Zureiqat appointed new emir of Abdullah Azzam Brigades

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The new emir of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Sirajuddin Zureiqat. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Monday, October 6, 2014

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB), the most prominent secret Lebanese jihadi organization, is trying to make a comeback. The group was dealt several security blows in recent months, reducing the threat it posed until further notice: The previous AAB emir was killed; its leading ideologue defected before he was arrested; while senior cadres in the group were captured by the security services successively. All this necessitated a change at the helm, which is how Sirajuddin Zureiqat has come to be appointed as its new emir.

The AAB stood singlehandedly behind several formidable attacks and bombings in Lebanon in the past two years. From the two car bombs in Bir al-Abed and Ruwais, to the twin suicide attack against the Iranian embassy and cultural center, the hallmarks of the al-Qaeda affiliated group were plain to see, bearing in mind that the statements issued by the AAB since its inception had consistently voiced its hostility to the Lebanese state “controlled by Hezbollah.”

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the extremist group benefited greatly from the movement led by Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir. Reports indicate that a large number of AAB operatives infiltrated Assir’s group, to obtain cover for their movements. Perhaps this explains the links found between suicide bombers who carried out attacks in Lebanon and Assir’s group.

According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, the AAB was the first group to be tasked by the leadership of al-Qaeda to carry out attacks in Lebanon. When al-Nusra Front and ISIS were carrying out bombings in Beirut “to send warning messages to Hezbollah,” such as with the explosion in al-Arid Street, the leadership of AAB and its operatives were planning meticulously to deliver painful blows to targets within Hezbollah’s strongholds. Some of these plots were foiled, most notably after the capture of the Naameh cell, which was in the process of rigging a car bomb to detonate in the southern suburbs.

This situation did not last very long. With help from German and US intelligence, the Lebanese army intelligence – assisted on multiple occasions by the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces, the General Security, and Hezbollah’s own security service – dealt harsh blows to the group.

First, its Saudi emir Majed al-Majed was arrested, before he died in a hospital. Then a series of arrests weakened the group’s main hierarchy. After Majed, the group’s senior Sharia adviser Jamal Daftardar was arrested, followed by Bilal Kayed, who is reportedly an explosives expert.

Another major setback for the group was the defection of Naim Abbas from the AAB several months before his arrest. Recall that Abbas had left the group because of a dispute with Sheikh Toufiq Taha, and his objection to appointing Sheikh Sirajuddin Zureiqat to a leadership position in the organization, as in Abbas’s view Zureiqat was not qualified for the post.

The group also suffered another blow in the most recent battles in Ersal, at Lebanese Army Barracks 83 specifically, where AAB lost 2 of its most prominent leaders, Abu Elias al-Ersali and a figure from al-Hamid clan. According to reports, the duo had been appointed by Zureiqat personally to plan operations and train recruits.

In addition, there was a wave of defections from the AAB ranks in the direction of al-Nusra Front and ISIS. The reason behind these defections, according to sources, is that some former AAB members were greatly impressed by the methods of al-Nusra and ISIS, which achieved rapid advances, in contrast to the AAB’s “patient and slow” methods. The most prominent of the defectors were Naim Abbas, Ahmed Taha, and Wassim Naim.

According to the sources, the defectors left AAB and joined ISIS, bearing in mind that other sources had reported that Abbas was an independent fixer who worked for both al-Nusra and ISIS without pledging allegiance to either group. Ahmed Taha – who was known as Abu al-Walid before he adopted the alias Abu Hassan al-Filastini for security reasons – rose to infamy after becoming the emir of ISIS in Qalamoun. Taha started his career with the AAB alongside his close associate Naim Abbas, before they left the group, together. Ahmad Taha was killed at the start of the clashes in Ersal.

Youssef Shabayta, another close associate of Naim Abbas, remains active in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Other associates in the camp include Rami Ward, Ahmed al-Abed, and Abdul-Rahman Haidar. Reports also indicate that the singer-turned-jihadi Fadel Shaker had gotten very close to the AAB, and even joined the group for a while, before he split with the group recently. The same reports say his brother Abdul-Rahman Shamandour plays a key role in the organization.

According to the sources, the group’s cadres had dispersed at some point. The sources said that Sheikh Toufiq Taha aka Abu Mohammed was taken by surprise by the attack against the Iranian embassy, which was carried out without his knowledge. The sources also said that Zureiqat went over Taha’s head in many matters later, bearing in mind that Zureiqat had a major role in planning the embassy operation. After Taha distanced himself from the attacks carried out by the group in Lebanon, his role diminished and was limited to leading the Ziad Jarrah Brigades of the AAB.

Thus, the sources say, “the lack of leaders and successive blows forced the organization to choose a new leader, who was Sheikh Zureiqat, appointed as the general commander of the AAB.” Zureiqat was initially known as the spokesperson for the Hussein Bin Ali Brigades. The announcement regarding his appointment as the leader of AAB came as a shock to many jihadis, who were divided between those who saw him as knowledgeable and wise, and others who believe he has made many mistakes throughout his tenure.

Zureiqat, who is in his twenties and hails from Beirut, lives between Zabadani and Qalamoun nowadays. He had been previously arrested by Lebanese army intelligence in Beirut in 2011, before he was released upon mediation from Sheikh Shadi al-Masri, an aide to the former mufti of the republic Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani.

Today, the Lebanese jihadis are turning their gaze to the emergent emir, who has consistently attacked Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on Twitter. His most prominent appearance in recent times was in the mountains near Ersal two weeks ago. At the time, he addressed the soldiers kidnapped in Ersal, and said, “The mujahideen took Iraq in days, and in days they can be in the center of Beirut too.”

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter: @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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