Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who are the Abdullah Azzam Brigades?

[Originally posted at NOW]

I wager that not too many people who aren’t unusually interested in militant Islam had heard of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades when the group’s spokesman took to Twitter to claim the twin suicide bombings that killed 23 people outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy yesterday. Who, then, are these supposedly al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists?

The short answer is that nobody really knows. The slightly longer answer is that “Abdullah Azzam” may be more of a brand name than a single, identifiable organization (rather like al-Qaeda itself, in that respect). Abdullah Azzam himself was a Palestinian contemporary of Osama bin Laden’s, or rather a mentor of his. It was as Azzam’s guest than Bin Laden first arrived in Afghanistan shortly after 1979 to wage jihad against the Soviets – a campaign for which Azzam remained an important proselytizer and recruiter throughout the 1980s. By the time of his 1989 assassination in Peshawar, al-Qaeda as we know it today had already taken shape in embryonic form.

While some sources, including the US State Department, cite the founding year of the Brigades as 2009, attacks by groups calling themselves the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades” have been carried out across the Arab world for almost a decade. These include the 2004 truck bombings of the Hilton in Egypt’s Taba; the 2005 car bombings of hotels in Sharm al-Shaikh; the 2005 launching of rockets at US warships in Jordan’s Aqaba; and the 2009 launching of rockets at Israel from south Lebanon in the name of a sub-faction, the Ziad al-Jarrah battalion (named after the Lebanese national who was among the 19 hijackers on 9/11). They also took credit for the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. More recently, they have claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb targeting a Hezbollah convoy in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley this July and the firing of four rockets at Israel from south Lebanon in August, having previously denied conducting a similar rocket attack in December 2011 and bombing an Italian UNIFIL patrol in May 2011. Adding to the general murkiness is that yesterday’s attacks were carried out by the previously-unknown ‘Hussein bin Ali’ sub-faction, named (sarcastically?) after the grandson of the Prophet whose death in the Battle of Karbala was commemorated by Shiites just last week during Ashura.

Like almost all Islamist groups, the Brigades’ principal focus has shifted to Syria since the outbreak of the war. According to Jihadology’s Aaron Zelin, the Brigades have been actively engaged in the fighting there since at least August 2012, though they don’t appear to have anything like the prominence of other jihadist outfits like the Islamic State of al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nonetheless, there have for some time been indications that the group might attempt an ‘operation’ such as yesterday’s. In the summer of 2012, they released a “Message to the Shia of Lebanon,” imploring members of the sect to abandon the “criminal” Hezbollah and Amal leadership and cease their alliance with the “oppressive” Assad regime that threatened the “Sunni people,” warning that the “consequences” of siding with Damascus would “intensify upon you.” Similarly, after the roadside bomb in July the Brigades released a statement warning it was but one of “a series of attacks [to come] against Hezbollah that will include every part of Lebanon.”

Few took these threats seriously at the time. But after yesterday, when the group’s spokesman pledged that such “operations in Lebanon will continue” until the “withdrawal of [Hezbollah] from Syria” and the release of the Brigades’ members from Lebanese jails, Lebanon’s security agencies may well start paying them much closer attention henceforth.

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