I heard a loud explosion and I ran outside and saw smoke and fire,” says Mohammed, an employee in a shoe shop 100 yards from the blast site. “We have been expecting another bombing. We are not going to see an end to this until it is all over in Syria.”
The mainly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut have been struck three times in the past six months by car bombs. Two in July and August were detonated by remote control, killing 25 people and wounding hundreds. A third attack was a double suicide bombing against the Iranian embassy in November which killed 25 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché. The bombing was claimed by the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group that has a base of support in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon.
There was no claim of responsibility for Thursday’s deadly car bomb blast, but it came days after Majed al-Majed, the “emir” of the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades was reportedly arrested by Lebanese military intelligence. His arrest is a significant coup for Lebanese intelligence agencies and comes amid rising Sunni jihadist activity in Lebanon, aggravated by Syria’s sectarian civil war.
The Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades emerged in 2005 as an offshoot of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, then headed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group has sought to curry broader support within Lebanon’s Sunni community by emphasizing what it regards as the waning domestic powers of the sect compared to the rise of the Shiite community, spearheaded by Hezbollah. In 2010, it produced a slick propaganda video entitled “The Oppressed Sect” showing footage dating back to Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war purporting to show the ill treatment of Sunnis at the hands of Shiites.
Such anti-Shiite sentiments have flared since the onset of Syria’s war, which has pitted Syria's majority Sunni community against the ruling Alawite minority, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam that is politically allied to Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime has enraged Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis.
Sirajeddine Zureiqat, a member of the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the Iran embassy suicide bomb attack in November via Twitter, but the account appeared to have been suspended as of Tuesday. At the time, he also warned that further attacks would occur if Hezbollah did not withdraw its forces from Syria.
The Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb ambush against a suspected Hezbollah vehicle in the Bekaa Valley last July and a rocket attack into northern Israel in August. The latter attack was widely believed to be an attempt to stir Israel into attacking Hezbollah.
The Lebanese government has made no formal announcement of Majed’s arrest, but Ali Awad Asiri, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, was quoted in the Saudi Al-Riyadh newspaper on Thursday as saying that the Saudi militant is being held while his identity is confirmed. “According to the Lebanese authorities’ information, the man arrested is most likely Majed al-Majed,” Mr. Asiri said. “They are waiting to conduct DNA tests to be 100 percent sure.”
“Majed is a Saudi citizen and no doubt [Riyadh] would like to have him back and verify his identity,” he added to the newspaper.
Majed, who is on a Saudi 2009 list of 85 “most wanted," was appointed leader of the Abdullah Al-Azzam Brigades in early 2012 when his predecessor Saleh al-Qaraawi was incapacitated by an explosion. The US designated the group as a terrorist organization the same year.
There were few details surrounding the circumstances of his arrest. Majed had been living in Ain al-Hilweh camp, according to Palestinian sources inside the camp. They said that he had left some time ago with a group of men to join the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, a leading Syrian rebel faction battling President Bashar al-Assad. One Lebanese newspaper said that Majed was detained after he left a local Lebanese hospital where he was being treated for a kidney complaint.