Lebanon’s army has arrested a leader of a group loyal to al-Qaeda and defused two car bombs, one in Beirut and the other in the country’s east as it copes with the fallout of the Syrian conflict.
Naim Abbas, a commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was arrested in the capital Beirut in an ongoing investigation into the group’s activities.
The army said it had been monitoring Abbas, a Palestinian, for a while, “after receiving information about his role in preparing and detonating car bombs”.
Described as a “mastermind of car bombs” that targeted Shia areas of the country, security sources said the arrest of Abbas could help uncover jihadi cells in Lebanon, which have been ratcheting up attacks against the army and against the Shia group Hezbollah.
Listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States since 2009, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the November 19 twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing at least 25 people and leaving more than 100 injured.
Shortly after Abbas’s arrest, security forces defused two car bombs, the first in the west Beirut neighbourhood of Corniche al-Mazraa, and another in the village of Arsal, near the border with Syria.
It said the car in Beirut contained around 100kg of explosives and explosive belts as well as mortar shells.
The statement said the army had also seized a second car containing three women “which came into Lebanese territory from Yabroud in Syria going to Beirut”.
A security source told the Reuters news agency “It was he [Abbas] who confessed and gave the location of these two cars. So far two cars have been discovered but many more will follow,”
Naim Abbas’s detention also follows the indictment of a Sunni Muslim sheikh, Omar Ibrahim al-Atrash, in connection with two suicide bombings in southern Beirut that killed at least six people.
In a late January statement on Atrash, the army had said Abbas was among three “wanted men” loyal to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
Although officially neutral in Syria’s conflict, Lebanon is deeply divided over the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad and has been struggling to stem the spillover of violence.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to support the regime, while Sunni fighters from al-Qaeda-linked groups including the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have carried out car bombs and suicide attacks against Hezbollah-dominated areas, killing scores of civilians.
The group’s former Saudi leader Majid al-Majid was arrested in early January and died days later from poor health in the wake of the Iranian embassy attack.