Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 June 2006
Issue No. 798
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Terror within Syria

Damascus sees open clashes between security forces and Islamic militants, posing a conundrum for the US that continues to oppose the incumbent Syrian regime, writes Sami Moubayed

The people of Damascus awoke at dawn to the sound of heavy gunfire in the heart of the capital on Friday, 2 June 2006. Later that day it was revealed that Syrian security had clashed with Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists who were planning to execute terrorist operations in Omayyad Square, site of several important official buildings, including the Syrian army headquarters, the Ministry of Defense, the Customs Department, Syrian Television, the Damascus Opera House and the Assad National Library. In the gun-battle that ensued, one member of Syria's security forces was killed along with a guard at Syrian Television. Two others were wounded. The police managed to gun down four militants, wound two and arrest four. They are currently being interrogated in Damascus and the findings to date, as revealed by the Syrian Ministry of Information, are very troubling for Syria.

The exact circumstances surrounding the incident are unclear and aroused much in the way of speculation. Some said swiftly that the entire story was fabricated by Syrian security to show the world -- and particularly America -- that Islamic fundamentalists were operating in Syria, the message carrying a double meaning. On the one hand, "We in Syria, like you in the United States, have the same enemy in Islamic fundamentalists. Work with us to combat them, and we will cooperate. Don't work against us." On the other, "There are two options for Syria: us (the Baathists) or the Islamists. If we go, Islamists will take over."

Those doubting the veracity of the official story had to think again when images of the killed were shown in Syria and in the Arab media. A gun-battle did indeed occur between Syrian security and "terrorists," of that there is no doubt. The problem in Syria is that for many years, since the mid-1980s, the regime has been saying, "It's either us or the Islamists." At times, they magnified the Islamic threat to justify their own existence, leading many people to doubt if there was a fundamentalist threat to begin with. Like the boy who cried wolf, Syria has been crying wolf for years. Now that the wolf is at the door, some doubt it exists at all.

Several Al-Qaeda-style failed terrorist operations have been carried out in Syria since the outbreak of the war on Iraq in 2003. The most prominent was when armed assailants raided an abandoned UN building in the residential Mezzeh neighbourhood of Damascus in April 2004. A gun-battle took place, leading to the killing of some of the attackers, along with a policeman and a by-standing schoolteacher.

The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 played an important role in reviving Syrian militant Islam. True, Syria did turn a blind eye to those who crossed the border to fight in Iraq in 2003, but it soon corrected this policy, seeing that when fighters were defeated or deported back to Syria, a combination of frustration, anger and despair took over in them. Unable to strike at the Americans in Iraq, or the Israelis in Palestine, they unleashed their anger on their fellow Syrians.

In addition to the Mezzeh attack, a group of terrorists were apprehended, after a shooting that caused panic among picnickers, in July 2005 on Mount Qassiun overlooking the Syrian capital. Earlier in the summer of 2005, Syria announced that it had arrested one man and killed another who had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of Jund Al-Sham, or Soldiers of Syria, a terrorist organisation that has recently emerged in the country and is believed to be directly linked to Syrian Al-Qaeda member Abu Musaab Al-Souri, who is a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. President Bashar Al-Assad acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times in 2005 that authorities had apprehended a terrorist wanting to carry out an attack at the Palace of Justice.

In order to defeat political Islam in the long-term, the Baath regime continues to promote moderate Islam through regime-friendly clerics like Deputy Mohamed Habash, the Aleppo-based preacher Mohamed Kamil Al-Husseini, and new Grand Mufti Ahmed Hassoun, who has announced that he is categorically opposed to political and militant Islam. One of these favoured clerics has a sign on the gates of his mosque in Aleppo saying: "No to explosions!"

Living in Damascus, one gets the feeling that although overt religiosity is increasing, not all religious people are willing to support, let alone fight for the Islamists. Yet Islamic groups do represent a certain segment of Syrian society that cannot be ignored. It is all the more alarming that the leader of the latest attack was identified as Mahmoud Al-Aghasi -- known by his nom de guerre "Abu Qaqa" -- who now holds Pakistani citizenship and is believed to be in Chechnya. He is originally Syrian from the suburbs of Aleppo, rising to note delivering fiery anti-American sermons in Syria's second largest city in 1999. By 11 September 2001, he had over 1,000 followers in Syria, and was briefly arrested by Syrian authorities for his activities.

Syrian authorities found in the possession of the terrorists apprehended this week CDs of Abu Qaqa's sermons, working under the banner of a terrorist group called "Ghuraba Al-Sham." Abu Qaqa facilitated the sending of jihadists to Iraq, without informing Syrian authorities, since 2003. He also co-established, with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq after the US invasion. In the recorded speech delivered before masses of young Islamists in an unidentified location, Abu Qaqa is heard screaming: "We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget. Are you ready?" They respond affirmatively with thundering voices and he calls on them to "speak louder, so George Bush can hear you!" He then adds, "We will wash away our sins with our blood."

The recording was probably made in March 2003 because Abu Qaqa speaks of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's threats to Syria, and his accusations that night-vision masks were smuggled from Syria to Iraq; an accusation made by the Americans during their war against Saddam in 2003.

Because of the timing of the CD, it is unknown if "Ghuraba Al-Sham" is another name for "Jund Al-Sham." And is Abu Qaqa a loyal fundamentalist, or an impostor, as some jihadists in Iraq are claiming? After all, a short while ago, a communiqué was issued via the Internet of a so-called "Service Centre for the Mujahideen in Iraq," accusing Abu Qaqa of being a spy for the Americans in Iraq.

Time will tell how serious Abu Qaqa, Jund Al-Sham and "Ghuraba Al-Sham" are to the security of Syria and the Syrians. What is sure for now is that they exist; they have money and want to strike in Syria. For many years, Damascus boasted of being one of the safest cities in the world due to the effectiveness of the regime's security since 1970, and the soberness of its people. It looks like Damascus will never be the safe place it used to be, so long as Islamic fundamentalists have decided to focus on Syria.

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