Across the Bay

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The NYT's Discovery of Fateh al-Islam

The NYT has dedicated considerable space to a rather superficial piece on Fateh al-Islam.

The authors were so focused on painting it as an al-Qaeda phenomenon that they completely failed to properly examine a crucial angle: Syria.

There is a series of astonishing statements in this article. Here's one example, on Fateh al-Islam's Shakir al-Abssi:

At the time of Mr. Foley’s death, Mr. Abssi had been in jail for two months, having been arrested on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria. He ultimately served three years in prison, says Mounir Ali, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.

Mr. Ali denied recent reports in Lebanon that Syria sent Mr. Abssi to that country to stir trouble there. “This accusation is baseless,” Mr. Ali said. “After he was set free he restarted his terrorist activities by training elements in favor of Al Qaeda.”

He said Syria sought his arrest in late January, but discovered Mr. Abssi had “disappeared, and no one knew where he went.”

This is simply amazing for a number of reasons. First, the NYT doesn't actually take any time whatsoever to spell out what these "reports" from Lebanon are, which include confessions to plots to assassinate 36 anti-Syrian figures and planned attacks against UNIFIL on orders from the Syrian intelligence services. Nothing about how about 200 fighters were smuggled in from Syria. The only thing the Times includes, at length, is the statement of a Syrian official!

At best, we get this lame short caveat, in brackets no less:

[This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities and were charging them with the February bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Mr. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.]

Second, and perhaps most jaw-dropping, is the complete absence of all critical faculties in the face of the official's statement that Abssi served three years in jail on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria as a Jihadist, and then was simply released and the Syrians somehow lost track of him!

Let me put it in perspective for you. In Syria, practically every day the authorities arrest people, often students or young professionals, on suspicion of belonging to "a religious organization" (code for the Muslim Brotherhood). These people get, consistently, a standard 12-year prison term, which is actually the commuted sentence from the death penalty, which is the official penalty for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Mind you, these people aren't accused of "plotting attacks inside Syria" and they get the standard 12 years.

Besides, when was the last time you heard that anyone plotting attacks in Syria was "arrested" to begin with!? They are almost invariably all killed. The latest one that was arrested, in the attack against the US embassy there, conveniently "died in custody" before anyone other than the Syrian authorities could interrogate him.

Somehow we are now asked to believe, as the NYT did, that a Jihadist, with supposed ties to networks in other countries, who was charged with plotting attacks inside Syria, was handed a mere 3-year sentence (less than the sentences handed down to the poor civil society activists) and was simply released, to go back to his al-Qaeda activities, as the official put it, but somehow the Syrians "lost track" of him!

Which leads us to the third point. After this "inconvenient" disappearance, Abssi surfaces in a camp in northern Lebanon, among Fateh al-Intifada no less. Now of course, you shouldn't rely on the NYT to tell you anything about that group, probably because the NYT has no clue in hell who they are, and that they are, and are openly known to be, a Syrian creation.

It also tells you nothing about the highly suspicious circumstances of the supposed "split" and the declaration of the birth of Fateh al-Islam. There's no mention either of the statements of Fateh's (the original one) representative, Sultan Abul Aynayn, who called Fateh al-Islam, "a phenomenon that's not of Palestinian birth, but perhaps a Cesarian birth from regional forces." No, the NYT is totally satisfied with the Syrian official's narrative.

As if that weren't bad enough, the NYT feels compelled to essentially echo more Syrian propaganda:

Lebanon has increasingly become a source of terror suspects. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Lebanon, as did six men charged with planting bombs on German trains last summer. Two other Lebanese men and a Palestinian were among those accused last spring of plotting to blow up the PATH train tunnels beneath the Hudson River.

By indirectly linking the Fateh al-Islam story to 9/11 and other terror attacks/plots in the West, the NYT completely alters the context within which the group came to the spotlight (besides, Ziad Jarrah's "conversion" happened in Germany, not in Lebanon, and in an entirely different context). There is not a single word about how the Syrians themselves (from Bashar to Walid Moallem, to Mohsen Bilal, to Amr Salem, etc.) have been obliquely threatening that they will unleash al-Qaeda in Lebanon, and specifically against UNIFIL. Yeah, it's like Bashar said, he's "concerned" about al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Or as his minister Amr Salem put it, Syria can offer "real, hard knowledge" about al-Qaeda's whereabouts in Lebanon. But apparently they couldn't track down Abssi when they released him after serving three years and then he resurfaced amidst their proxies in a camp in Lebanon.

This is where you get echoes of Hersh. Hersh had spelled it out, using two old CIA hands who have been loudly calling for the same thing: let's just invite the Syrians to "help us" on al-Qaeda, after all, as Baer and Leverett said, Syria offered direct assistance after 9/11.

And like Hersh, the NYT completely sets aside the murky relationship between Syria and these groups, and how Syria often uses them (specifically Jund al-Sham), and how one of the principle recruiters of Jihadists to fight in Iraq, the so-called Abu Qaaqaa, was operating in broad daylight, and was said to be working with the regime.

Instead, all we get is the official Syrian line, completely unquestioned.