Words Fay Ferguson
Photos Adel Samara
The massive car bomb which killed 17 people in Damascus in September shocked the country. Many fear Syria, a country renowned for its internal stability, is being increasingly targeted by extremist forces.
On September 27 at 8.45am, a deadly bomb blast ripped through a crowded intersection on the main road leading out of Damascus to the international airport, killing 17 people and injuring 14 others. Quick to the scene, Syrian state TV broadcast live pictures of the bloody aftermath, shocking a nation which had not witnessed such violence on its own soil in 20 years.
It soon emerged a suicide bomber driving a car packed with 200kg of explosives was responsible for the attack which Syrian authorities quickly labelled the work of a “Takfiri” (Sunni fundamentalist) group. Five weeks later on November 6, Syrian state television aired an hour-long programme in which 12 people from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen confessed to planning the bombing with the purpose of “harming the Syrian government”. They claimed to be members of Lebanon’s al-Qaeda orientated Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni fundamentalist group which came to prominence in the summer of 2007 during clashes with the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, north of Tripoli.
The confessions, accompanied with video footage of the cell’s weapons arsenal, passports, bank statements and cash stockpile, worked to show that Syrian authorities are adept at catching those who jeopardise internal security. It also revealed a terror threat was manifesting itself on two adjoining playing fields. First, the jihadi cause was finally bleeding its way through the Iraqi borders as fighters seek new battlefronts. Second, the attack was potentially the bloody face of anti-Syrian power politics. Whatever the motives, Syria, a country renowned for its domestic tranquillity in a troubled region, now seems to be under threat from the same kind of brutal violence that is all too common in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.
Anti-Syrian power politics
The televised confession of Wafa al-Abssi, daughter of notorious Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi, alleged the group was financially supported by Saudi sympathisers and Syrian critics in the Lebanese government. Abssi claimed Lebanon’s Future Movement, led by pro-Western parliament majority leader Saad Hariri, provided funds to Fatah al-Islam. Hariri’s Future Movement, known for its close relationship with the Saudi royal family, has long accused Syria of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, an allegation Damascus denies.
Mazen Bilal, a Syrian political analyst, said radical Islamist groups emerging in Lebanon in recent years could be the new infantry on a silent battlefield. “We have a kind of intelligence war in the region,” he said. “Some of the big players are at odds with each other, unable to agree on anything.”
Abssi’s confession backs up an earlier report by American Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh which claimed the US, Saudi Arabia and pro-Western parties in Lebanon were funding Sunni terrorist groups. In a subsequent interview with CNN in May 2007, Hersh said his investigations revealed that US Vice President Dick Cheney, US Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams and Saudi National Security Advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan had agreed that the Wahhabi Saudi regime would provide covert funding for Fatah al-Islam to thwart the perceived Shiitization of Lebanon by the popular Syrian-backed Hezbollah party, the main opposition to the Sunni-backed Future Movement. “The US was deeply involved,” Hersh said. “This was a covert operation that Bandar ran with us. The Sunni government in Lebanon was also providing funding.”
Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit and senior fellow at the global terrorism analysis centre, the Jamestown Foundation, also backs up the allegations. In a paper titled A Mujahideen Bleed-Through from Iraq published last month, Scheuer writes: “Riyadh’s activities in northern Lebanon hold the promise of fulfilling two longstanding Saudi goals, 1) Creating a well-armed Sunni-Salafi movement as a military counterweight to the Shia Hezbollah and 2) to enable Riyadh to cause domestic instability for their Syrian enemy.”
Since the airing of the confessions from the alleged September 27 bombers, Syria has called for the establishment of a joint committee with the Lebanese government to investigate Fatah al-Islam’s support base. “These people are both criminals and victims because they are misguided into doing wrong deeds,” Khalid Aboud, secretary to the Syrian parliament, told Syria Today. “We want to find out who pushed them into attacking Syria.”
The Future Movement denies it has any links to Fatah al-Islam. In a statement released on November 7, it accused Damascus of airing the confessions in an attempt to deflect attention away from the UN probe into Hariri’s assassination due to be released this month. It has formerly accused Damascus of being behind the terror group, charges which Damascus has always denied.
Analysts claim radical groups like Fatah al-Islam, also held responsible for a flurry of bomb attacks against the Lebanese army in Tripoli over the past four months, have gained a foothold in Lebanon due to an internal security vacuum and a weak central government. “Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, together with the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, forced the precipitate decline of effective governmental authority in Lebanon, allowing Jihadis to use the country for transit and basing,” Scheuer wrote.
Bilal echoed similar concerns and pointed to the growth of the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood after the Lebanese civil war. “Radical Islamist groups gain momentum in uncertain times,” he said.
At a summit attended by France, Turkey and Qatar in Damascus on September 4, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was worried about “extremist forces” based in northern Lebanon. “Anything positive accomplished in Lebanon will be worthless without a solution to extremism and the Salafist forces that are moving in Lebanon,” Assad said. A few days after his warning and prior to the Damascus blast, Syria deployed some 10,000 troops on the border with northern Lebanon. Syrian officials said the deployment was to “crack down on smuggling across the borders”.
The issue of border security took on lethal significance with the confession of Abdul Baqi Hussein, a Syrian identifying himself as the cell’s operations coordinator. After fighting in Iraq, Hussein said he returned to Syria in 2004 where he met with al-Qaeda members in Aleppo. He claims to have joined Fatah al-Islam in 2006 in Tripoli, where the logistics of the Damascus attack were discussed. “We were able to smuggle the explosives for the bombing into Syria from Lebanon with the help of a Syrian named Abu Obaida,” Hussein said. “He also helped move fighters into Iraq… the suicide bomber was a Saudi called Abu Aisha.”
Hussein’s confession shows Fatah al-Islam was able to carefully plan their attack via a sophisticated network stretching across the Levant. The broadcast came just two weeks after a US military raid from Iraq into Syria killed eight people. Syria says they were civilians. Unnamed US officials say the attack targeted an al-Qaeda leader responsible for smuggling fighters and weapons in and out of Iraq.
The US has long accused Syria of doing too little to secure its border with its eastern neighbour. It’s an accusation which Syria sees as unfair. Umran Zauby, a Syrian political analyst, said no country can fully control its borders. “Even the US, with all of its advanced technology, can’t totally control its border with Mexico,” he said. “Syria asked for military equipment to help it secure the border, such as night vision equipment from the UK, but Washington told London to ignore the request, claiming it would end up in the hands of insurgents.”
The instability following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 saw the country become a global hub for jihadi fighters. With security improving in the country, particularly as America puts many former local Sunni insurgents onto the US payroll, many Middle Eastern analysts say al-Qaeda fighters are now looking to take their fight to neighbouring countries. “North Iraq is relatively stable, so fighters can’t move to Turkey and this leaves Syria trapped between two crises and vulnerable,” Bilal said. “The threat to Syria comes from Arab lands spawning radical fighters.” Bilal also warns Syria must be wary of a home-grown threat which will be increasingly radicalised by battle-hardened Iraqi fighters slipping into Syria. “Syria has sleeping cells which are now being awoken by these fighters,” he said. “But unlike other Arab countries, it doesn’t provide a social incubator for them to flourish.”
Scheuer says fighters are pouring out of Iraq and into the Levant as part of a shift in al-Qaeda’s strategic focus to emphasise the liberation of Palestine. In a report published in February, Scheuer refers to statements made in early 2008 by prominent jihadi leaders Osama bin Laden, Abd al-Rahman al-Ghazzawi and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, encouraging Palestinians to assist the “immigrant” mujahideen who will arrive from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. “The likelihood that these three messages were just coincidence seems small,” Scheuer writes. “Each stresses the importance of Iraq, the Levant countries and al-Qaeda allies residing therein as bases from which military assistance can be sent to the Palestinians.”
Clashes between Syrian security services and militants in Idleb, other northern regions and Damascus’ Palestinian Yarmouk camp in the days following the Damascus attack show a heavy crackdown is underway. In her confession, Wafa al-Abssi said her ex-husband Mohammad Tauma was killed earlier in the year by Syrian security forces whilst attempting to cross into Iraq. Moreover, General David Petraeus, former coalition-commander in Iraq, praised what he perceived to be a change in Syrian policy towards securing the border in September 2007. “Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq,” he said.
Whether the Damascus bombing is evidence that Syria is paying the price for changing its policies remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is the attack has shocked the country. “I’m not worried about the larger groups because their cells are now high on the radar and easily caught,” Bilal said. “I fear the smaller terrorist groups. A few people can cause a lot of damage.”