There are many points of resemblance between the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Damascus of Tuesday, Sept 12, the day after the 9/11 fifth anniversary, and al Qaeda’s assault two years ago on the US consulate general in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah on Dec. 6, 2004.
Both occurred at 10:00 am, when the staff were all at their desks and therefore prey to maximum American casualties and/or hostage-taking.
In both cases, the assault squads drove up in two bomb cars and managed to breach the ring of local security officers guarding the embassy compound’s perimeter.
In Damascus it was manned by Syrian guards and in Jeddah by Saudis.
Subsequent investigation of the Saudi attack elicited Saudi security insider collaboration with the assailants. It is early days to determine what happened in the Syrian capital.
The size of the assault teams was about the same, 8-12 gunmen (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 185 of December 10, 2004).
In both attacks, the gunmen first detonated the smaller of two bomb vehicles to chase away the perimeter guards outside the compound and the US Marines atop the embassy roof.
They intended bringing up the minivan with its deadly load of pipe bombs connected to gas canisters to blow a hole in the main gate or wall of the compound. The attack team would then swarm through and race to the building.
In Jeddah, they succeeded and got as far as storming the consulate.
In Damascus they did not – possibly because they failed to detonate the pipe bombs and blow up the gas canisters.
When they saw their main operation had flopped, the terrorists took over the open square in front of the embassy building and raked the Syrian guards and US Marines with heavy automatic fire. They also lobbed a large number of hand grenades into the embassy yard and tried to damage the building by shooting RPG anti-tank missiles, which set off fires in the embassy. This sent plumes of black smoke over the building.
The gunfight went on more like 90 minutes than the 15-20 minutes which Syrian sources described.
A mixed Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanese assault team
An American witness on the spot described the episode:
I live about half a mile from the embassy and heard gunshots coming from that direction as I was leaving my apartment on my way to work. I thought they were firecrackers. As I got closer to Rawda I saw white smoke slowly rising from the street in front of the US embassy. Later, I saw more smoke closer to the building but it was black. There were men with machine guns who were not wearing uniforms of any kind surrounding the fountain in the square and hiding behind trucks while shooting in the direction of the embassy. It sounded as if someone were shooting back at them. I couldn’t tell if it was the Marines who guard the embassy shooting at them or someone else.
Signed: Greg, Damascus, Syria
When a large Syrian security force arrived on the scene, most of the assailants ran and are presumed to have jumped into getaway vehicles prepared in advance. Four terrorists, who stayed behind to cover the retreat, barricaded themselves in buildings opposite the embassy. They continued shooting from there until the Syrian special security unit stormed the building, killed three and badly injured a fourth.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that the forensic evidence taken from the two bomb cars, the three bodies and the single captive suggest a mixed assault team made up of Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese nationals who came from Lebanon.
If this assumption is borne out by the investigation, it would indicate a combined attack by Jund a- Sham, which is the Syrian military branch of al Qaeda, and Asbat al-Ansar, Al Qaeda’s fighting arm in Lebanon.
This would tie in with one of the theories voiced in some counter-terrorist agencies that the attack plus the efficient way it was foiled by Syrian security forces signifies a faked stunt by some part of the Bashar Assad government with a view to extracting a word of gratitude from Washington and improving Syria’s standing in the West.
The Lebanon war held up al Qaeda’s “good news” for the Jews
Al Qaeda’s propaganda department worked overtime to produce three videotapes to cloud America’s memorial ceremonies on the 5th anniversary of the attacks on the United States. One showed Osama bin Laden meeting the 9/11 attackers and two were speeches by Ayman Zawahiri, his deputy.
In Zahahiri’s first tape, he warns Western leaders they will soon be evicted from the Gulf and face economic doom. As for Israel, al Qaeda’s “holy war” is closing in and “your end will put an end to Zionist-crusader supremacy.”
He added cryptically: “New events” are on the way.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts after analyzing the texts of al Qaeda’s second-in-command have arrived at five conclusions:
1. Al Qaeda is in mid-preparation of a grand new terror offensive against the emirates to strike Western interests and stop “the theft of Muslim oil” by western countries.
Gulf oil installations, pumping and port facilities are therefore in direct line of fire.
2. Al Qaeda is in the same advanced stage of preparing mega-attacks on Israel.
Since September 2005, when Israeli troops finally pulled out of the Gaza Strip under Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan”, al Qaeda has gradually scaled up the pitch of its threats to Israel.
3. There is logic in the series of videotapes.
The narrator of the first segment, an old one depicting bin Laden with fighters which was released on Sept 11, repeatedly highlights Qaeda's argument that its attacks were in reaction to “oppression of Palestinians and other Arabs” and promises to settle accounts with “the Jews.”
The “good news” awaited in relation to the Jews, which Zawahiri promised in his first tape, is held up for a reason clarified in his second speech, namely the unforeseen outbreak of the Lebanon war and the deployment of European troops in the south.
3. Clearly, al Qaeda’s original plan was held up for revision in the wake of that war; the amended objective is to coordinate attacks on two targets: the European forces in Lebanon and Israel (the Jews and the Crusaders.)
In the second tape, Zawahiri goes on to denounce the UN force in Lebanon as enemies of Islam. “The strongest way to aid our Muslim brothers… is to strike the interests of Jews and Crusaders and those who cooperate with them.”
Zawahiri orders UN force attacked as enemies of “our brothers” (Hizballah)
Translated into operational language, he wants al Qaeda’s Lebanon members to attack the UN forces deployed in south Lebanon because UNIFIL’s mission is to subdue “our Muslim brothers” (Hizballah). By creating a buffer zone between Muslim fighters and Israel, the international force – the Crusaders – impedes al Qaeda’s plans to attack Israel.
Security Council 1701 is a terrible resolution, he says, because it “isolates al Qaeda fighters in Palestine from al Qaeda in Lebanon.”
4. While al Qaeda sees some impediments on the Lebanese-Israeli border, emanating from that “terrible resolution,” the Lebanese- Syrian border remains free and clear.
Dozens of illicit crossing points are used by smugglers and by the Syrians themselves to slip arms through to the Hizballah as well as drugs, source of the vast revenues enjoyed by the Assad clan and Syrian bigwigs, who control most of Lebanon’s drug production and traffic.
5. For al Qaeda, an attack on the US embassy in Damascus by its own adherents or Lebanese Islamist affiliates represents an important operational step in terms of al Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon and its collaboration with Hizballah.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources point out that the attack on the Damascus embassy was both a monument to al Qaeda’s most spectacular attack exactly five years ago and a contribution to some of Hizballah’s most vital strategic interests.
First: It occurred 24 hours after UK prime minister Tony Blair ended his first visit to Lebanon. The Shiite terrorists objected strenuously to Blair visiting Beirut; they are using the event as another lever to topple Fouad Siniora’s government.
Hizballah, or rather its Iranian godfather, has decided to put and end to the deployment of Western international troops in South Lebanon and US-British-French involvement in Lebanon. Tehran will no longer stand by as the Americans step up their effort get Hizballah disarmed.
(Read separate article in this issue on the plans for al Qaeda laid by Iran’s supreme ruler Ali Khamenei).
Second: Hizballah was looking for an opportunity to pay back the Bush administration for supporting Israel in the Lebanon war.
The terrorist attack on the embassy in Damascus satisfied that urge and also provided a convergence point for al Qaeda and Hizballah’s common objectives.
This commonality will be explored in the next article on al Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon and its strategic ties with Hizballah.