Political assassinations are a rarity in Syria. The regime in Damascus has other ways of disposing of its enemies at home – unlike in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria has no qualms about bombing its antagonists to death.
Many were therefore surprised when Sheikh Mahmoud Gull Aghasi, a Syrian Kurd, aged 43, known as Abu al-Qaqaa, was shot dead by a gunman as he left a mosque in the northern own of Aleppo on Sept. 28 after Friday prayers. Three people with him were injured.
The gunman was captured trying to escape. Syrian security officers also detained an accomplice who drove the killer to the scene of what was clearly a premeditated slaying. A few hours later, Aghasi died in hospital from gunshot wounds to the head and stomach.
The motives behind the crime clearly derive from the corkscrew twists of Sheikh Aghasi’s career and allegiances.
The dead man was infamous as a rabid anti-American who preached holy war against US forces. He operated a group which recruited fighters for Iraq.
Yet some radical sources alleged that of late he had broken faith with the Islamists and begun colluding with President Bashar Assad’s regime, for which betrayal several of their websites demanded that he be put to death.
He was also accused of including critical remarks about al Qaeda in his recent sermons. If he had been the victim of an al Qaeda assassin, it would mean that the jihadists had transferred their practice of liquidating Sunni tribal leaders siding with US forces in Iraq to their critics in Syria. This would also dangerously ratchet up the jihadists’ war against noncompliant Sunni Muslim figures in other parts of the Arab world,
The sprawling Muslim Brotherhood comes to mind as their prime target. The al Qaeda- Brotherhood feud erupted last year, when al Qaeda established “Islamic caliphates” in Iraq. The Brotherhood and mainstream Sunni Muslims maintained al Qaeda had no religious or canonical authority to do this.
Knowing too much of Syria MI dealings with al Qaeda
But that motive, while obvious and convincing, is knocked down by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s best informed counter-terror and intelligence sources. They point to the hand of Syrian Military Intelligence in the assassination rather than al Qaeda.
And the motive?
Our sources believe Abu al-Qaqaa, as a man with a foot in both camps, paid the price for knowing too much about Syrian Military Intelligence’s undercover dealings with al Qaeda in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Damascus covertly collaborated with al Qaeda when its interests were served, while overtly pretending to disavow such transactions when they proved embarrassing to the Assad regime. Aghasi was deeply immersed in the shady ties between the two murkiest Middle East terror-related organizations, Syria’s MI and al Qaeda.
In recent weeks, his own convoluted activities, especially in Lebanon, threatened to catch up with him and yield disclosures compromising Damascus.
No one had heard of Abu al-Qaqaa before 9/11. But ten days after the al Qaeda outrages in America, he popped up in northern Syria preaching support for Osama bin Laden and his assault on the US. It was then, in late 2001, that Syrian MI attempted to divert US intelligence suspicions that it was collaborating with al Qaeda by claiming to have planted a prime Syrian asset in al Qaeda’s ranks and offering to make him available for aiding the American war on terror. This offer was repeated subsequently.
The Americans never trusted him.
In 2002, US intelligence picked up Abu Qaqaa’s trail among al Qaeda fighters on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Towards the end of the year, he was discovered in the ranks of the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq and, in 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, Aghasi turned up in northern Syria at the head of a group he had formed called Rubaa al-Sham (Foreigners in Syria), which aimed to expel all foreign troops from Arab lands, including Iraq.
Al-Qaqaa’s talent as a spell-binding orator attracted a movement of tens of thousands of young Syrian and Palestinian followers in Syria and Lebanon. The sheikh built his own mosque in Aleppo as a recruiting center to bring in thousands of volunteers to fight the Americans in Iraq.
In 2005, he disappeared, leaving aides to carry on his work. He was tracked down in Yemen, where US intelligence agents found him working closely with a kindred spirit, the Yemeni sheikh Abdul Majid Al-Zandani.
The Americans have no doubt that Al-Zandani is dedicated to al Qaeda, although Yemeni president Abdullah Salah insists they are mistaken and he is a loyal helper in the US campaign against Islamist terrorists. To demonstrate Al-Zandani’s bone fides as a distinguished theologian rather than a terrorist, Salah appointed him President of Al-Eman University in Sanaa.
Al Zandani is the Yemeni president’s instrument for operating on one level as the Bush administration’s ally in the war on terror, while keeping in with Osama bin Laden and his operational echelons in the Arabian Peninsula, on another.
The Yemeni sheikh’s job description exactly matches that of the late al-Qaqaa in Syria.
In late 2005, when he returned from Yemen to Syria, the sheikh was awarded the post of director of the High Islamic Religious Seminary of Aleppo, the largest higher education institution in northern Syria. Officials in Damascus hoped the appointment would remove the taint of his services to al Qaeda as the recruiter of volunteers for Iraq.
Western intelligence sources report that the Syrian official cover-up persisted until his death. Under an academic-religious cloak, al-Qaqaa was Damascus’ point man through whom Syrian MI regulated the flow of volunteers to Iraq.
But Aghasi’s tortuous career was not destined to end in outward respectability.
On Sept. 2 2006, three terrorists suspected of ties with al Qaeda were killed after failing to storm the US embassy in Damascus. They were armed with automatic rifles, hand grenades and a van rigged with explosives, with which they managed to kill a Syrian security officer but no Americans. They terrorists were defeated by the high walls surrounding the embassy compound in Damascus’ Embassy Row.
The eleven people wounded included a police officer, two Iraqis and seven workers at a nearby technical workshop.
Returning to double dealings in Islamist terror
Syria never revealed the identity of the assailants or the outcome of its investigation except to say that they were attached to the Jund al Sham, which is linked to Al Qaeda. But according to intelligence reports reaching the West, the attackers were connected in some mysterious fashion to al-Qaqaa, the preacher Damascus had given a clean bill of health for forswearing terrorism.
The next chapter began three months later, in December 2006, when Syrian MI in Damascus detained Abu Khaled, whose real name is Mussa al Alameh. A Palestinian born in the Jerusalem village of Silwan, he turned out be a leading member of Abu Mussa’s Fatah-Intifada terrorist group.
Abu Khaled had managed to recruit for the group 300 Palestinian gunmen in the camps around Damascus to al Qaeda. His was the dubious distinction of having converted a part of the Palestinian Fatah’s hard core and brought it into the jihadist movement.
Abu Mussa, head of the movement, was discovered by the Syrians to have embezzled the funds they gave him to enlist and train Palestinians to fight Israel from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and spent the cash instead on training the new recruits on behalf of al Qaeda.
The man behind Mussa al-Alameh was none other than Sheikh Abu al-Qaqaa.
Abu Mussa’s training facility in the heart of Damascus was moving Palestinian fighters, as well as Iraqis, Saudis, Yemenis and Sudanis, back from Iraq into Syria. But, instead of sending them to fight the Israelis, he directed them straight into Lebanon. There they headed for the training camps of Fatah-Intifada, which was already planted inside Palestinian Nahr al Badr and Zabdani refugee camps of northern Lebanon near the town of Tripoli.
Renaming themselves Fatah al-Islam, in May 2007, the Islamists launched a bloody four-month revolt against the Lebanese army. The troops were held at bay in an indecisive battle until US military assistance helped them overwhelm the Islamist terrorists.
Syrian MI was able to finger the Abu al Qaqaa minion who organized the transfer of the Palestinian contingent from Syria to Lebanon. He was a Syrian called Shaqer Abazi, whose resume included complicity in the al Qaeda assassination on Oct. 28 2002, of the American diplomat Lawrence J. “Larry” Foley in Amman.
Syria Military Intelligence silenced a key witness to its Lebanese plot
After the murder, Abazi fled Amman across the border to Syria, where he was thrown into prison for three years until 2005.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, by untangling this intricate web of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, have concluded that Abu al-Qaqaa cheated the Fatah al-Islam group fighting in Lebanon.
On orders from Damascus, he let them believe they were fighting in the service of al Qaeda, when in fact they were being manipulated by Syrian MI into staging a revolt to bring the Lebanese army loyal to the pro-Western government in Beirut to its knees.
The Fatah al-Islam commander Shaqer al-Abssi, reported dead when Nahar al-Badr fell to the Lebanese army on Sept. 2, has since turned up alive and well in a Syrian MI safe house.
His survival was betrayed during US and Lebanese interrogations of Abu Salim Taha, Fatah al Islam operations officer, and Abu Jandal al Trabulsi, leader of the Salafit group captured in Tripoli after the battle was over. Trabulsi, like the other characters in this intrigue, was found owing double allegiances. He admitted to acting as liaison between Syrian MI and Fatah al-Islam during the battle in the camp, while also maintaining close contact with the ubiquitous Sheikh Abu al-Qaqaa.
Damascus, fearing the Lebanese interrogation was on the point of exposing its hand behind the Nahr al Bared battle, sent a sharp warning to Beirut. If Lebanese intelligence implicated Syria, Damascus would retaliate by disclosing testimony from Shaqer al-Abssi alleging that the pro-American Lebanese majority leader Saad Hariri was the secret banker and sponsor of the Fatah-al-Islam revolt.
Our sources report that there was a time in 2006, when Hariri did indeed secretly fund Fatah al-Islam in North Lebanon.
As the heat came dangerously close to Damascus, Syrian MI chief Gen. Asaf Shawqat decided to take no chances of Abu al Qaqaa adding to the incriminating leaks building up against his service. He decided to silence the most knowledgeable source of all on the Syrian MI’s machinations and covert ties with al Qaeda before it was too late.
Mahmoud Gull Aghasi paid the price of wearing too many hats for too long.