Syrians stare terror in the face
DAMASCUS - Syrian television aired much-awaited interviews on Thursday evening with the terrorist cell responsible for an attack in Damascus in September that left 14 people dead and 65 injured.
State television showed what it said were 12 members of the Islamist militant group Fatah al-Islam, confessing that they had helped plan the suicide car bombing.
The interview sent shivers down the spine of most Syrians, who were horrified to hear that there was something called a "Syria branch" for al-Qaeda. These people looked like ordinary Syrians. They came from places like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. One was a 24-year-old smuggler of gasoline between Syria and Lebanon. Another was a dental expert, while a third was an information technology expert. A fourth was a student at one of the private schools that recently started operating in Syria. Some of them said that they had baby children.
Originally it was believed that the terrorist who drove an automobile into the premises of a security building on the road to Damascus International Airport had come from Iraq. The license plate was Iraqi and most of the militants who had carried out attacks in Syria since 2003 came from the wilderness of Iraq.
It was too abstract for Syrians to believe that their countrymen could plot such a bloody crime against innocent fellow Syrians. The Thursday broadcast proved them wrong.
The new information confirms that the terrorists were a mixture of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, operating not directly with al-Qaeda, but a sister organization called Fatah al-Islam, which is based in neighboring Tripoli, Lebanon.
The suicide bomber himself was a Saudi named "Abu Aysha", whose picture was also shown on Syrian TV. This group wanted to "harm the Syrian regime" and had several targets on their hit list, including the central bank of Syria. They also had a hit list that included an Italian and a British diplomat, both based in Damascus.
One of the men who appeared on TV was Abdul-Baqi Hussein, head of security in the Syria-branch of Fatah al-Islam, and Wafa Abbsi, the daughter of Fatah al-Islam founder Shaker al-Abbsi. They said the car was in fact stolen from Iraqis and loaded with 200 kilograms of explosives at a farm on the outskirts of Damascus.
Very troubling was the confession of Wafa, the only woman among the group, who spoke with her husband Yasser Unad. They seemed the most disturbed among the group of terrorists. Wafa said her father received money transfers to conduct his military activities from the Future Movement of Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri. Her father never trusted Hariri, Abbsi implied, saying that he feared that the latter would "trade him" for a cheap price. Wafa, whose first husband was a Syrian killed on the Syrian-Iraqi border, came to Syria with her second husband - also a Syrian - and was arrested with the terrorist team after September 27.
Wafa's tale takes us back to an earlier argument made by veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh, who wrote in The New Yorker that Hariri, the US and certain figures in Saudi Arabia were responsible for creating Fatah al-Islam. Speaking to CNN International's Your World Today in May 2007, Hersh said that all three parties wanted a Sunni military group in Lebanon to combat Hezbollah - which was backed by Iran - in the event of an outbreak of Sunni-Shi'ite violence. While Hersh was speaking, violence was ranging in the infamous Naher al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon, between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. Those battles, which lasted for weeks, led to the killing of about 400 people.
Abbsi himself, the founder of Fatah al-Islam, was at first reported dead. These reports were later challenged by his supporters, who claimed that he escaped the violence of Naher al-Bared. In his CNN interview, Hersh added, "The enemy of our enemy is our friend, just as the jihadi groups in Lebanon were also there to go after [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. We're in the business of creating in some places, Lebanon in particular, sectarian violence."
He drew parallels between US-Hariri-Saudi backing of Fatah al-Islam with American support for Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. With time, he turned against his creators and became America's number one enemy. The architects of this policy - which calls for the creation of parties like Fatah al-Islam - are US Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and former ambassador and current Saudi National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Hersh said, "The idea [is] that the Saudis promised they could control the jihadis, so we [US] spent a lot of money and time ... using and supporting the jihadis to help us beat the Russians in Afghanistan, and they turned on us. And we have the same pattern, not as if there's any lessons learned. The same pattern, using the Saudis again to support jihadis."
Origins of Fatah al-Islam
The group was reportedly founded in November 2006, emerging from a radical Palestinian group called Fatah al-Intifada which in turn was inspired by the Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat, currently headed by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
Arafat's Fatah was born in Kuwait in the 1960s and is currently governing in Palestine. It is pro-West today, however, unlike Abbsi's Fatah al-Islam. Abbsi himself (born in Jericho in 1955) was a member of Arafat's Fatah. He joined military units of Fatah and served as a MiG fighter pilot for Libya in its war with Chad and fought Israel's occupation of Lebanon in 1982 as a warrior with Arafat.
He grew too Islamic and became frustrated with Arafat's diplomacy and secular nationalism, breaking with Fatah by the mid-1980s. The Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982 disenchanted millions of fighters in the Arab world, who turned to the only remaining and reliable source of inspiration that could unite them: Islam. Arab nationalism was abandoned for the sake of Islamic nationalism. It seemed the logical thing to do by the 1980s. After all, Islam had triumphed in combating the Soviets in Afghanistan. Islam had also led to the toppling of the pro-Western Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran and the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Political Islam seemed the right - and logical - thing to turn to.
Abbsi moved to Syria to work against Arafat and rebrand himself. Contrary to what anti-Syrian media outlets are saying in Beirut, the Syrians did not tolerate him. On the contrary, they grew suspicious of his activities and placed him behind bars for three years. On his release, he became close to Abu Musaab al-Zarkawi, the terrorist leader of Iraq, who at the time was based in his native Jordan.
Together they planned the assassination of Laurence Foley, a US diplomat based in Jordan, in 2004. Both were sentenced to death in absentia by Jordanian courts in July of that year. Abbsi then went to Lebanon, fleeing an arrest warrant in both Syria and Jordan. His name resurfaced in Jordan this January when two militants engaged in a gun battle with Jordanian police in the northern city of Irbid. On arrest, they confessed that they had been sent to Jordan by Abbsi to carry out terrorist operations.
Abbsi chose the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, near the city of Tripoli, to set up base and found his Fatah al-Islam. The new group, he claimed, would be modeled after al-Qaeda and inspired by bin Laden. Its stated goal was to establish Islamic law in Lebanon, and then destroy the United States and Israel.
Speaking to the New York Times shortly before his battle with the Lebanese army began, Abbsi said said, "The only way to achieve our rights is by force. This is the way America deals with us. So when the Americans feel that their lives and their economy are threatened, they will know that they will leave."
Naturally, the anti-Syrian team in Lebanon writes off the entire story as a hoax. They claimed from day one that Fatah al-Islam was created by the Syrians. That is difficult to believe, since his prison record in Damascus - along with Syria's history of combating Islamic fundamentalism - would certainly prevent it from engaging in such a risky scheme with such a notorious terrorist. Additionally, the terrorist bombing of September 27 adds proof that if anything, Fatah al-Islam is certainly not allied to Damascus. On the contrary, it is bent on destroying Syria.
Those doubting the entire story will continue doing so, claiming that the program aired on Syrian TV was doctored by the Syrians. That too is hard to believe. These terrorists were watched by millions of people around the world and in Syria. They gave out real names and appeared clearly on screen. If the Syrians asked them to stage the entire operation, how can they continue with their ordinary lives and not be spotted as frauds?
And if these were indeed the terrorists saying things to please the Syrians; why would they? They are in Syrian jails after all and face the death penalty for committing terror against Syrian citizens and government. The last thing they would want to do as they face the hangman's noose, is please Syrian authorities. The truth is that these people - Fatah al-Islam in Syria - were for real and they are testimony to just how vulnerable Syria has become to terrorists and fundamentalists.
They are the real wolves at the doors of Damascus and when they stand at the gates of the Syrian capital - and can pull off a terrorist attack as the one on September 27 - this means that they have already infiltrated more vulnerable places like Beirut, Baghdad and Amman.
Sami Moubayed is Editor-in-Chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.