By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, Jan 2 (Reuters) - The Saudi leader of an al-Qaeda spinoff group arrested in Lebanon this week was a key fundraiser in the Gulf for militants fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, official and private experts say.
The Lebanese army arrested Muhammad al-Majid, who leads the Lebanon-based Abdullah Azzam Brigades which claimed a double suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut last November.
That attack was part of a spiral of sectarian violence in Lebanon that appears to be a spillover from Syria's civil war. In the latest incident, a car bomb killed at least five people in a Shi'ite Muslim stronghold in southern Beirut on Thursday.
Laith Alkhouri of Flashpoint Partners, a private group which monitors militant websites for business and government clients, said Majid had "been behind a great deal of financing to the jihadists fighting in Syria."
U.S. and European officials say that the most militant Sunni factions fighting Assad's forces, including the Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both aligned with al-Qaeda, are being financed largely by wealthy families in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.
A U.S. official who declined to be identified said Majid's arrest was, "at least a temporary setback, but certainly not a death blow, to the Ziad al-Jarrah Battalions, one of the most powerful Sunni terrorist groups in Lebanon."
"Under Majid's leadership, the group exported a degree of the sectarian carnage of the Syrian civil war to Lebanon by targeting Iranian and Hezbollah interests. At the same time, this is a faction that has demonstrated its resilience in the past, and Majid's experienced deputies may well step up to the plate in his absence," the official said.
The Saudi government has made serious efforts to block fundraising for extreme Islamist Syrian rebels, U.S. officials said, but Gulf state governments have been more tolerant.
Alkhouri said that over the last two years, fundraisers based in Kuwait, often using Kuwaiti bank accounts, have been active raising funds for anti-Assad forces using social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype.
In June 2012, Majid issued an audio message in which he criticized the Saudi government for impeding a fundraising campaign several prominent Wahhabi Muslim scholars based in the Gulf had launched in support of Syrian rebels.
According to Alkhouri, in his audio message Majid exhorted listeners to donate funds to Syrian rebels, saying: "No one can prevent you from supporting our brothers in Syria, and each one of you can collect money from his acquaintances, relatives and women, and deliver it to those he trusts from the people of Syria and the countries surrounding it."
Alkhouri said Majid went on to spell out a Kuwait link, saying that for "He who does not know anyone, then in Kuwait there is good activity in gathering money for our brothers in Syria, led by known scholars and their names are declared and reaching them is easy, and anyone can travel to them."
In a subsequent audio recording released in August 2012, Alkhouri said, Majid had implicitly threatened Lebanese Shi'ites, whose ostensible allies, the government of Iran and the Hezbollah movement, have strongly backed Assad.
Last year, the Azzam Brigades, named after an associate of the late Osama bin Laden, were formally designated by the U.S, State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
The State Department said the group was divided into two branches: one called the Yusuf al-'Uyayri Batallions, named after a founder of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Lebanon based Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions, named after one of the airliner hijackers who attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. (Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)