Because of the heat focused on Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and the Iraq War, the almost daily clashes between Syrian forces and “extremist elements” (in Damacus officialese) have attracted scant attention.
This week, more such violent encounters occurred in the northern Syrian towns of Ibilar, Hamadiya, and Aleppo.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources identify these “extremists” as members of the violent Jund al Shaam (Soldiers of the Levant), formed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zuwahiri as al Qaeda’s operational arm for liberating the Levant -Syria and Lebanon – from infidels and heretics.
This new turn of events is largely ignored by media in the West because of the difficulty of reconciling the double role played by Syrian military intelligence: opening the gate for al Qaeda’s fighters to enter Iraq and battle US troops, with one hand, and fighting off al Qaeda incursions, with the other.
But, anomaly or not, that is exactly what is happening.
The same Syrian agencies that let al Qaeda’s men through to Iraq are at the same time intercepting and killing local al Qaeda cells organized in the Jund al-Shaam operational framework.
Not surprisingly, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals, the Assad regime is finding its dual policy is becoming a dangerous boomerang.
Up until August, most of the Jund’s cells were made up of local Syrians, but then things change drastically. Syrians returning from the war in Iraq were found at the forefront of the group’s anti-government operations. These veterans were seasoned combatants with advanced knowledge in the wielding of explosives.
Matters went from bad to worse in November, when Syrian security forces discovered that a half of Jund al-Shaam operational teams consisted of non-Syrians – Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians and Lebanese jihadists.
Ten of these terrorists were killed in a battle this week in the northern Syrian city of Hamma. A check on their identities uncovered five Syrians, two Algerians, two Jordanians and a Palestinian. The latter five all entered the country from Iraq.
At odds with Musab Zarqawi
Syrian intelligence also discovered that each of the Jund al-Shaam networks operating in the country was replicated in Lebanon and the two cells were mutually supportive for logistics and intelligence.
Syria today can be likened to Saud Arabia in 2003-2004 in terms of the scale of al Qaeda’s penetration and operation.
Our counter-terror sources reveal that the founding members of the group, Syrian Sunni Muslims, started out in the mid-1990s at al Qaeda’s training camps in the South Afghanistan town of Herat. While there, this fiercely independent group fought a bloody feud lasting years with the domineering Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his men who were training at the same facility.
The feud languished after 1998 when Zarqawi moved on to northern Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran. That was when the future Iraqi al Qaeda commander developed his first ties with the Iranians, with the Ansar al-Islami terror group and with officers of Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence.
When the American-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Jund al-Shaam group withdrew across the border to Iran and thence via northern Iraqi Kurdistan back into Syria. En route, the Syrian extremists bumped into Zarqawi’s followers. After some skirmishing, the two groups agreed to a truce and decided to collaborate.
By the end of 2005, the two al Qaeda groups were close enough for Zarqawi’s men entering Syria from Iraq to be sure that Jund would give them sanctuary, arms and false documents.
One key factor in the peace pact was the fact that the Syrian organization is not headed by a Syrian but a Jordanian whose nom de guerre is Abu Abdel Rahman. He real name is Raad Harisat. He and the Jordanian-Palestinian Zarqawi get on well together.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources add that Harisat’s operations chief is Abdel Hadi Darlas, aka Abu Baydaah.
Three-way terror pact for “soft targets”
Upon their return to Syria, the Jund set up an operational link with an extreme wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood called Marwan Hadid’s Disciples, which turned its back on the main body of the Brotherhood after it repudiated the path of violence.
Hadid is one of the mythical heroes of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. He is adulated for his attempt to assassinate President Bashar Assad‘s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad and for fighting in the 1982 siege of Hamma which ended in the Syrian army’s massacre of 25,000 Brotherhood adherents and their families. He was captured and executed that same year.
Syrian intelligence recently discovered that, before deciding to go into action against Bashar Assad’s government, Jund al-Shaam leaders attended a secret meeting in April 2005, believed to have taken place in Morocco, of al Qaeda network chiefs in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Our sources list the terror chiefs present by their codenames: Abu Hafez, from Lebanon; two heads of Algeria’s largest radical jihadist movement Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known also by its combat name of Al Muktaliya – Abu Mohammed al Tunisi and Abu Hajar; the Salafist group’s French leader, Abu Lais, and al Qaeda cell chiefs in Italy and Germany.
A three-way collaboration pact was signed at that meeting between Zarqawi, the Jund al-Shaam and the Algerian Salafists.
The pact had two objectives:
1. To create a large force with broad operational backing for attacks on “soft targets” in the Middle East. Examples: the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan, the kingdom itself, Syria and Lebanon.
2. To obey Ayman Zuwahiri’s directives and follow up the Iraq campaign with an offensive in the Levant.
Looking at the full gamut of al Qaeda’s stepped up operations in the Middle East – from Iraq up to Egyptian Sinai – and its creation of newly-recruited networks in the past six months for operations in Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon – DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts judge that the fundamentalist organization headed by Osama bin Laden is in the process of dynamic momentum.