Time for confession
Damascus television aired the confessions of the perpetrators of a recent bombing. But what exactly are the Syrians trying to say? Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus
The 40-minute recorded interview aired on Syrian television featured people confessing to carrying out the explosion that occurred on 27 September off the Damascus Airport Road, killing 17 and wounding 64. Nine men and one woman said they acted in coordination with Fatah Al-Islam, a Lebanese group that killed 163 Lebanese soldiers and officers in a three-month battle in Nahr Al-Bared. The woman identified herself as Wafaa Shaker Al-Absi, daughter of Shaker Al-Absi, the leader of Fatah Al-Islam who is on the wanted list of several Arab countries, including Syria and Lebanon.
One of the men, Abdel-Baqi Al-Hussein, aka Abul-Walid, is said to be the security chief of Fatah Al-Islam. He spoke of previous participation in combat activities in Iraq and described how he and other Syrian men underwent training for such operations. After Syrian police started looking for him in 2007, he escaped to Tripoli, Lebanon, where he was introduced to Al-Qaeda members and joined Fatah Al-Islam.
The woman, sporting a full face veil, said that she was married to a Syrian who was killed on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. She then married another Syrian (who appeared in the same interview) and moved with him to Syria following the battle in Nahr Al-Bared Camp.
Al-Hussein said that he escaped from Lebanon and came to Syria with the help of smugglers who also provided his group with money. He described a network of individuals from the Emirates, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, and Europe with links to Al-Qaeda, saying that some of the funding came from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, and some was obtained by robbing banks, gas stations and Christian jewellers.
Members of the group claimed that there were "special ties" linking Fatah Al-Islam with Salafi groups in northern Lebanon, noting that the funding came from Saudi Arabia and the Future Movement of Saad Al-Hariri. They said that Fatah Al-Islam exchanged messages with the Future Movement and that other Salafi groups helped in relaying some of the communication between the two.
The members said they planned attacks on the headquarters and vehicles of security services, diplomats (Italians and British included), as well as jewellers, money exchange companies, and the Central Bank. They added that their aim was to "harass" the Syrian regime for its crackdown on Islamic militants.
They confessed to bringing explosives and weapons from Lebanon with the help of professional smugglers. They revealed that the suicide bomber in the recent attack was Saudi. The men were all young, the eldest of them 34, have no clear ideology, and were recruited for combat activities in Iraq, Lebanon, then Syria. Religion seems to be their primary motive.
Was there a tacit message the Syrian government was trying to relay along with the interviews? The answer is yes, according to a Lebanese security official. He said that Syria "wanted to tell Lebanon that they need to cooperate in the fight against an enemy that targets security in both countries, so that the matter may be brought up during the visits of the Lebanese interior and defence ministers to Damascus this month."
The security source confirmed the veracity of "some of what the Syrian television showed", noting that the Lebanese judiciary is willing to question any Lebanese the Syrians name, in keeping with the regulations approved by the Council of Arab Interior Ministers.
Lebanese-Syrian relations don't seem to have been derailed by the revelations. Lebanese Interior Minister Zeyad Baroud visited Syria last Monday with a security delegation. Lebanese Defence Minister Ilyas Al-Morr says he would visit Syria within weeks. And Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri intends to take part in the conference of Arab information and communication ministers in Damascus, due to be held in the middle of this month.
Some people say that the confessions may lead to heightened cooperation between Lebanon and Syria in the combat of terror. The Lebanese security services have already arrested two individuals named in the confessions of the Damascus cell.
The Future Movement, which the bombers claimed have financed Fatah Al-Islam, was not amused. A leading source in the Future Movement denied any link between the movement and terrorists, those of Fatah Al-Islam included. "It's all a Syrian film," he said, accusing the Syrians of fabricating the confessions. The leader of the Future Movement described Syrian accusations as a "lie".
Mustafa Alloush, parliamentarian and key figure in the Future Movement, said that the confessions were orchestrated by Syria's regime in the same way the Spanish Inquisition used to do business. "Fatah Al-Islam is a Syrian production from beginning to end," he said, adding that the Syrians nursed a grudge against the Future Movement since the latter succeeded in getting the Syrian army out of Lebanon in 2005. During the Nahr Al-Bared battle, Arab and Lebanese sources often spoke of secret links between Fatah Al-Islam and Syria. The Lebanese Future Movement said, even back then, that Fatah Al-Islam was affiliated with Syria.
Syrian analysts say that Damascus aired the confessions to let everyone know that the fight against terror is a responsibility shared by all. Damascus, which the Americans accuse of involvement in terror, is interested in portraying itself as a victim of terror too. If so, then the US, Europe, and Arab countries should sympathise with Damascus and comprehend its hostility towards some Lebanese parties, especially the Future Movement. In other words, Syria wants to let the world know that it is doing all it can to control the borders, despite what the Lebanese and Iraqis say.
The Syrian message to Saudi Arabia is unmistakable. Saudi Arabia, its businessmen and Salafi members, are now accused of financing terror acts and trying to destabilise countries around the region, including Syria. By airing these confessions, Damascus has tacitly accused Saudi Arabia of sponsoring Al-Qaeda and extreme Salafi groups.
Some Lebanese believe that Damascus is trying to sow sedition in Lebanese ranks as a way of shaking things a bit ahead of the parliamentary elections. During a meeting with the Lebanese head of the Journalists' Association a few weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that northern Lebanon has turned into "a veritable base for terror, one that poses a threat to Syria."
The Syrians are also suggesting that Shaker Al-Absi is not dead. According to the confessions of his Syrian associates, he left Lebanon for Syria then disappeared without a trace. Earlier, Al-Absi was said to have been killed in Nahr Al-Bared. There is a boasting point here too. The Syrians want to say that their intelligence services was efficient and fast, able to crack the bombing case in record time, and even parading the daughter of the mysterious Al-Absi.
As for the timing of the confessions, it shows Damascus trying to give a signal to president-elect Barack Obama that it is a worthy partner in the fight against terror.