"The Truth about Islamic Extremist Groups in Syria" by Abdullah T.
THE TRUTH ABOUT ISLAMIC EXTREMIST GROUPS IN SYRIA
By Abdullah T.
June 20, 2006
For "Syria Comment"
Before the war in Iraq, Syria was largely abscent of Islamic extremists. It was one of the most stable and safest countries in the Middle East. But the war in Iraq and the opening of the Iraqi arena for extremist groups changed the security situation in Syria. Syria has become a gateway for volunteer Pan-Arabists and Mujahideen. As a result, the border regions of Syria (Abu Kamal, specifically) have witnessed gatherings of people bent on joining the Jihad in Iraq, especially during the opening day of the war when the republic’s Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaro, declared, “Jihad in Iraq is a duty for all Muslims.” However, after the first year of the Iraqi occupation, small terrorist incidents carried out by Salafists began to be recorded. On 6 May 2004, three Syrian youths with religious backgrounds attacked an uninhabited house previously owned by Rifa’at Al Asad (the president’s uncle). On 6 May 2005, Syrian security forces raided a house that was inhabited by a fundamentalist group and stumbled upon a “variety of weapons.” And in the beginning of 2006, violent clashes occurred in remote parts of the Damascene countryside between Salafis and Syrian security forces.
It is hard to deny the existence of Islamic extremist groups in Syria, however, one must ask why these groups are targeting Syria? Why do Syrian security forces always seem to find these groups in the countryside and behind closed doors? And why do these groups always seem to target insignificant targets? They have never targeted important political, military or tourist sites as is the case in other countries.
Security and intelligence sources in Syria have publicly announced that Syria has arrested between 1200 to 1800 Jihadi extremists of various sorts, some from the Jund Ash Sham (The Army of Sham). But one informant within Syrian Intelligence puts the number of arrests closer to 4000.
What is more, it was explained to me that Syrian Intelligence uses members of Jund Ash Sham from time to time for its own purposes. Syrian Intelligence deceives members of Jund Ash Sham into believing that Syrian Intelligence will assist them in carrying out terrorist acts in Iraq. Syrian Intelligence leads would be fighters into believing that the state authorities will help them to carry out martyrdom operations in Iraq. The authorities set up the unwitting Jihadists in houses far the city center in remote areas and supply them with weapons ostensibly for secret operations. Then the Syrian security forces surround the Jihadists swoop into the house and kill them. The security forces in triumph then trot journalists out to report on their success and the looming danger of terrorism in Syria.
I have been informed that the victims are indeed authentic Jihadists and Salafists, who hope to fight in Iraq. But the Syrian regime turns them to their own purposes to achieve two goals: first, they eliminate dangerous radical fundamentalists; second, they demonstrate to the world and especially to the United States that Syria is afflicted by terrorism just as America is. The implication is that Syria and the West must find common ground in the war on terrorism.
HOW TO STOP THESE GROUPS
After Syria opened its borders to volunteer Mujahideen, many Syrians and Arabs went to Iraq across the border and after the fall of Baghdad many volunteers escaped to Syria and this is something I witnessed with my own eyes in Abu Kamal. Abu Kamal was the site of many arrests of Arab volunteers because it was the main transit point between Iraq and Syria. In the course of my interview with a returning volunteer from Iraq, he told me that “in the beginning, the Syrian Mukhabarat (Syrian Intelligence) allowed them to go to Iraq.” But, when he returned to Syria the Mukhabarat arrested him and accused him of being a prominent member of Al Qaeda and added his name to the International Office of Terrorism in Damascus. In spite of the fact that American security forces arrested him for three months and then released him when it became clear that he was not associated to any armed group or organization. There are many people returning from Iraq that are arrested by Syrian Intelligence and accused of being terrorists while only a small minority actually are. This is, in actual fact, the way the Syrian Intelligence deals with people returning from Iraq. The Syrian Administration is using the International Office of Terrorism and its “list of names” as a negotiating card for every foreign policy crisis.
Syria has been the most successful Arab regime in combating terrorist cells. There have been no successful terrorist strikes within Syria. Its record compared to Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia is good.
But why have fundamentalist groups not targeted Syria for a serious strike? Is it because they view Syria as a strategic ally in their war on the West, even if Syria is playing a double game in order to protect itself? Perhaps they have tried but have been thwarted by Syria’s intelligence apparatus, which has clearly penetrated various Jihadist cells? It is hard to answer such questions definitively. Perhaps there is no unified strategy among the various branches of Syria’s security machine.
One must conclude, however, that up to this point, Syria has finessed the terrorist upsurge spreading through the region with cunning effectiveness, even as it has stumbled in its relations with the West. Like so many states in the region, Syria initially sought to export its fundamentalists to Iraq in the hope that they would meet their end in the Mesopotamian struggle. Those who have returned are promptly arrested and interrogated.