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Soldier on the Chessboard

January 9, 2014

 by Avi Melamed

Lebanese authorities announced that Majid Al-Majid (his full name is Majid bin Muhammad Majid al-Qahtani), the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade Jihadist group and the top Al-Qaeda commander in Lebanon – died after being arrested.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigade is a Sunni Islamic militant group affiliated with the Global Jihad movement and Al-Qaeda with cells in countries throughout the Arab world. It was created in 2009 by a Saudi militant named Saleh bin Abdullah Al-Qar’awi AKA Al-Seif Al-Bater (“The Cutting Sword”). In Saudi Arabia they operate under the name of The Companies of Yusuf al ‘Uyayri (or Al-Ubeiri), named after an Al-Qaeda senior leader who was killed in Saudi Arabia in 2003. The founder of Abdullah Azzam, Al-Qar’awi, was seriously wounded by a US drone strike, and was replaced in 2012 by Majid Al-Majid Al-Qahtani, a member of the Saudi most wanted terrorist list.

In Lebanon they operate under the name of The Companies of Ziyad Al-Jarrah (named after one of the 9/11 terrorists who was of Lebanese origin). The leader of the Lebanese branch is a man named Tawfik Taha AKA Abu Muhammad Tah; their major base is located in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian Refugee Camp in south Lebanon; they have launched rocket attacks on northern Israel; they have simultaneously attacked Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Lebanon; they claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013; and claimed responsibility for killing Hassan Al-Laqis, a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut in December 2013. In Lebanon they have a couple dozen militants; they cooperate with other Jihadist groups as well as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria; according to an unconfirmed information, Al- Majid secretly met the leader of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani (read more about Joulani in my recent Intelligence Bulletin Where is the Leader of Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Ain al-Hilweh Camp; in a possibly related incident, in December 2013 the two organizations claimed joint responsibility for shooting rockets on Hezbollah targets in the city of Al-Harmal in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is agitated that the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon harbor Jihadist groups that attack Hezbollah. As a result, relations between Hezbollah and the major Palestinian groups in Lebanon – Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad – are tense. In my article The Alliance of Fear in Lebanon, published in June 2013, I describe the reasons for those tense relations. However, neither Hezbollah, nor the major Palestinian organizations, are in a strong enough position to risk an all-out conflict. This explains the fact that both sides continue to make substantial efforts to avoid confrontation. So, though the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and claimed responsibility for killing Hezbollah’s senior commander Al-Laqis, Hezbollah preferred to blame Israel and Saudi Arabia, rather than risk an open confrontation with Abdullah Azzam in Lebanon.

However, behind the scenes, Hezbollah is putting major pressure on both the Lebanese authorities as well as the most powerful Palestinian organizations to restrain Jihadist groups such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. So it is possible, that once Al- Majid was out of his stronghold, the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian Refugee Camp, the Lebanese authorities hurried to seize the opportunity to arrest him without risking a military operation in the Camp. In 2007 the Lebanese army crushed the Fatah al-Islam Salafi Jihadist group in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp in northern Lebanon. During three months of fierce fighting between May and August 2007, some 400 people were killed and the camp was destroyed.

Could the arrest, and death, of Al-Majid lead to a similar scenario in the Ain al-Hilweh Refugee Camp?

I believe that the answer is no. In the current circumstances, neither the Lebanese government, nor Hezbollah, nor the major Palestinian organizations in Lebanon, wish to bring about such a scenario. They all understand that Lebanon is a ticking time bomb, and such a move may be the spark that will cause a massive explosion.

The arrest of Al-Majid needs to be viewed in the wider perspective of what is going on in the region. Lebanon has become the stage for a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Therefore, though there are different accounts of his health, arrest and death ranging from the official Lebanese statement that Al-Majid was arrested on December 26 or 27 and expired in custody due to a pre-existing medical condition; to an unconfirmed report that Al-Majid was injured during a battle in Syria and was hospitalized under a false name in Beirut and was arrested when he left the hospital; to another unconfirmed report that Al-Majid was sick and on December 15was secretly transferred from Ain al-Hilweh to a hospital in Beirut by his own people who launched an attack on a Lebanese army checkpoint in the vicinity of the camp as a diversion designed to prevent anyone from finding out about his condition and whereabouts – Arab journalists and analysts from across the Arab world who understand the larger picture, are enthralled with the story of Al-Majid’s death and analyses, theories, and conspiracy theories are flooding websites and social media platforms.

Here are examples of two totally different theories:

Some argue that Al-Majid was a Saudi agent.

Those who support that theory argue that the Lebanese authorities would never risk Saudi support by arresting Al-Majid unless they had received a green light from the Saudis – especially after the Saudis recently announced a three billion dollar donation to the Lebanese army – the biggest support the Lebanese army has ever received.

The above theory has one major obstacle to overcome:

The Abdullah Azzam Brigade attacked Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Beirut. The Saudis loathe Iran and their proxy, Hezbollah and clearly shed no tear – to say the least – over that attack.

Why then would the Saudis then be interested in neutralizing their seemingly efficient agent, Al-Majid?

Those that say he was a Saudi agent claim that the Iranians threatened Saudi Arabia with brutal retaliation for the attacks al Majid orchestrated. Thus, the Saudis came to the conclusion that that Al-Majid had gone too far and that his leadership had become counterproductive to Saudi interests. The asset became a burden and the time had come to restrain him.

Some commentators claim that Al-Majid was actually an Iranian agent.

Obviously the inevitable question is then, if Al-Majid was an Iranian agent, then why would Al-Majid’s group attack Iran and Hezbollah in Beirut?

Those that claim he was an Iranian agent argue that the attacks on the Iranian Embassy as well as on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon were an Iranian plot designed to support Hezbollah’s claim that they are involved in the war in Syria to protect Lebanon and the Lebanese from Militant Sunni groups – such as Abdullah Azzam.

The exact circumstances of Al-Majid’s capture and death are shrouded by mist. However, two things are quite clear:

First, sooner or later, Abdullah Azzam will retaliate. In the short run, Al-Majid’s death may somewhat impact Abdulaah Azzam’s operational capacity – but will definitely not paralyze it. In that context it should be noted, that as of the writing of this article, no formal announcement has been made by Abdullah Azzam Brigades regarding the death of Al-Majid. According to unconfirmed information, the next leader of the Lebanese branch will be the group’s reported second in command, the aforementioned Tawfik Taha AKA Abu Muhammad Tah, based at the Ain al-Hilweh Camp.

However, in the long run, it is likely to expect that following its leader’s death, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades will be more motivated than ever to continue – and perhaps increase – their attacks on Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon.

Second, Al-Majid was, at the end of the day, just another disposable soldier on a large chessboard.

**************************

Former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Intelligence Official and educator, Avi Melamed is currently an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst and regional expert specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region.

In the public sector, Avi has held various government and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions, including serving as Senior Advisor on Arab Affairs to two Jerusalem mayors. In the private sector Avi continues to facilitate projects and cooperation throughout the region. He is also the founder and creator of Feenjan – Israel speaks Arabic, a website in which he reaches out to the Arab world in Arabic about Israel.

Avi’s tours and briefings, based on Arab sources, decades of field experience, policy design and intimate connections throughout the Arab world, offer an insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and future regional implications.

Avi has degrees from The Carmel Institute for Military Research, George Mason University, and The Hebrew University and is a frequent contributor in Arabic, Hebrew and English to many news outlets including Al-Arrabiya, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CBN, I-24 News, the Times of Israel, USA Today, etc.

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