By Ryan Lucas
BEIRUT: DNA tests confirmed that a man in government custody is the alleged leader of an al-Qaida-linked group that has conducted attacks across the Middle East before shifting its focus to Syria’s civil war, Lebanese authorities said Friday.
The suspected militant, Majid al-Majid, is the purported commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and one of the 85 most-wanted individuals in his native Saudi Arabia. The U.S. State Department designated the group a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, freezing any assets it holds in the United States and banning Americans from doing business with the group.
The brigades have claimed responsibility for attacks throughout the region, 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.
Reports first surfaced in Lebanon early this week that authorities had detained al-Majid. Security officials eventually confirmed that they had a suspect in custody, but said they were not certain of his identity.
Lebanese and Saudi officials said DNA samples taken from the suspect would be checked against al-Majid’s relatives in Saudi Arabia, and the Lebanese army said Friday that tests established the detainee was indeed al-Majid. Lebanese officials still have not disclosed when or where he was taken into custody, and his current location has not been made public.
The biggest winners from his arrest may be Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who have been the main focus of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades since al-Majid took the reins of the group in mid-2012, said Mustafa Alani, the director of the security department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.
The group was a relatively small outfit under its previous leader, Saleh al-Qarawi, Alani said. Al-Majid, who is believed to have serious kidney problems that require dialysis, built it into a larger player.
“It’s become much bigger. Majid al-Majid was able to recruit a lot of Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese,” Alani said.
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.