Violence in Syria Points to Growing Radical Islamist Unrest

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 23

According to reports in early June, Syrian authorities claim to have disrupted an attack by radical Syrian Islamists near Ummayad Square in Damascus, possibly targeting government buildings. A team of 10 armed militants allegedly opened fire against a Syrian police patrol around dawn after being spotted in an abandoned building located in the immediate vicinity of Syria’s state-run General Organization of Radio and Television headquarters and other key government buildings, including the Ministry of Defense, Criminal Security Department and Customs Department. The ensuing battle lasted for more than three hours. The militants also used hand grenades during the fight, which left four militants dead. A Syrian security official and a guard at Syrian Television were also killed while others were injured. The remaining six fighters were arrested (al-Hayat, June 3; al-Ahram, June 8).

The incident remains shrouded in mystery. No group has claimed responsibility for the apparent botched operation. Interestingly, Syrian authorities did mention that all of the assailants are Syrians who had once observed a Sufi tradition but have since adopted a radical fundamentalist takfiri worldview (al-Hayat, June 3). These details imply that Syrian intelligence tracked these individuals and may have more information about their origins and background than they are publicizing.

Some local Syrian sources suggest that the botched plot was actually the result of a U.S. and Israeli effort to destabilize Syria by supporting radical Islamist fundamentalists (Tishrin, June 3). Syrian officials did mention that the militants were armed with U.S.-made M-16 semi-automatic rifles, hunting rifles, mobile phones, homemade bombs and detonators. They also wore military camouflage uniforms (al-Jazeera, June 2; al-Hayat, June 3).

Significantly, Syrian sources claim that the captured militants were carrying CDs and cassettes of sermons by Mahmoud al-Aghasi (known as Abu Qaqa), a Syrian with close links to al-Qaeda. His sermons mention a previously unknown group called Ghuraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). It is unclear whether Ghuraba al-Sham is another name for Jund al-Sham (Army of Greater Syria), one of an array of obscure Syrian radical groups with alleged ties to al-Qaeda that have been implicated in violence during the last couple of years. Jund al-Sham has also been linked to Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (known as Abu Musab al-Suri), a leading Syrian al-Qaeda member. Abu Qaqa holds a Pakistani passport and is believed to be presently in Chechnya. He has been implicated in facilitating the streams of insurgents and other radicals that reportedly make their way to Iraq through Syrian territory. He is also reported to be linked to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He has spent time in prison for organizing radical activities in Syria (al-Ahram, June 8; al-Arabiya, June 5).

Upon cursory examination, this latest incident fits the larger pattern of simmering tensions and increasing violence between Syria’s radical Islamist community and the state. The ongoing insurgency in Iraq is also contributing to the radicalization of Syria’s Islamist opposition. Ongoing efforts by Damascus to stem the flow of insurgents and radicals to Iraq to fight U.S.-led coalition forces and recent reports alleging Syrian intelligence cooperation with Washington, including allegations of Syrian involvement in the detention and torture of al-Qaeda detainees in order to curry favor with Washington in the war on terrorism, is also sure to inflame tensions among Syria’s radical Islamist community.

It is important to differentiate between the different groups in the region bearing the same or similar names, including a distinct organization called Jund al-Sham based in Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and another implicated in the 2005 suicide attack in Doha. Tanzim Jund al-Sham (Organization of the Army of Greater Syria), which is implicated in attacks in Syria during the last year, is also believed to be a distinct organization (Terrorism Focus, October 4, 2005; Terrorism Focus, June 24, 2005).