Abdullah Azzam Brigades claims credit for attack on Iranian embassy

Twin suicide attacks today outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, have killed nearly two dozen people and wounded more than 140 others, according to initial press reporting.

An official from the Lebanon-based Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is linked to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attacks on Twitter. In a series of tweets translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, Sirajuddin Zurayqat said the brigades executed the attack, and that other attacks will follow for two main reasons.

“First: All the elements of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] must withdraw from Syria,” Zurayqat tweeted, according to SITE’s translation. Second, Zurayqat demanded that authorities “release our prisoners from the prisons of injustice in Lebanon.”

Zurayqat also wrote that an official claim of responsibility from the brigades would follow.

Assuming that the suicide bombers were dispatched by Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the attack is the latest example of how the Syrian war has sparked new tensions between the global al Qaeda network and the Iranians. Despite having colluded in various ways, al Qaeda and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syrian fight.

Al Qaeda’s two affiliates inside Syria, the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, or Levant (ISIS), are fighting Assad forces, which are backed by Iran and Hezbollah.

In June 2012, the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades released a statement calling on Syrians to support the effort to topple Bashar Assad’s regime. The statement, from Majid bin Muhammad al Majid, was distributed by the Al Fajr Media Center, which disseminates al Qaeda’s propaganda.

In May 2013, a group of Egyptian jihadists led by Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, called for attacks in Shiite-led countries in retaliation for the fighting inside Syria. [See LWJ report, Egyptian jihadists call for attacks in Shiite countries.]

Ties to al Qaeda

Although it is not recognized as a formal al Qaeda affiliate, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades is openly loyal to al Qaeda, and its leaders have long operated as part of the al Qaeda network.

The organization is named after Abdullah Azzam, who served as a mentor to Osama bin Laden. One of the group’s battalions in Lebanon is named after Ziad al Jarrah, who piloted one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001.

Saleh al Qarawi, the organization’s first commander, long operated as part of al Qaeda in Iraq’s regional network. There are conflicting reports concerning Qarawi’s status. Some accounts claimed he had been killed. In April and then again in June 2013, however, jihadists posted to al Qaeda-linked web sites and Twitter accounts that Qarawi had been injured in a US missile strike that likely took place in northern Pakistan. He has since been held inside Saudi Arabia, according to these same social media accounts, which were first reported by BBC Monitoring.

In February 2009, Qarawi was included on Saudi Arabia’s list of 85 most-wanted terrorists and extremists. Two leaked State Department cables authored shortly after the Saudi list was released discussed Qarawi’s al Qaeda role. One cable went so far as to note that Qarawi had been “identified as the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.”

Another leaked cable reported that Qarawi “provided funds and recruits to [the] late head of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al Zarqawi” and “worked to unify various branches of al Qaeda.”

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ propaganda has been disseminated by al Qaeda networks online. In April 2010, for instance, the Al Fajr Media Center, published an interview with Qarawi.

After Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, the group released a statement praising the fallen al Qaeda emir and saying that the organization was formed in response to bin Laden’s call to jihad.

US Government designations

In November 2011, the US State Department added an explosives expert for the group to its list of specially designated global terrorists.

The following month, in December 2011, the State Department added Saleh al Qarawi to the designation list.

In May 2012, the State Department designated the entire group as a foreign terrorist organization.

Blowback, of sorts

The attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut may be blowback, of sorts. It has been widely reported that Saleh al Qarawi, the first leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, operated for a time inside Iran.

One of the leaked State Department cables written shortly after Qarawi was added to the Saudi most-wanted list in 2009 even noted that he had “received explosives training in Iran.” The cable does not say the Iranians provided the training.

Other members of Qarawi’s group allegedly operated inside Iran as well. Citing a Saudi security official, The New York Times reported in February 2009 that “Qarawi is in charge of leading Al Qaeda’s operations in the Persian Gulf and Iran, and of bringing new members into Afghanistan.” Qarawi was also “believed to have more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely, the official added.”

Other Saudi al Qaeda operatives are known to operate inside Iran. Al Qaeda’s Iran-based network is currently headed by a Kuwaiti named Muhsin al Fadhli.

Qarawi also has family ties to al Qaeda operatives who were based in Iran for a time. Qarawi’s wife is the daughter of a deceased Egyptian al Qaeda operative named Muhammad Hasan Khalil al Hakaymah (a.k.a. Abu Jihad al Masri).

In 2006, al Hakaymah, a former leading member of the Egyptian jihadist group, Gamaa Islamiyya (IG), announced that he had joined al Qaeda. In a video produced by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, Ayman al Zawahiri introduced al Hakaymah. The pair announced that al Hakaymah’s wing of the IG was folded into al Qaeda’s operations.

Muhammad Islambouli, the brother of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli, officially joined al Qaeda alongside al Hakaymah.

It was widely reported at the time that al Hakaymah made his announcement from inside Iran, or at least had been operating there in the months preceding his proclamation.

Some IG members criticized al Hakaymah’s move as they were attempting to gain better standing by forgoing violence inside their home country. A statement issued by the IG online, and published by Asharq Alawsat in November 2006, criticized Iran for “harboring” al Hakaymah “despite the fact” he is “an al Qaeda leader.” The statement went on to claim that Iran is “providing” al Hakaymah “with all the capabilities that allow him to promote from his location in Iran everything that is against our initiative [to renounce violence inside Egypt], and turning him into a great shaykh.”

Also in November 2006, Asharq Alawsat reported that Sayfallah Abd al Rahman, the son of the IG’s longtime spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abd al Rahman, had relocated to Iran and joined al Hakaymah.

Al Hakaymah admitted to traveling to Iran alongside Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who would go on to lead al Qaeda in Iraq, sometime after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Al Hakaymah said that he and others were placed in detention by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which housed them in a hotel. But multiple reports say that he continued to operate even while under house arrest.

Al Hakaymah eventually left Iranian soil for North Waziristan, where he was killed in US drone strike in late October 2008. Before his demise, al Hakaymah reportedly supported Fatah al Islam, another al Qaeda-linked group operating inside Lebanon.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades has previously targeted Israel and a Japanese oil tanker. But the attack on the Iranian embassy demonstrates that the group, assuming its claims of responsibility are legitimate, is expanding its portfolio.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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