Syrian Jihadists and Iraq - the Real Story
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a courageous Iraqi journalist and photographer who stayed in Falouja with Mujahidiin until hours before the US invasion, came to Syria with his fiancé, Wendell Steavenson for several weeks. They said Baghdad had become too dangerous. While here Ghaith traveled to Aleppo in search of the mujahidiin story he has been covering since the beginning of the war. In this story, brought to my attention by a faithful reader from Canada, Ghaith tells the amazing story of one Syrian jihadi. It is worth reading the whole thing.
From here to eternity
Wednesday June 8, 2005
Islamist insurgents have turned the aftermath of the war in Iraq into a seemingly endless holy war, and are still pouring into the country to fight the 'American devil'. En route, many of them pass through Syria.
Aleppo, Syria. Ten brothers were sitting in the courtyard of their house in one of Aleppo's myriad lanes, with a plastic bag full of small pieces of paper, from which they drew lots. Five of them would stay in Syria and look after all 10 families. The others, the winning five, would enjoy the ultimate prize: a jihadi trip to Baghdad. It was March 2003, the Americans had just started bombing Baghdad and, like the 10 brothers, hundreds of young men were eagerly making their way in cramped buses towards the Iraqi border. Most of them were Syrians, but there were many, too, from other Arab and Muslim nations, all driven by a religious fervour fuelled by the cries of jihad from Muslim scholars.
"Each neighbourhood [of Aleppo] started sending buses loaded with mujahideen into Iraq," says Abu Ibrahim, the second eldest of the 10 brothers, describing those early days of the war. "If someone was unable to go, he would support the jihad by giving his money."
The call to jihad was openly encouraged by the Syrian government, says Abu Ibrahim (a nom de guerre); it also arranged for buses to ferry fighters, speeded up the issuing of documentation and even gave prospective jihadis a discount on passport fees. Meanwhile, the Syrian media were banging the drum for jihad. (The US has repeatedly accused Syria of involvement in terrorism in Iraq; the Syrian government vehemently denies this.) Eyewitnesses recall Syrian border police waving to the jihadi buses as they crossed into Iraq. From the Grand Mufti of Syria, a man known for his religious tolerance for more than 50 years but who issued a fatwa legitimising suicide bombing just before the outbreak of the Iraq war, to a 16-year-old Christian boy from Damascus whom Abu Ibrahim remembers volunteering to fight alongside radical Muslims in Iraq, much of Syria was galvanised to resist the American invasion next door.
Abu Ibrahim, the most radical of his family, was not one of the lucky five of his brothers and had to stay in Syria, which did not go down well with his Bedouin wife. "My wife accused me of being a coward. She accused me of being happy that I didn't have to go."
But a few months later, he and a group of Syrian and Saudi jihadis crossed the border just as the Iraqi insurgency was getting into full swing. Fifty fighters went in total, Abu Ibrahim says now, but after a few months he returned to Syria with three others - the only surviving members of the group.
Two years after Syria first encouraged resistance to American troops in Iraq, the country claims to have cracked down on Islamic networks and cross-border activity. But many of these claims have fallen short of expectations, a fact that regional analysts attribute to two different factors. The first is that Syria is dominated by many and sometimes competing security apparatuses, which often behave quasi-independently, according to the leadership and specific agenda of each. The second is that while the Syrians, publicly at least, have considerably reduced the amount of support given to the insurgents and have put hundreds in jail, they are happy to keep the jihadi networks alive for a day when they might be useful again.
Abu Ibrahim was born in 1973 in a village north of Aleppo, close to the Turkish border. His father was a Sufi, a member of a mystical Islamic sect that is reviled by some ultra-conservative Muslims, but Abu Ibrahim never shared his father's tolerant views. "I was born to be a Salafi!" he says, referring to the fundamentalist Sunni school of Islam also called Wahhabism. "Even when I was a child of 10, I would refuse to shake the hands of the Sufi sheikhs who visited my father."
Abu Ibrahim's face is lined from time spent in Syrian and Saudi prisons. He looks older than his years, and has a short, scrubby beard, his larger beard having been shaved off by Syrian security officers during one of his detentions. (My conversations with Abu Ibrahim were conducted under extremely close monitoring by the Syrian security services.) He is small and slight, but says he can fight five men alone. He keeps repeating that pride and honour are the most important things in life.
Abu Ibrahim is furious at American imperialism, outraged by Palestine, repelled by the secular Syrian regime. He is angry, as many Arab young men are, and like many of his generation, has grown to see the holy war of jihad championed by Osama bin Laden as the only way to salvation.
Abu Ibrahim's goal is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate, and he sees the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as one of the few true Islamic governments since the time of the Prophet. He thinks the Qur'an is "a constitution, a law to govern the world". His views are severe, narrowly defined and impractical. But it is important to understand his anger and his contradictions, because Abu Ibrahim is as close to al-Qaida as it is possible to get.
At the age of 22, Abu Ibrahim's rebellious ideas against his father's Sufism were nurtured by a group of radical Salafis who flourished in the villages around Aleppo, in Syria's Sunni heartland. "I met a group of young men through my wife's family who spoke to me the true words of Islam; they told me Sufism was forbidden and that the Shia are infidels."
A year later, he decided to go to Saudi Arabia, taking some of Aleppo's famous textiles from his family's workshop and trading them in Riyadh. His seven years in Riyadh were prosperous ones; at times he was sending home $12,000 a month. But while he was there, he also met other young men with whom he started learning the Qur'an. "God provided for us," he says. "We were banned from preaching publicly. We read the mother of all books and then we started to know the truth. Everything was done in people's homes."
Young Saudis, he felt, were educated and worldly and they had what he considered a better understanding of the truth. But he also saw that they had the money and resources to put into practice what they were talking about. "When they went to fight in Afghanistan, they got a government salary, and they also had the resources to fight in Chechnya, the Balkans and now in Iraq."
In 1999 Abu Qaqaa, a charismatic Syrian religious sheikh, was preaching a radical version of Islam in Aleppo. In Saudi Arabia, Abu Ibrahim heard about the sheikh, who wore a salwar kameez, a relic of his time spent with Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan, and was impressed. "We were Wahhabis. Abu Qaqaa was preaching what we believed in. There he was saying these things: people with beards, come together. I was so impressed."
Returning to Aleppo, he became Abu Qaqaa's right-hand man. While in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ibrahim had been given training in video montage and digital photography at a private Saudi production company that specialised in the dissemination of radical Islamic propaganda. Now he helped to tape and copy Abu Qaqaa's sermons and to distribute CDs. They would travel to Damascus and to Saudi Arabia together. By 2001, Abu Qaqaa had attracted about 1,000 young men to his cause, though everything at this stage was underground and secret. "No one knew about us. But September 11 gave us the media coverage. It was a great day. America was defeated. We knew they would target either Syria or Iraq and we took a vow that if something happened to either countries, we would fight."
Two weeks after September 11 they decided to have a celebration. They called it "the Festival of America the Wounded Wolf". They made a video of martial arts fighting, including hand-to-hand combat and training exercises in which they jumped off 8m-high walls. During this time, Abu Qaqaa was arrested by the Syrian authorities, but was released within hours. "We thought, 'Oh, how strong our sheikh is that they do not touch us,' " Abu Ibrahim remembers. "How stupid we were."
By 2002 they were organising anti-American "festivals" twice a week. Food and CDs of sermons were distributed freely and the group, now calling itself "the Strangers of Cham [the Levant]", grew more popular. One festival was called "the people of Cham will now defeat the Jews and kill them all".
"Officials used to come to these festivals, security chiefs, advisers to the Syrian president. We had Palestinian flags and scarves saying, 'Down America'. It was very well organised - we tried to inspire young men and encourage them. We even had a website." The group grew bigger and stronger, its reputation and CDs reached other Arab countries, and young men from Ramadi, Salahuddin and Mosul provinces in Iraq came to seek them out. Meanwhile, money started pouring in from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Abu Ibrahim and his friends were tough, and created a phalanx cadre around Abu Qaqaa. They would raid houses and throw people out of their beds if they heard that they had said bad things about him. "We were exactly like the Amen [the state security services]," he says. "Everyone knew us. We all had big beards. We became thugs."
But slowly they began to suspect that their charismatic leader was a stooge for the state security and had long been an agent for them. "In the 80s, thousands of Muslim men died in Syria for much less than we were saying. We asked the sheikh why we weren't being arrested. He would tell us it was because we weren't saying anything against the government, that we were focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel."
Their suspicions hardened when they discovered that Abu Qaqaa had provided the state security with a list of all the Wahhabis in Syria. They had begun to split from him and were thinking of taking their revenge when the Americans invaded Iraq.
With the beginning of the Iraq war came the jihad frenzy, and the busloads of mujahideen. Saddam's government considered them manna from heaven; as the Americans rapidly advanced, they branded them Arab Saddam Fedayeen, and gave them weapons and basic training. But when Baghdad fell, the stories the Syrians brought home were bad. Often the Iraqis shot at them or handed them over to the Americans.
Abu Ibrahim, who had his own group of jihadis and was actively ferrying people across the border during this time, said that his Iraqi contacts "asked us to stop sending people, they said, 'There are Shia everywhere, Americans,' and they couldn't do anything." According to Abu Ibrahim and other sources in the insurgency, the quick American invasion of Baghdad and the collapse of the Iraqi army shocked the religious leaders and a debate started as to whether they should start a jihad against the Americans or whether this would only bring Saddam back to power, an option that was as bad for the Islamists as the US occupation.
But the Syrian authorities didn't want cross-border traffic in fighters to stop. The security services pressured them to keep sending people. "Why were they so keen for us to go and fight in Iraq?" asks Abu Ibrahim. "So we would die there?"
In the summer of 2003, the insurgency in Iraq began to organise itself and there was a further call for men. Places to stay and a network of routes, weapons and safe houses had been established. "We had specific meeting places for Iraqi smugglers. They wouldn't do the trip if we had less than 15 fighters. We would drive across the border and then into villages on the Iraqi side; and from there the Iraqi contacts would take the mujahideen to training camps." Syrian recruits could usually skip the training given to others, as every young Syrian man has to do two years of military service."It is mostly the Saudis who need the training," says Abu Ibrahim.
The main bulk of the insurgency at that time was led and organised by Iraqis who functioned in cells, often with no coordination. They focused mainly on ambushes and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. "Our brothers in Iraq worked in small groups. In each area men would come together organised by religious leaders or tribal sheikhs and would attack the Americans. It was often us who brought them all together, when we met them in Syria or in Iraq. We would tell them, 'But there is another brother who is doing the same thing - why don't you coordinate together?' Syria became the hub.
"Young men are fighting with zeal and passion, there are Saudi officers, Syrians, Iraqis, but not those who fought for Saddam. The man who is leading it for the most part", says Abu Ibrahim, "is Zarqawi."
The emergence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the big breakthrough for the insurgency, especially after he was endorsed by Bin Laden late last year. Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born radical Islamist, then changed the name of his disparate group of insurgents to al-Qaida of Jihad in Mesopotamia, and funds started pouring in from Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, many different factions of the insurgency placed themselves under Zarqawi's banner and a joint treasury of jihad, called Bayt al-Mal, was founded.
"Until six months ago, Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were different: Osama did not legitimise the killing of Shia. Zarqawi did that. Six months ago, Zarqawi gave the beyaa [allegiance] to Bin Laden. Anyone, Christian Jew, Sunni, Shia, who cooperates with the Americans, can be killed. It's a holy war." (Our conversation took place before Zarqawi was supposedly injured near Ramadi last month.)
By January 2004, Syria was coming under increasing pressure from the US to halt the jihadi traffic into Iraq. Jihadi cell leaders in Syria were summoned to Amen [internal security] headquarters and told that it could not continue. Passports were confiscated; some were detained for a few days.
It may not be terribly significant in halting the violence, however. According to Abu Ibrahim, insurgents in Iraq are not presently in need of fighters, but funds - which usually come from wealthy Saudi young men.
"Our brothers in Iraq are asking for Saudis. The Saudis go with enough money to support themselves and their Iraqi brothers. A week ago we sent a Saudi to the jihad; he went with 100,000 Saudi riyals [$27,000]. There was a celebration among his brothers there!"
Four weeks ago, US troops in Iraq launched an operation just inside the border with Syria, aimed at disrupting the route of foreign fighters; the US army claimed that 100 fighters were killed. Abu Ibrahim is unmoved to learn of the assault. "They think jihad will stop if they kill hundreds of us in Iraq. They don't know what they are facing. Every day, more and more young men from around the Muslim world are awaking and coming to the jihad. Now the Americans are facing thousands, but one day soon they will have to face whole nations."
The next fascinating story dug up by Damascus' very own Katherine Zeopf for the New York Times is also an example of excellent reporting on one lost part of the Iraqi story in Syria.
Iraqi Ex-Employees of U.S. Face Death Threats or ExileBy KATHERINE ZOEPF, June 5, 2005
DAMASCUS, Syria, June 4 - Nashwan Hassan Ahmed's belief in the American mission in Iraq never wavered.
Hired fresh out of Baghdad University, he served for 18 months as an interpreter for American forces in Mosul. Former colleagues recall him working bravely and tirelessly, side by side with troops on dangerous nighttime hunts for insurgents, and in the offices and conference rooms where the details of reconstruction projects were hammered out.
The days were long, but Mr. Ahmed, now 24, said he did not care, "because I felt that I was trying to help Iraq stand up again, and because I felt I was like a brother to them."
By "them," Mr. Ahmed meant the American soldiers he lived with, and who came to call him Nash. He spent mornings with them at the shooting range and evenings playing video games. He learned to like lasagna and root for the Atlanta Braves.
Then the threats started. Because of his work with American troops, some Iraqis saw Mr. Ahmed as a collaborator. Mr. Ahmed said his family was harassed and abused, and they moved three times in an effort to hide from insurgents. When Mr. Ahmed begged his American bosses for help, he was told they could do nothing. He said he finally realized that for his family's safety, he would have to leave Iraq.
Alone, he crossed the border into Syria in January.
Mr. Ahmed is one of a growing group of Iraqis who used to work as interpreters, drivers or cooks for American forces in Iraq but have fled to Syria because the insurgency branded them as traitors. In recent months, Iraqis who are known to have worked with American troops have been killed and kidnapped in large numbers.
They were once among the most enthusiastic Iraqi supporters of the American-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But now, they say, they feel confused and abandoned in a society that, with its ubiquitous banners bearing Syrian Baath Party slogans and huge portraits of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his family, reminds them at least superficially of Mr. Hussein's Iraq.
Ajmal Khybari, an official in Damascus with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that though their numbers, in relative terms, are small - perhaps no more than a few hundred - these former American employees represented a highly visible subgroup of the Iraqi refugees who continued to arrive in Syria and Jordan.
They bombard American consular officials with their visa requests but, despite their idiomatic English and their reference letters from American commanders, without relatives in the United States, their chances of being admitted are slim.
The United States Embassy in Syria often suggests that they apply to the United Nations for refugee status and resettlement, but only a small fraction of Iraqi refugees complete the long registration process.
"We've processed 16,600 Iraqi refugees in Syria," Mr. Khybari said. "But let me speak from the heart here. We are really talking about a million refugees living between Syria and Jordan, and the donor community isn't paying any attention to them. The problem is growing, because Iraq continues to be a refugee-producing country."
At the time of the Iraqi election in late January, officials with the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were about 400,000 Iraqi refugees living in Syria. The Syrian government now puts the figure at closer to 700,000.
The Iraqis, for their part, say they continue to hope that Syria is a temporary stop. Some of them seem bewildered to learn that, no matter how good their relationships with their American bosses were, there is no mechanism to help them.
Binyamin Shamoon, 36, who came to Damascus in August 2004, said he quit his job as a laundry worker at an American base in Baghdad after he received an anonymous letter that contained a threat to bomb his house. The letter demanded only that he give up his job, but Mr. Shamoon said he did not feel safe until he brought his family to Syria.
"We would like to go to the U.S.," he said. "But there is no program that helps us. This seems strange to me. It's because of our work with the Americans that we had to flee our country."
American soldiers returning from Iraq say they often worry about the safety of their Iraqi colleagues, but have no way to help them.
Erik Schiemann, 27, a former infantry captain with the 101st Airborne Division, said he had been sending e-mail to Mr. Ahmed, his interpreter in Mosul, with information about community colleges in the United States, in the hopes that Nash might one day get a student visa.
"There's no other way for us to really bring him to the States, or help him with visas," Mr. Schiemann said. "I think the best thing I can do is to keep in touch with him and to try to help him on his future path."
"He's just a great guy," Mr. Schiemann said of Mr. Ahmed. "Everyone in our company knew him as Nash. Sometimes we'd have missions at night, very dangerous stuff, and our troops are out there with body armor. And Nash would be right there with the guys, totally unarmed, but working side by side with them."
At least twice in the past, the United States has made special arrangements to assist Iraqis whose American affiliations have brought them into danger. During the 1990's, more than 12,000 Iraqis, many of them former soldiers, were brought to the United States as refugees.
Separately, in 1996, several thousand Iraqis, mainly Kurds who had worked for American aid groups in Iraq were airlifted to Guam and then resettled in the United States.
The situation is different now, said a State Department official in Washington who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
"We never had anything to do with governing Iraq in the past," the official said, explaining that Mr. Hussein's government presented such a certain danger that special measures were required then to protect Iraqis with American connections.
The official added that while the department has not specifically studied the issue of Iraqi contractors who have become refugees, in the normal course of events, the United Nations would likely refer some of them for resettlement in the United States. However, the process can take several years.
Though the total number of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan may be approaching a million, as Mr. Khybari suggested, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many used to work with American forces.
Samer Zora Borka, 28, who worked as an interpreter for the American military in Baghdad, said he knew at least 15 former employees who were living in a Damascus suburb.
Mr. Borka said many Iraqis in his situation felt anger and disappointment at their former employers, but that he tried to avoid such feelings.
"The American soldiers love to use the word family," he said. "They kept saying it. About the unit, I mean. They'd say, 'We're family, we work as a family.' "
Mr. Borka smiled and added, "And I guess we used to believe them."
U.S-Iraqi offensive launched near Syria reports UPI
Baghdad, Iraq, Jun. 7 (UPI) -- U.S.-led Iraqi troops mounted a major offensive against insurgents in northwestern Iraq Tuesday, near the largely unsupervised Syrian border.