BEIRUT — Lebanon took more steps Wednesday that officials hope will block a plan by al Qaida-linked Syrian rebels to carry out bomb attacks on Lebanon’s army and its Shiite Muslim communities.
A Lebanese security official said military intelligence on Wednesday arrested a commander for the Nusra Front, the official al Qaida affiliate in Syria and one of the many factions fighting there to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The official, who identified the commander as Mashari Sweidan, said authorities believed Sweidan had planned a suicide attack Saturday that killed three Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint outside the Shiite town of Hermel. The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter, said the cell Sweidan was part of was planning more attacks on the army and Hezbollah.
Sweidan’s arrest came on the heels of the arrest Wednesday morning in Beirut of a Syrian rebel activist, Abu Omar al Homsi, who’s alleged to have close ties to Nusra and al Qaida.
Lebanon has seen nearly a dozen suicide attacks since last summer that have primarily targeted Shiite neighborhoods associated with Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of men to Syria to fight on Assad’s behalf. Most of the suicide attacks in Beirut, including one on the Iranian Embassy, have been claimed by a previously little known al Qaida-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
But a series of arrests have mostly gutted that original cell, according to the security official, who pointed to the arrest of Majid al Majid, the onetime commander of the group who died in custody in January, the arrest last week of his replacement, Naim Abbas, and Monday’s indictment by a military court of a Lebanese cleric, Omar al Atrash, on charges of supporting the group. The official also cited the recent interception of two car bombs that Lebanese officials said had been assembled in the Syrian town of Yabroud, in an area known as Qalamoun.
“The Abdullah Azzam network is mostly finished,” the security official said. “We found their people here in Lebanon who would direct targets and move the booby-trapped cars from Qalamoun to Beirut. There are still some people we want to find, and there might be another bomb from them, but they’re almost finished. Now we are concerned about Nusra.”
Over the past two months, Nusra announced the formation of a new Lebanese affiliate to conduct operations against Hezbollah-related targets. In a statement released Monday, the head of Nusra, Abu Mohammed al Jolani, warned Lebanon that the presence of Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield and the Lebanese army’s clear cooperation with the group means both have become legitimate military targets.
“The oppression that Hezbollah is committing in all areas of Lebanon and Syria and the crimes that were committed . . .are no secret to any well-informed person,” Jolani said in an audio statement that analysts believe is genuine. He said Hezbollah troops had moved into Syria “under the gaze of Lebanese authorities” and that the Lebanese army was guarding Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to make up for the absence of Hezbollah troops. That made the army accountable for “crimes in Syria,” Jolani said.
While the army is expected to remain neutral among Lebanon’s many rival factions, it’s long coordinated its operations and security plans with Hezbollah, including last June, when Hezbollah fighters entered a battle in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon alongside army troops against supporters of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric, Ahmad Assir.
The open collaboration infuriated many in Lebanon’s Sunni community, and the country’s increasingly disenfranchised Sunni population often cites the incident as proof that the army and Hezbollah are stacked against it. Since that clash, at least five of Assir’s followers have conducted suicide attacks against the army in Sidon or against Hezbollah in Beirut.
Assir escaped arrest in June, and his location is unknown. When Jolani announced that Nusra was expanding its operations to Lebanon, he named Assir as the leader of Nusra here.
“We knew who many of the Abdullah Azzam guys were before these car bombs,” said a Hezbollah security official, who also lacks permission to talk openly to Western journalists. “So helping the army arrest them has not been that hard. The problem now is that there are new groups entering from Syria that we don’t know. They say Assir is in charge, but we know it’s really Jolani and other guys. Assir is a puppet for the foreign takfiris,” he said, using the Arabic word for radical Sunnis.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero