Shaqer Abazi has big ideas but he is hardly a celebrity in the West or even in the Arab world. His name is bandied among the unknown jihadis fighting for al Qaeda in the fields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. They know him as a notorious al Qaeda death squad chief.
One of his major feats, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report, was leading the al Qaeda team which gunned down the senior American diplomat Lawrence “Larry” J. Foley in Amman on Oct. 28, 2002. Behind his cover as USAID director in Jordan, Foley was in fact a senior US intelligence officer. His murder just over a year after 9/11
was a painful blow for US intelligence.
According to our sources, Abazi managed to flee Jordan after the killing and cross the border into Syria where the local military intelligence picked him up. A secret military tribunal sentenced him to three years in jail.
When US intelligence discovered the whereabouts of Foley’s killer in Damascus’ notorious Maza prison, they pressed the Syrian government to hand him over, or at least let American agents question him. They were refused time and again.
In 2005 he was a free man.
Now, once again, in December 2006, Shaqer Abazi is back in the same Damascus jail – not because the Americans want him, but because of the high risk he poses Syria’s national security and the damage he has wrought Syria’s political and logistic support system and plans for radical Palestinian organizations.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, when Abazi was released from jail in late 2005, he reported back to work for al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zuwahri gave him a key task in al Qaeda’s next major enterprise, its Palestinian master-project.
He entrusted Abazi with the sensitive tasks of deepening al Qaeda’s penetration of armed Palestinian bodies and arranging the transfer of al Qaeda fighters and recruits from Syria and Lebanon to the Gaza Strip first and the West Bank next.
While generally designated Osama bin Laden’s deputy, al Zuwahri is a force in his own right; he is the movement’s top gun in the organization of terrorist networks across West Europe, North Africa, the Saharan Region and the Middle East.
Zuwahri rates al Qaeda’s Palestinian venture as equal in importance to bin Laden’s 2004 campaign to enlist young Muslims around the world to fight Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s war of terror in Iraq. He believes his Palestine operation will be put the achievements of the late al Qaeda commander in Iraq in the shade, by striking simultaneously at al Qaeda’s two prime targets – America and Israel.
A Fatah group joins al Qaeda
Abazi’s first step was to contact “Abu Khaled”, whose real name is Mussa Alama, leader of a group calling itself Fatah-Intifada who was born in the Jerusalem village of Silwan. Although over 70, Abu Khaled is still rated one of Fatah’s most skilled military commanders. He served under Yasser Arafat in the 1970s when Fatah ruled large parts of southern Lebanon. As commander of the Palestinian artillery units in Lebanon, he launched Katyusha rocket campaigns against northern Israel. Like many Fatah old-timers, he took exception to Arafat’s leadership and in the 1980s, settled in Damascus on a comfortable Syrian stipend.
Twenty years later, in the spring of 2006, Shaqer Abazi came knocking on his door with big talk. Abazi was absolutely certain that together, they were capable of repeating Zarqawi’s brilliant achievements and covering themselves with glory in al Qaeda’s new Palestinian campaign.
(As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported frequently, Zarqawi, who was killed in an American air strike last June, was acclaimed in radical Islamic circles as a great general who wrought untold harm to the American cause in Iraq. Earlier this month a US official, deputy secretary of state on Iraq affairs David Satterfield acknowledged “The Evil Genius of Zarqawi”).
The retired Palestinian gunner’s imagination was fired. He was back in harness in no time, reviving old ties with the operational elements of Fatah-Intifada. Syrian military intelligence, pleased to see the pensioned-off terrorist back in action, funded a new recruitment center in central Damascus, welcoming the chance of mobilizing fresh Palestinian fighting strength for the Gaza and West Bank fronts against Israel.
The groups were taken to the Fatah-Intifada training installations lodged in the Palestinian Zabdani and Nahar al-Bard refugee camps near the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. There they renamed their group Fatah al-Islam and grew beards.
Damascus’ agents in the Lebanese training centers started asking questions. But Syrian military intelligence was slow to catch on to the real sponsors behind the new Palestinian intake. It took a while before they realized that the man smuggling large groups of Palestinians and ex-Iraq fighters from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan across the border into Lebanon was none other than the former jailbird, Shaqer Abazi.
It then dawned on the Syrians that their Palestinian operation had been hijacked and reinvented as al Qaeda’s big new venture. When they spotted Shaqer Abazi hanging about the Damascus recruiting center, they realized they had been duped.
Al Qaeda’s next major enterprise – to set Palestine on fire
But by early October, some 400 Palestinians had already been smuggled from Syria into Lebanon. Never before had al Qaeda walked off with the entire core membership of a Fatah group. From northern Lebanon, the recruits headed south – overland to South Lebanon and by small smugglers boats to the Gaza Strip.
There, two local Palestinian terrorist groups were on hand to receive the new arrivals: The Abu Rish Brigades, formerly an integral part of Fatah, defected in the internecine war. The group now sports the name The Islamic Sword-Abu Rish Brigades.
The second faction which came out to welcome the newcomers to Gaza was the al Qaeda-affiliated Army of Islam, whose leader is Zakariya Durmush.
At this point, al Zuwahri stepped into the Palestinian factional conflict.
He branded Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas as “America’s man”, and rebuked both Fatah and Hamas for conduct contrary to al Qaeda’s basic tenets.
In a taped broadcast over Al Jazeera TV, on Dec. 20, he raged “Those who try to liberate the Islamic territories through elections based on secular constitutions… will not liberate one grain of sand of Palestine. Liberation will only be achieved by jihad.”
Normally, al Qaeda takes its time before responding to events – especially by top figures. This time, al Zuwahri was unusually quick off the mark, reflecting the big stake al Qaeda had begun investing in the Palestinian conflict.
He condemned Palestinian elections as un-Islamic just five days after Mahmoud Abbas announced early presidential and parliamentary polls. (See also HOT POINTS below).
The al Qaeda leader was also warning Syria that it was playing with fire. By then, Damascus had put the would-be shooting stars, Abazi and Abu Khaled, behind bars.
Zuwahri was telling the Syrians that by locking them up, they had not squashed al Qaeda’s Palestinian project. There were plenty more jihadis to lead and man its networks for Palestine.
So far, US and Israeli policy-makers and army chiefs have ignored al Qaeda’s plan to launch its next major enterprise after Iraq to set the Palestinian territories on fire and also threaten Israel from the north. The Palestinian communities of Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip are ripe for conscription to Osama bin Laden’s movement and ready to take part in terrorist operations that may be as sweeping and devastating as Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s campaign in Iraq.