Terrorism Comes to Damascus: Syria Faces its Own Islamist Threat
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 20
After a generation of internal stability Syria was struck by a terrorist attack in its capital of Damascus on September 27. According to an official Syrian source, 17 people were killed and 14 injured when a car bomb detonated in a crowded area on the busy main road that links the city with Damascus international airport. Though the explosion took place near the headquarters of the Palestine Security Service, a branch of Syria’s extensive security complex, all of the casualties were reported to be civilians, save for a military officer and his son. Later reports cited claims by Syrian opposition groups that the officer killed was Brigadier General Abdul Karim Abbas, who was questioned by the international commission investigating the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri (Naharnet, September 29; Middle East Times, October 6). The car was estimated to have held 200 kg of explosives. General Bassam Abdul Majeed, the Syrian interior minister, described the attack as a terrorist act (sana.sy, September 28).
A day later Syrian authorities issued a statement with more details about the attack. Authorities detailed the results of the initial investigation:
[A] terrorist was driving the car used in the attack. The vehicle is a GMC, plate number 83115 and had entered the country on September 26, 2008, through a border check point coming from a neighboring Arab country… the process of identifying the suicide attacker is continuing by checking the DNA of his dead body… the investigation with the arrested suspects has shown that the terrorist attacker is linked to a Takfiri [Islamic extremist] group. Members of that group had been arrested previously and their interrogation and the search for fugitives will continue (sana.sy, September 29).
The Syrian statements did not initially specify the group alleged to be involved or the country from which the car originated. In addition to non-Arab Turkey and Israel, Syria shares a border with three Arab countries: Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
After announcing the arrest of the alleged Syrian ringleader charged with responsibility in the Damascus bombing, President Assad claimed that some members of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian “March 14” political coalition were financing terrorist activities in Syria. The president added that Syria was threatened by “radical fundamentalist groups in north Lebanon trying to use Syria as a passage between Lebanon and Iraq” (Ya Libnan, October 17).
The Missing Name
Syrian security forces have had a number of clashes with the jihadi group Jund al-Sham (the Army of Greater Syria) over the last few years. Jund al-Sham was founded in Afghanistan in 1999 by associates of the late Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006). The group is the only jihadi organization referred to by name by the Syrian government when it attributes similar attacks or when commenting on confrontation with Islamic militant groups. In March 2006 the Syrian security forces killed Mohammed Ali Naseef, the most wanted figure of Jund al-Sham, in an armed clash near Damascus. In September 2006 the Syrians foiled a car bomb attack on the American embassy in Damascus. The Syrian government then used the same phrase, a “Takfiri terrorist group,” to describe the organization that was supposedly behind the attack (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 13, 2006). It is possible that Jund al-Sham is the unnamed group suspected of carrying out the September 27 bombing.
Jihadis Accuse the Government
For days after the attack there was a conspiracy theory presented by jihadis to explain the incident. The pro-jihadi web magazine of the al-Yaqeen Media Center wrote that the attack was arranged by the Syrian regime in order to win the sympathy of the world: “The Syrian regime, which was labelled as the biggest obstacle for regional security, has gained the sympathy of the West. The formal statements showed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strangely supporting the regime. She also met the Syrian foreign minister after a long break [in relations].” Al-Yaqeen Media Center criticized the official Syrian story, saying that the 200 kg of explosives that the regime said was used in the attack would have left a bigger hole. It also accused the regime, which it refers to as the Nusayri (Alawite) regime, of covering up the facts and criticized it for letting only the state-run Syrian TV crew into the site of the explosion.  The analysis suggests that the explosion happened by mistake but was used by Syrian authorities to their advantage:
Why did the regime arrest dozens of Salafi Sunni theological students a few hours after the attack? What is the link between the way the accident was presented in the media and the Syrian military gathering on the border with Lebanon? Does the Nusayri regime want to intervene in Lebanon to help the Maronite Crusader Lebanese army in its preparations for a battle against the honourable Muslims in Tripoli? (…) The impression is that the regime itself made the accident and sacrificed 17 innocent people…
The Missing Source
In an exclusive interview with a Lebanese newspaper three days after the attack, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that northern Lebanon has become a real base for extremism, which represents a danger to Syria (al-Bayrak, September 30).
The sectarian conflict between the anti-Syrian Sunnis and pro-Syrian Alawites escalated and turned violent last summer in Tripoli, the biggest city in northern Lebanon. In early September, President Assad, a member of the powerful Alawite minority, considered the situation in Lebanon still fragile; speaking at a summit in Damascus attended by the leaders of France, Turkey and Lebanon, Assad said that there will be no stability in Lebanon without terminating the problem of the extremism of the Salafi powers in northern Lebanon (al-Jazeera, September 5). A few days after that warning, the Syrian president sent 10,000 soldiers to the border with northern Lebanon. A spokesman for the Lebanese army said that his country asked Syria for clarification about the reason of the deployment and Syria replied that it was for internal security reasons (al-Arabiya, September 22).
With Syria increasing the size of its force on the border after the September 27 bombing, Lebanese Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri, who heads the anti-Syrian “March 14” alliance in parliament, accused President Assad of threatening Lebanon’s sovereignty. Al-Hariri stated, “We want to tell the international community and especially our friends in France that it is dangerous to endorse any direct or indirect intervention by the Syrian regime in Lebanon under the excuse of countering the extremists’ attacks” (BBCArabic.com, September 30). The French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken steps lately to refresh relations with Syria, reversing the hard line taken by former President Jacques Chirac.
A Blast in Tripoli
Two days after the Damascus bomb, a bus carrying Lebanese soldiers was bombed in Tripoli. Seven people were killed in the attack, which was the third of its kind targeting the Lebanese army. Lebanese security forces arrested two Lebanese and a Palestinian in operations in Tripoli and the nearby al-Bidawi Palestinian refugee camp, claiming the suspects were part of a terrorist cell responsible for the attacks. The cell was believed to be tied to the Palestinian Islamist extremist group Fatah al-Islam. The arrests came after a visit to Damascus by Brigadier General Edmond Fadel, the newly appointed director of Lebanese military intelligence (al-Hayat, October 13, al-Akhbar [Beirut], October 16). Syrian media claimed the arrested men also confessed to involvement in the Damascus attack (Souria al-Ghad, October 14). At the same time, a pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper reported Lebanese security forces had started to pursue Syrian opposition elements in Lebanon (As-Safir [Beirut], October 14).
Al-Absi Detained in Syria?
The Lebanese army battled Fatah al-Islam for nearly four months last year in the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. The fighting ended in September 2007 when the camp fell to Lebanese forces, but without the arrest of Fatah leader Shakir al-Absi, who disappeared as Lebanese troops entered the camp.
It was reported that Shakir al-Absi had been arrested in Syria. Lebanese and other pan-Arab media reported that the Syrians told the French president Nicolas Sarkozy in early September that al-Absi was in a Syrian prison (Al-Quds al-Arabi, September 4). President Assad later stated that al-Absi’s daughter had been arrested and was providing information on plans to target Syria (Ya Libnan, October 17).
Syria has become the main crossing point for foreign fighters going to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Four years later, Syria seems to have changed its policy, possibly angering various jihadi groups intent on infiltrating fighters across the Syrian/Iraqi frontier. In late 2007 then-Coalition commander General David Petraeus praised Syria’s cooperation in reducing violence in Iraq; “Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of the foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq” (VOA, December 6, 2007).
The Damascus bombing was the third serious security incident in Syria this year. In February, Imad Mugniyah, a top military figure of the Lebanese Hezbollah, was killed by a car bomb in Damascus (BBC, February 13, 2008). In August, Brigadier General Muhammad Sulaiman, a top aide of President Assad and his liaison to Hezbollah, was assassinated by a sniper in the Syrian coastal city of Tartous (al-Hayat, August 07, 2008). Brigadier Sulaiman had given testimony to the international commission on Rafik Hariri’s death only days before his murder (Middle East Times, October 6).
Syrian statements about terrorist activities on Syrian soil are usually ambiguous; the regime has been always secretive when it comes to security affairs. Yet this policy might have become inappropriate after the recent attack and assassinations. Syria, which has historic links with various terrorist organizations and individuals, has felt the heat of major attacks in urban areas. The image of a stable and secure country has been shaken severely after recent events. Syria needs a new approach to handle the current situation – its previous policy of accommodation and sponsorship of various terrorist movements is unlikely to placate the anti-Baathist, anti-Alawite Salafi-Jihadi groups.
Without Syrian cooperation it would have been difficult to reduce the violence in Iraq. However, Syria was also pursuing its own interests by securing its own territory. Although permitting terrorists to transit from Syria into Iraq provides leverage against Washington, a terrorist safe haven in Iraq would be dangerous for Damascus. Syria has now sent an ambassador to Baghdad, two years after the two countries announced that they would restore ties, ending a 24-year break in diplomatic relations. As the Iraq security forces continue to develop, both countries have an interest in creating an effective system to control their borders.
Lebanon has been suffering sectarian violence and terrorist attacks since the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Three years after its withdrawal from Lebanon, Syria still has influence and allies in Lebanon. Damascus could use that influence to encourage a genuine national reconciliation between the Lebanese. The recent move to establish diplomatic relations with Beirut is an encouraging sign and a historic development in the relationship between the two countries, as Syria has traditionally regarded Lebanon as a temporarily detached part of a greater Syrian state. Recognition of Lebanese sovereignty will enable both parties to coordinate their efforts against terrorism. The current Lebanese President Michel Sulaiman has good relation with the Syrians and was head of the Lebanese Army during the period of Syrian military and political domination of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Sunni fear of marginalization in Lebanon needs to be addressed, especially as Syrian and Lebanese security forces take measures against cross-border Salafi-Jihadi terrorism.
1. The Alawites or Nusayris are a syncretistic Shiite sect incorporating a significant degree of Christian and pre-Islamic traditions in their belief system. The true nature of Alawi theology is kept secret and is known only to a small number of initiates. Dating back to the 10th century, the sect is concentrated in the Syrian Mediterranean coast. They are estimated to be a minority in Syria (about 10%, compared to 70% Sunni Muslims). In 1970 the late President Hafiz al-Assad became the first Alawite ruler of Syria while leading the secular Arab-nationalist Baath Party. Although Sunnis are well represented in the government and the Baath Party in Syria, Alawites control the sensitive strategic and security positions in the country. Alawites represent an even smaller minority in neighboring Lebanon, where they live mainly in the northern part of the country. Nusayri is the traditional name for the sect – the term “Alawite” (followers of Ali) only came into general use in the 1920s.