The Abdullah Azzam Brigades: Behind the Terrorist Group That Bombed Iran’s Beirut Embassy

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Sharif Karim / Reuters

A forensic inspector collects evidence at the site of two suicide bombings near Iran's embassy in Beirut on Nov. 20, 2013

The al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades took responsibility for Tuesday’s suicide-bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, raising fears that the Lebanese-based Sunni group may unleash a new spate of religious conflict in a country that is still recovering from its own sectarian civil war. The attack — which killed 25, including an Iranian diplomat — injured 150 and caused widespread damage in a quiet residential neighborhood. Sirajeddine Zuraikat, the group’s unofficial spokesman and religious leader crowed about the success of two “heroes” of the Sunni community on Twitter (his account, @sirajeddineZ, has since been suspended) and vowed attacks would continue.

The attack is but the latest spectacle brought about by a loosely aligned terrorist group with branches in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In 2012, the organization was declared both a Foreign Terrorist Organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group by the U.S. Department of State. Two of the branches were singled out: the Saudi Arabian wing for a 2010 attack on a Japanese oil tanker off the coast of Oman and the Lebanese wing for a series of rocket attacks against Israel.

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Formed in 2004 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades initially set out to attack Western interests in the Middle East and the Levant. In 2005 they claimed credit in tandem with another jihadi group for a coordinated bombing at the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 88. The organization’s mandate has since expanded, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and a Sunni uprising in multiethnic Lebanon. In 2009 the brigades took responsibility for an attack on the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, that killed 17, though it is not entirely clear how close the relationship is between the Pakistani branch and the others.

By 2012 members of the group were thought to be in Syria, fighting alongside rebels aligned against the regime of President Bashar Assad. That same year they issued an audio message threatening any Lebanese Shi‘ites caught fighting on Assad’s behalf, a clear reference to the Lebanon-based Shi‘ite militia Hizballah. Hizballah’s main backer is Iran; yesterday’s attack on the Iranian embassy appears to be an escalation of that threat.

But the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have continued to dabble in their anti-Israel activities as well, claiming credit for a series of rocket attacks from Lebanon on Israeli targets on Aug. 22. “This operation comes within the series of our jihadi work directed at the Jews,” they said in a statement translated by SITE and posted by the Long War Journal.

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The brigades are named after Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s Palestinian mentor whose charisma and oratory drew thousands of foreign fighters to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion in the mid-’80s, creating the core of al-Qaeda. He also helped found Hamas. Azzam was assassinated in a bomb attack in Peshawar in 1989. Though no one knows for certain who was behind the assassination, many blame Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda. The two men argued frequently over the meaning and goals of jihad. Azzam’s son-in-law and confidant, the Algerian mujahid Abdullah Anas, told TIME in 2009 that his father-in-law would be appalled by the current justifications of jihad practiced by groups similar to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. “He called people to fight in Afghanistan because it was occupied by the Soviets. If he saw what happened in Iraq and what is happening in Palestine he would say the same thing. But what is going on in the name of jihad, killing civilians, kidnapping, hijacking airplanes, explosions in the public places — that is not what Abdullah Azzam called a jihad.” Azzam, said Anas, never believed Muslims should kill Muslims, no matter their sect. It’s likely that he wouldn’t have been too pleased to see his name attached to Tuesday’s attack in Lebanon, either.

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