On November 28, Syria was hit by another terrorist attack. The story, as usual, is murky and not much information is available on the background of the man who blew himself up on the Syrian-Lebanese border (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, November 28). The terrorist attack comes shortly after gunmen were killed after carrying out a military operation at the Ummayad Square in downtown Damascus in June, and another operation was carried out by Islamist terrorists at the U.S. Embassy in the Syrian capital in September (Terrorism Focus, June 27). Many, however, still refuse to believe that such stories are authentic, claiming that they are fabrications by the Syrian government to score points with the U.S. administration and show the Bush administration that Syria and the United States have the same enemy.
Yet in the three latest operations, there were ordinary Syrian citizens who witnessed the events and, in some cases, suffered property losses as a result of the fighting. Others died in the violence, such as the night watchman at Syrian Television, and a schoolteacher and policeman who happened to be near a shootout between terrorists and Syrian security back in April 2004. In the latest attack, at 1:45 PM a taxi cab drove up from the Syrian side of the Syrian-Lebanese border, a region known as Jdeidet Yabous. A 28-year-old man came out, with his daughter and wife, and approached passport control. His real name was Omar Abdullah but had documents with an alias name of Omar Hamra. Officials at the border checkpoint say that he quarreled with passport control over his daughter’s identification papers, which apparently were forged as well. When the policeman on duty tried to snatch the documents, Abdullah ran away. Security followed, and he began firing at them from a small firearm (New TV [Beirut], November 28). When he was cornered, he detonated an explosive belt, killing himself instantly and wounding two security officials as well.
Syrian TV and the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported the story shortly afterwards, saying that Abdullah was commander of the military unit of the Tawhid and Jihad group, a terrorist faction of Jund al-Sham, loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who headed the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike earlier this summer. It was the first time that SANA mentioned Tawhid and Jihad. The official story, which was confirmed by officials at the border and taxi drivers who stop at the checkpoint daily, adds that nine IDs were found on the man, four being fake Syrian papers and the rest being Lebanese. Each carried a different alias. A reliable and also independent Syrian news source, called Syria-News, which was allowed to visit the premises of the attack, reported that it was “possible to see the suicide bomber’s body, which had splintered across 100 meters.”
The Syrian regime might have exaggerated the Islamic threat in the past to justify its clampdown on political Islam, but it cannot fabricate terrorist attacks of this kind for a variety of reasons. First, it would be devastating for tourism in Syria. Coinciding with the attack was an announcement from the Ministry of Tourism that its budget for 2007 will be around $5.5 million, aimed at encouraging tourists to come to Syria. Second, the Syrian regime places security at the top of its political, military and economic agenda. It slowly and very delicately built a reputation of being a country that has visible red lines when it comes to security. It does not tolerate any person or group meddling with national security. Damascus believes that failure in this hard-line policy would encourage other hostile, armed or radical Islamist groups to plan similar attacks.
Therefore, as was likely the case with the Ummayad Square attack and that of the one at the U.S. Embassy, this latest terrorist incident was real. After the Ummayad incident, it was said that one moderate cleric, Abu al-Qaqa, who has a strong powerbase in Aleppo, unknowingly inspired his supporters into action (Terrorism Focus, June 27). According to this notion, he injected them with radical Islam but never instructed them to use it against Western interests or their fellow countrymen. Like the Ummayad square attack, this latest incident shows that Islamist terrorism remains a threat to Syria.