Along with the many other American recriminations against Syria and its covert nuclear reactor, the US ambassador to the United National Zalmay Khalilzad this week pointed the finger at Damascus as the entry point for “90 percent of all known foreign terrorists in Iraq.”
He said: “Syria continues to allow foreign fighters to transit Syria en route to conducting attacks in Iraq and we know that al Qaeda terrorist facilitators continue to operate inside Syria.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources disclose that Khalilzad referred to a highly efficient Palestinian network called Usbat al-Unsar (the League of Partisans), which runs a smooth operation for recruiting Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon as suicide killers and smuggling them into Iraq through Syria.
This al Qaeda branch did not spring up recently. It has operated from the earliest days of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, undisturbed by any Western counter-terror agency although it is listed in Washington as a terrorist organization.
The Usbat al-Ansar network is based in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp – Ain Hilwa near the southern port town of Sidon. Its founder, a Sunni jihadi extremist Hissam Shreidi, was killed in 1991 in a quarrel with one of the camp’s Fatah commanders. His successor, Ahmad al-Saadi (Abu Mojen), began organizing the transfer of Palestinian terrorists from Lebanon to bin Laden’s training camps in the mid-1990s. By the end of the decade, it was receiving al Qaeda funding. Most of the first recruits were transferred after training to Chechnya. After the Chechen revolt was stamped out, they began returning to Lebanon.
Three months of special instruction for suicides
Enter Sheik Abu Sharif Aqal, a Palestinian jihadi about which nothing more is known, who then took over the recruiting operation for al Qaeda in Iraq in all parts of Lebanon. He also maintains connections with Sunni Islamist groups in other parts of the region and brings volunteers for Iraq over to Lebanon.
All the recruits are processed at two facilities which Aqal set up at departure points in Lebanon when Syria dominated Lebanon (up until 2005).
One is situated on the shores of Lake Qaroun at the mouth of the Litani River in South Lebanon and the second at the Majdal Anjar compund, which for three years served Damascus as its military headquarters, in the Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, close to the Syrian border.
According to our counter-terror sources, the recruits receive basic training at the two facilities in the use of weapons and explosives. Usbat al-Ansar instructors then pick out candidates for suicide missions. They are given three months of special instruction and transferred from Lebanon to Syria, where they are scattered among safe houses in Damascus and the northern town of Homs.
When their assignment orders arrive, they are led by Syrian guides across the border into Iraq.
None of the American or other Western agencies gathering information on al Qaeda adherents fighting in the Middle East and Iraq knows the total figure of Palestinian terrorists secreted from Lebanon through Syria into Iraq. They estimate that among the 200-300 fighters and suicide killers smuggled into Iraq every month, Usbat al-Ansar recruits account for scores.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that lately Sheikh Aqal has fallen out with al Qaeda’s leaders in Iraq. They want some of his recruits from the Lebanese camps to be diverted to West Europe to launch suicide operations there. Sheik Aqal is standing fast against this demand, insisting on his charges being reserved for the primary mission of fighting Americans in Iraq – or else they stay in Lebanon.