Tuesday's double suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed at least 23 people and throws yet more fuel on the smoldering political fires of Lebanon. But what do we know about the group behind it?
The only claim of responsibility for the attack so far was made by Sirajeddin Zureiqat, a Salafi preacher with a long history of involvement in jihadi causes. On his Twitter account (then promptly deleted) he wrote:
The Abdullah Azzam Battalions’ Hussein bin Ali Companies stand behind the attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut. It was a twin martyr operation performed by two heroes of the Sunni people of Lebanon. These operations in Lebanon will continue, God permitting, until two demands are met:
- The withdrawal of members of Iran's party [i.e. Hezbollah] from Syria.
- The release of our prisoners from the prisons of oppression in Lebanon.
It fits well with the kind of rhetoric heard from the group in recent years. Zureiqat himself has issued a long list of statements on behalf of the Abdullah Azzam Battalions, threatening Iran and Hezbollah, and railing against Shia Muslims more generally.
Creation of the Abdullah Azzam Battalions
The group is named after Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who was a major recruiter of ”mujahedin” for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who helped formulate modern Salafi-jihadi theology.
However, the modern faction has no direct links to Azzam, who died in 1989. It was apparently created after the US invasion of Iraq, by activists linked to global jihadi causes and al-Qaeda. The name was first used to claim responsibility for a string of attacks against tourists in Egypt in 2004-2005. However, the Egyptian network shriveled quickly under government repression, leaving a related group of fighters to pick up the mantle in Lebanon.
This faction had its roots among foreign fighters in the Iraq war and many were linked to Abu Moussaab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda network (which is today, after several transmutations, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). Saleh al-Qaraawi, a Saudi Iraq veteran born in Bureida, emerged as their leader. After being horribly mutilated in an explosion in 2012, he was succeeded by Majid al-Majid, another veteran Saudi jihadi.
With most of its cadre allegedly holed up in the large and lawless Ein al-Hilwe camp in southern Lebanon, this reorganized version of the Abdullah Azzam Battalions began claiming responsibility for occasional rocket fire against northern Israel from 2009 onwards. But despite issuing a constant stream of threats, false claims of responsibility, and statements hinting at a vast global network of fighters, very few more advanced attacks took place and the group could show little activity outside Lebanon.
Limited Activity So Far
Eventually, the Abdullah Azzam Battalions came to be seen as just one of a host of small and squabbling jihadi factions in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, none of which managed to grow into a potent force. In the words of Lucas Winter, “[t]he group’s attacks since 2005 have been small-scale and of minimal impact yet its claims of responsibility have been grandiose.”
Not even the Syrian civil war seemed able to breathe life into the Abdullah Azzam Battalions. The group has issued a number of statements calling for jihad against Bashar al-Assad, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and so on, but so far it has demonstrated precious little activity on the ground in Syria. Even on some jihadi forums, the Abdullah Azzam Battalions have been disparaged as all talk and no action.
The attack on the Iranian embassy may have changed that, bringing a Syria-style bombing to the heart of Lebanon. If Zureiqat’s claims of responsibility hold up—and he has promised that a more detailed statement is on the way—the Abdullah Azzam Battalions have now proved that they can be a serious threat to security in Lebanon and that they will do their utmost to fan the flames of political and sectarian strife.