By RYAN LUCAS
BEIRUT — DNA tests confirmed that a man in government custody is the alleged leader of an al-Qaida-linked group that has conducted attacks across the Middle East before shifting its focus to Syria’s civil war, Lebanese authorities said Friday.
The suspected militant, Majid al-Majid, is the purported commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and one of the 85 most-wanted individuals in his native Saudi Arabia. The U.S. State Department designated the group a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, freezing any assets it holds in the United States and banning Americans from doing business with the group.
The brigades have claimed responsibility for attacks throughout the region, including the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and several rocket strikes from Lebanon into Israel. The most recent attack claimed by the group was the double suicide bombing in November outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
Reports first surfaced in Lebanon early this week that authorities had detained al-Majid. Security officials eventually confirmed that they had a suspect in custody, but said they were not certain of his identity.
Lebanese and Saudi officials said DNA samples taken from the suspect would be checked against al-Majid’s relatives in Saudi Arabia, and the Lebanese army said Friday that tests established the detainee was indeed al-Majid. Lebanese officials still have not disclosed when or where he was taken into custody, and his current location has not been made public.
The biggest winners from his arrest may be Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who have been the main focus of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades since al-Majid took the reins of the group in mid-2012, said Mustafa Alani, the director of the security department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.
The group was a relatively small outfit under its previous leader, Saleh al-Qarawi, Alani said. Al-Majid, who is believed to have serious kidney problems that require dialysis, managed to build it into a larger player.
“It’s become much bigger. Majid al-Majid was able to recruit a lot of Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese,” Alani said. “He’s more active, and far more clever than Qarawi.”
Part of al-Majid’s recruiting success can be attributed to the war in Syria, where a rebel movement largely composed of Sunni Muslims is fighting to topple a government dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect and his Shiite allies from Lebanon and Iraq. The conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions across the Middle East, and acted as a magnet for Sunni militants and their Shiite counterparts.
While the Abdullah Azzam Brigades originally espoused an anti-Western and anti-Saudi rhetoric, the group set its sights under al-Majid on the fight to oust Assad, Alani said.
Last spring, after Hezbollah announced that it was fighting alongside Assad’s troops against the Syrian rebels, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades began to target Hezbollah as well — and by extension, the group’s Iranian patrons.
“Since Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, they started to focus their attention on Hezbollah,” Alani said. “Before that, they had no problem with Hezbollah.”
The brigades’ sharpest blow against Hezbollah came Nov. 19, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens. In a claim of responsibility for the attack, the brigades threatened more strikes unless Hezbollah’s fighters were withdrawn from Syria.
Iran has welcomed al-Majid’s arrest, and on Friday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Islamic Republic is planning to send a team to Lebanon to assist in the process of questioning al-Majid. The official IRNA news agency said Zarif made the remarks in a telephone conversation with his Lebanese counterpart.
Earlier in the day, families of those killed in the embassy bombing demanded that al-Majid, who has not been charged in the attack, be tried in Lebanon and not be sent to his homeland.
Zeinab al-Husseini, whose husband Bilal Kaddaha was killed in the attack, said putting al-Majid on trial in Lebanon would give peace to the families and could act as a deterrent against more violence.
“My husband will not return and I want this man to be executed so that my husband can rest in his grave,” said al-Husseini, who had a photo of her late husband pinned to her shirt. “Putting him on trial will be a lesson to others who might think of carrying out terrorist attacks here.”
The embassy bombing is but one of several attacks to hit Lebanon in recent months. The violence has hit both Shiite and Sunni areas, and has added further fuel to sectarian tensions in the country that already are simmering over the war in Syria.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.