By Sami Moubayed
Back in 2003, observers in Washington claimed that Syria was bluffing when it said that it was facing a terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and its sister organisations. Syria was inflating the terrorist threat, they argued, to convince the Americans that Washington and Damascus had a common enemy in fundamentalist organisations preaching militant Islam, and to deflect charges of being a supporter of terrorism itself.
Syria in the crosshairs of islamist terror
Five years on, the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has turned out to be the main driving force fuelling militant Islam in the entire region. At the same time terrorism has finally hit Syria in earnest, with a suicide bombing carried out in Damascus on September 27, 2008, by religious fundamentalists from northern Lebanon. On that Saturday, a burgundy GMC with Iraqi license plates exploded near a security complex in the Sidi Miqdad neighbourhood on the road leading to Damascus Airport. Seventeen Syrians were killed – in addition to the Saudi suicide bomber – and 65 were injured in the deadliest terrorist attack to hit the Syrian capital since the early 1980s. The blast sent shivers down the spine of all Syrians. This was not just another terrorist attack in war-torn Baghdad. Nor was it yet another explosion in Beirut, a city accustomed to violence since the civil war broke out in 1975. This was taking place in the heart of Damascus, for long considered by many to be the safest city in the Arab world.
It had been believed that, thanks to strong security, al-Qaeda had not been able to infiltrate Syria or carry out deadly operations there such as the infamous bombings that claimed some 60 lives in the Jordanian capital Amman back in 2005. Long years of safety contributed to a general feeling that “things like that just don’t happen in peaceful Syria.” September 27 – the Syrians called it “Black Saturday” – proved them wrong and showed that terrorism, common in Baghdad, Beirut, Riyadh, and Amman, had now reached the doorsteps of Damascus.
Several theories immediately surfaced. According to one the real target had been a nearby Shiite shrine frequented by pilgrims from Iran and Iraq. The fact that the vehicle used for the attack had Iraqi license plates led many to believe that Sunni militants from Iraq were behind the blast. Another theory had it that the security complex where the explosion occurred had indeed been the terrorists’ target, i.e. that they had intentionally hit the security apparatus of the Syrian state.
The Lebanese link
On November 6, 2008, Syrian State TV put an end to the speculation when it broadcast the confessions of twelve terrorists who claimed to be behind the bombing. Ordinary people watching the news were surprised to learn that there was a “branch of al-Qaeda” in Syria and horrified to hear that Syrians had killed innocent people at Sidi Miqdad. One of the terrorists was a 24-year-old smuggler plying the mountain tracks between Syria and Lebanon. Another was an engineering student at the University of Kalamoon, a new private school in Syria. A third was a dental expert, a fourth an IT specialist.
The hit team was a combination of Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese, including Wafa, the daughter of Shaker al-Absi, founder of Fatah al-Islam, the very same organisation that back in 2007 had fought the Lebanese Army in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon for more than three months. The man who drove the dynamite-filled GMC into its target, they confessed, was a Saudi named Abu Aysha. They declared that they had been trying “to harm the Syrian regime” and had also plotted to hit the Central Bank of Syria, as well as gun down Italian and British diplomats based in Syria.
Yet they also hinted at wider implications: According to Wafa Absi, the only woman in the group, her father (in hiding since 2007) had received funds from the Future Movement in Lebanon which is headed by parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri. Her account basically repeated – and, arguably, confirmed – an account published in May 2007 by veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh, according to which Fatah al-Islam, the organisation blamed for the September 27 bombing, had been co-opted by Saudi National Security Advisor Bandar Bin Sultan and US Vice-President Dick Cheney. According to Hersh, the objective was to create a Sunni military wing to combat Hizbullah, if worse came to worse in Lebanon. Yet contrary to expectations, the group rebelled against its foreign masters and, back in 2007, took up arms in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. For the Syrians the conclusion was clear: The Future Movement of Saad Hariri, driven by their urge to avenge the alleged Syrian role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik El-Hariri – an accusation that Syria of course staunchly denies – had armed and dispatched some elements of Fatah al-Islam to carry out the attack in Syria. The Hariri camp in its turn accused the Syrians of having created Fatah al-Islam in order to wreak havoc in Lebanon, and it called the televised confessions “false accusations designed to politically assassinate us, as a prelude to physical assassination.”
The trail of islamist terror in Syria
Either way, what matters most is how strongly the perception of the threat has changed Syria. Suddenly ordinary Syrians began to recall a number of events that seemed to prove that their government had been right when, back in 2003, it had spoken of a terrorist threat to the country. In April 2004, terrorists (who had come from Iraq) struck at an abandoned UN building in the Mezzeh neighbourhood, killing a policeman and a young schoolteacher. In July 2005, a group of terrorists was apprehended on Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the Syrian capital, after a shoot-out that caused panic among picnickers. Earlier that year, Syria announced that it had arrested one man and killed another, both of which had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of Jund al-Sham, a militant Sunni organisation believed to have direct links to Syrian al-Qaeda member Abu Musaab al-Souri, a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In November 2006, a suicide bomber struck at the Syrian-Lebanese border, blowing himself up before he could be arrested by Syrian police.
Apart from those incidents, a number of attacks had apparently been thwarted by Syrian security forces: In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that authorities had apprehended a terrorist who had planned to attack the Palace of Justice. In June 2006, terrorists tried to attack the headquarters of Syrian National Television in the Umayyad Square right in heart of modern Damascus, and in September of the same year an attack on the US Embassy in Damascus was foiled by Syrian security forces.
At the time many in the White House dismissed these attacks as not very serious, claiming that when terrorists strike, they strike with precision, often killing tens or hundreds of civilians. Sceptics questioned the low casualty count – apparently, three dead were considered negligible – compared to the deadly score of 9/11, or in places like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Most observers close to the White House seemed to think that, for tactical reasons, the Syrians were grossly inflating the threat to their security, or even that the attacks were mere fabrications, staged to promote Syria’s rulers as opponents of militant Islam.
Those more familiar with Syrian politics and its ruling elite argued otherwise: Never, they said, would Syria put the reputation of its security apparatus at stake to pull off such a stunt. Syria takes great pride in its national security and would never doctor such horrifying attacks which then might inspire real terrorists.
The Abu Kamal attack: pursuing what?
Right on the heels of the September 2008 attack came the dramatic incident of October 26: Shortly after 4.30 PM, US helicopters violated Syrian airspace near the border town of Abu Kamal, fired at a building under construction and killed eight civilians. Two US aircraft landed and dispatched commandos who shot at the dead bodies. Syria immediately complained against this violation of its sovereignty and presented it to the media as an unprecedented act of aggression by the United States. Adding insult to injury, a military official in Washington claimed that the raid targeted a logistics base for foreign fighters in Iraq working with al-Qaeda. US sources floated the name of a certain Abu Ghadiyah, a top commander close to the late Abu Musaab al-Zarkawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria’s lax co-operation on the border, the US official added, led the Americans “to take the matter into their own hands.”
Yet, all of those killed in the village of Sukkariyya in Abu Kamal were Syrians – Dawoud Mohammad Abdullah died together with his four children. Even a staunch American ally such as French president Nicolas Sarkozy expressed “serious concern” about the raid and the casualties. To many observers something was not quite right about the tale the Americans told: For one, how could a “terrorist cell”, armed men trained in combat and brought to Syria, be gunned down in broad daylight without firing back a single bullet?
Moreover, it appears rather strange for the US to strike the one country in the region that has combated Islamic fundamentalism since the mid-1960s. Syria co-operated with the United States after 9/11 and helped it track down members of al-Qaeda who had been members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. US officials have stated that by providing the FBI with information, Syria has helped “save American lives.”
In September 2005, 24 members of al-Qaeda, all involved in 9/11, were convicted in Spain, among them the Syrian Imad Yarkas (42), who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for providing logistic support to al-Qaeda and conspiracy to commit murder on September 11. Many observers, though, thought the verdict handed down to Syrian journalist Tayseer Alouni of Al-Jazeera TV unfair. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for channelling money to al-Qaeda, yet many felt that the real reason behind this verdict was an interview he had conducted with Osama Bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
Yarkas, on the other hand, was accused of having organised a meeting in Tarragona, Spain, in July 2001, attended by Mohammad Atta, the pilot of one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. Police found books about jihad and newspaper clippings about al-Qaeda at Yarkas’s home. It was revealed that Yarkas had received a telephone call two weeks before September 11 from an accomplice called Farid Hilali, telling him in cryptic language, "We've entered the field of aviation and we have even cut the throat of the bird." German police concluded that this meant that the final stages of the terrorist attack were now underway. Other Syrian al-Qaeda operatives were businessman Ma'mun al-Darkazanli and Abu Musaab al-Souri, believed to be the man behind the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid and possibly involved in the brutal July 7, 2004, attacks in London.
Faced with such facts, one is left to wonder how the Syrian position, stated explicitly and repeatedly after September 11, that international terrorism was a threat and an enemy to Syria just as it was to the US, could be dismissed as a bluff or even a fabrication. Syrian authorities have argued consistently that the roots for such types of Islamist terrorism lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, which Baathist Syria combated and crushed back in 1982. For the United States however those killed in Damascus on September 27, 2008, were apparently not sufficient evidence that Syria, in its own best interest, would not have hesitated to arrest Abu Ghadiyah or any other jihadist operating on Syrian soil. Rather then share intelligence, Washington sent the Marines.
Islam(ism) in Syria: a mixed balance sheet
In fact, there is a long tradition of Islamist radicalism and violence in Syria, starting with Marwan Hadid and other Muslim commanders who led the combat against the Syrian regime from the 1960s onwards. Their generation was influenced by the founder of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustapha al-Sibaii. Unlike the newer generation of radicals, however, Sibaii was a gentleman politician and a civilised democrat. The second, much more violent generation included Abu Musaab al-Souri and Imad Yarkas, and it was still influenced by men like Hadid. The third generation is that of young people in their 20s and 30s who were indoctrinated by the older men and who carried out such attacks as Bali in 2002, Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in March 2004, and London in July 2004. Their inspiration is the Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, killed by the Americans in 2006 in Iraq; they are the wolves lurking in Syria, they are the ones who confessed to the Sidqi Miqdad bombing of September 27, 2008.
This is not to say that there are no moderate Islamic voices within Syria, people who combat, although with little success, the rising tide of Islamism in the Arab World. Shortly after 9/11 a sign was posted at the gates of the popular as-Sehour Mosque in Aleppo that read "No to explosions!" and showed a bomb crossed out by a red line. It was a sign of Syria's willingness to co-operate, of a moderate Islam that does not encourage terrorism. Further south in the capital Damascus there is another such example, a moderate Muslim cleric, Mohammad Habash, a member of the Syrian parliament and an advocate of moderate Islam.
Through clerics friendly to the regime such as Habash and the Aleppo-based preacher Mohammad Kamil al-Husayni, Syria has continued to promote its moderate version of Islam. With the help of men like these, Syria hopes to curb the influence of other Islamic groups within the country. One of the finest figures to emerge is Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of the Republic, who after 9/11 championed inter-faith dialogue between Islam and the West.
When the US raids Syrian territory, allegedly in “hot pursuit” of terrorists, all it does is silence the voice of moderate clerics such as these. At the same time such actions embolden fanatics like the ones who struck in the heart of Damascus last September – and those who take to the pulpits, chanting “Death to America!”.
Sami Moubayed teaches at the Faculty of International Relations at al-Kalamoun University. He is the author of numerous books on Syria, including “Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000” (Cune Press, 2005). He is also editor-in-chief of Forward, Syria’s leading English monthly and a biographer of former Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli.