BEIRUT — In another sign that al Qaida-linked groups are moving from Syria into Lebanon, the Lebanese army announced Wednesday that it had intercepted two cars loaded with hundreds of pounds of explosives for suicide attacks, one of which was being driven to Beirut from the Syrian city of Yabroud.
Security officials said the arrest of Naim Abbas, who was described as the mastermind behind several car bombings that have targeted Shiite Muslim neighborhoods in Beirut, also helped uncover a cache of rockets that the group planned to launch to disrupt a memorial service that the militant group Hezbollah had scheduled for this Sunday to commemorate fighters who died in Syria and in conflicts with Israel.
A Lebanese army statement said it had learned of the plots from Abbas after his arrest.
Immediately after the start of his interrogation, Abbas admitted having prepared a car bomb to detonate it later, the statement said. The car found in Corniche al Mazraa was dismantled by experts, with about 100 kilograms 220 pounds of explosives and explosive belts on board, in addition to a number of shells.
The army also uncovered a second car heading from Yabroud in Syria into Lebanese territory and then Beirut, the statement said. Three women were inside the car and delivering it to suicide bombers.
Security troops led by Lebanese army special forces could be seen cordoning off neighborhoods Wednesday in central Beirut as apartments linked to suspects were raided and arrests were made around the country throughout the day. Local television showed security forces raiding a village south of the city in search of suspects thought to be linked to Abbas, while others searched a metal shop north of the capital, where they discovered the rockets and timers allegedly intended for Sundays attack.
A government security official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he isnt authorized to talk to reporters, said many more arrests were possible in what had been the biggest break for authorities since the bombs targeting Hezbollah-controlled areas began last summer. At least six suicide bombers have targeted the Shiite group this year over its military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Authorities tied Abbas to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a group suspected of al Qaida ties that claimed responsibility for the November suicide bombing of the Iranian embassy here.
The government official said Abbas arrest had started with a tip. A Hezbollah official confirmed separately that the tip had come from a Hezbollah surveillance team.
The Hezbollah official, who couldnt be named under the conditions of the interview, said the militant group had been attempting to find Abbas since the arrest late last year of Majid al Majid, a Saudi citizen whom Lebanese authorities described as the head of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Majid died while in custody of what authorities variously have described as injuries suffered in Syria or a previous illness.
The resistance has been monitoring many of these gangs for years, the Hezbollah official said, referring to his organization. We were working with (military intelligence) to find this man since the arrest of Majid.
The arrest last week of a previously little-known Sunni Muslim cleric from the Bekaa Valley, Omar al Atrash, apparently provided key information that led to Abbas, the government official said. Atrash was suspected of working with Abdullah Azzam and other militant groups fighting in Syria, including the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The information that led to the arrests of Majid and Atrash led to information about how their groups were operating, the official said. Now we have captured the bomb maker.
Last week, a military prosecutor officially charged Atrash with planning two suicide attacks that killed at least six people in Beirut last year.
At least one man, thought to be the aspiring suicide bomber, was arrested with the Beirut car bomb, while three women were arrested while driving the second bomb when it was intercepted in eastern Lebanon. Lebanese news reports said the women admitted to planning a triple suicide bombing somewhere in Beirut.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero