Across the Bay

Monday, October 01, 2007

Abu Qa'qa' and the Syrian Regime

The Syrian regime's very own Islamist and Jihadist recruiter Abu Qa'qa' was shot dead a couple of days ago in Syria.

In response to a line in a Naharnet report, the Syrian regime's resident apologist at the University of Oklahoma decided to wax indignant with this hysterical statement:

The claim is a last ditch means to bolster the half-baked contention that Absi and his gang of al-Qaida Sunni fundamentalists were taking orders from a secular, Alawite President who had helped America round up or kill al-Qaida jihadists in the past and who had give the order to kill Absi's son-in-law as he snuck across the Iraqi-Syrian border. Not convincing.

Unfortunately this sort of nonsense is convincing to some members of the U.S. House, which Backs Lebanon against "Boot Licking" Proxies of Syria and Iran

Read Sami Moubayed's portrait of al-Qaqa
to get the best sense of the man. He explains how Qaqa was an indigenous product of Syrian malaise and why the government allowed him to operate openly. The key was that he was as anti-al-Qaida as he was anti-American.

Let's unpack this pile of garbage.

Let's start with the first dishonesty; the attack on the new House Resolution.

It's understandable that the Syrian regime and its flacks are upset that their fantasies about how Congress would hug the terrorist Assad now that the Democrats took the majority didn't materialize.

The resolution he mentions was introduced by a Democrat, Rep. Gary Ackerman, and it was co-sponsored by a ranking Democrat, Tom Lantos, who had visited Syria. Apparently he wasn't too impressed, just as Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wasn't. The resolution was also co-sponsored by Republican Darrell Issa, who also visited Damascus. Instead, they saw Assad for what he is, came back and called for a tougher policy towards the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Damascus. This is a consensual, mainstream policy adopted by the Europeans and the Arabs. Diplomats aren't even being "diplomatic" anymore when it comes to Syrian terrorism. Most recently French FM Kouchner came as close as you can to naming Syria as the one responsible for the terrorist murders in Lebanon when he responded to Emile Lahoud's rant at the UN. Egypt's Mubarak also came just as close to fingering the Syrians for the assassinations. Some Saudi officials (and Saudi papers) have already come out publicly blaming the Syrians for the assassinations in Lebanon.

Of course, Landis tries to conflate the resolution with the Abu Qa'qa' incident, but that's just another routine bit of dishonesty which we have grown accustomed to when dealing with Landis. The resolution has nothing to do with Qa'qa'. I know "the sinister Lebanese lobby" managed to brainwash Congress about Syria's support for terrorism and all (I'm sure it was they who booked an enduring spot for Syria on the US state sponsors of terror list where it's been since 1979), but I'm afraid they can't take credit for this one, especially when, you know, Qa'qa's killing came after the resolution was adopted.

Now let's move to the other couple of claims. I'm very glad that Landis quotes Sami Moubayed. I've kept track of what Moubayed has written about Abu Qa'qa'. We'll get to that in a second.

I was particularly amused to see Landis stick to his line about how Fateh al-Islam was a "gang of al-Qaida Sunni fundamentalists." Strange, cause it was none other than Moubayed who dispelled this notion in a recent piece. Of course, we didn't need Moubayed to know this, but since Landis holds him in such high esteem, I figure we'd quote him on this issue: "Fatah al-Islam tried - and failed - to affiliate itself with al-Qaeda." (Emphasis mine.)

So much for that. But what has Sami written about Abu Qa'qa'? Let's see:

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu al-Qaqa helped organize the infiltration of militant jihadists from Syria into Iraq. He publicly boasted about his role, which has been confirmed by jihadists captured in Iraq, including Muayed al-Nasseri, former commander of "the Army of Muhammad."[11] Abu al-Qaqa's high public profile led many observers to assume that he was operating under the protection of the authorities. In an October 2003 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he flatly declared, "I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria,"[12] a statement that would normally be unthinkable in Syria.

After the Syrian government began to crack down on terrorist infiltration into Iraq, Abu al-Qaqa's role became murkier. At least two jihadists interviewed by Western and Arab media voiced suspicions that he was helping the Syrian authorities hunt infiltrators.[13] In January 2004, an al-Qaeda-linked bulletin board called Abu al-Qaqa a "spy."[14] Around this time, Abu al-Qaqa disappeared from public life and it was rumored that he had traveled to Chechnya. He reappeared in Syria shortly after the Umayyad Square attack and gave a press interview denying all links to the terrorist attack, showering the government with praise, and calling for the Muslim street to work hand-in-hand with the Syrian government against US and Israeli interests in the Middle East.[15] (Emphasis mine)

Hmmm, so Abu Qa'qa' worked, with the regime, to recruit and transfer jihadists into Iraq to kill American soldiers and Iraqis. Hmmm, yes, so much for the "Alawite President who had helped America round up or kill al-Qaida jihadists." How "convincing."

So what did Sami say about that this time around?

The Western media have accused him of being the main sponsor of jihadis illegally crossing the Syrian border to fight in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.

Haa! The "Western media," eh? Does that include Moubayed himself, as per the quote above?!

Moving on, and following up on Landis' theme of the "Alawite President who helped the Americans" round up Jihadists:

Abu al-Qaqa is shown speaking to worshipers under the banner of a then-unknown group, Guraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). This became the umbrella under which he operated, and whose name was imprinted on all of his CDs. On camera, he tells his followers, who are assembled before him at a mosque: "We will teach our enemies a lesson they will never forget." He then asks: "Are you ready?" Thundering chants respond affirmatively from his audience, who get worked up into tears as they listen, and he carries on: "Speak louder so [US President George W Bush] can hear you!" Their tears make him weep as well, as he gets impassioned with anti-Americanism and adds: "Guests have come to our land ... slaughter them like cattle. Burn them! Yes, they are the Americans!"
His speeches began to sell like hot cakes in Aleppo, recorded on cassettes and CDs. One thing that made him popular was his anti-Americanism.
This is why Abu al-Qaqa was so important [to the Syrian regime] during the critical period of 2003-2007.

Yes, this of course was part of the "Alawite President's" help of the Americans: openly sponsoring a Jihadist recruiter and preacher. Do these people even hear themselves!?

Speaking of which, I found this part in Moubayed's most recent piece incredibly funny. After describing the discourse and the actions of this jihadist recruiter-cum regime agent, he drops this priceless line: "Despite what his critics say, he projected moderate Islam and was loyal to the Syrian government. Had he been any less charismatic or popular, he would have been no use to the Syrian government." (Emphasis mine.)

But it gets funnier. Moubayed now tells us that Abu Qa'qa' was "anti-al-Qaeda." Yet I seem to remember Moubayed writing in al-Ahram that Abu Qa'qa' "co-established, with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq after the US invasion." Oh, and back then, Moubayed contradicted what he's saying now when he wrote that "Abu Qaqa facilitated the sending of jihadists to Iraq, without informing Syrian authorities, since 2003." (Emphasis mine.) Oh yeah, for sure!

This is why I've dubbed Moubayed the undisputed king of comedy.

Of course, Moubayed is right about Abu Qa'qa' being a regime asset (not that we needed his testimony). Landis apparently didn't realize how that makes his earlier indignation about how the "Alawite secular" Assad is not possibly capable of supporting militant Sunni fundamentalists sound all the more pathetic and hilarious.

Apparently Assad had no problem whatsoever working with Sunni militant Islamists in Iraq, as evident from the Abu Qa'qa' example.

But let's leave Moubayed aside for one second. What has Landis himself written about this in the past? Let's find out. Here's one gem from July 2006:

Syria has the ability to funnel arms to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups as well as radical Sunni groups which allows it to destabilize Lebanon if its interests are ignored. (Emphasis mine.)

Hmmm, so it seems, incredibly, that the "Alawite secular President" can indeed aid Sunni militants in Lebanon; you know, like Fateh al-Islam perhaps!

So what's the catch? Moubayed says it perfectly: "As long as he did not instigate violence against the government, the Syrians were fine with Abu al-Qaqa."

Ahhhh... finally the other shoe drops. So Syria has no problem sponsoring militant Islamists, as long as they focus their operations abroad and in conjunction with the regime's own interests. This seems to fit perfectly with what Eyal Zisser wrote about Syria's relationship with radical Islamists:

Damascus started to see the Islamists as perhaps the only possible means by which to enhance its regional standing, gain influence in neighboring countries and bring domestic tranquility to Syria itself.

I urge you to read Zisser's article in full. See also how Le Figaro put it, paraphrasing unnamed Jordanian sources: "For the Jordanians ... their neighbors [the Syrians] are buying their security by tolerating jihadists on their soil."

But if you prefer Landis, he himself has said as much in a June 15, 2007 post, where he adopted and justified Syria's attack on UNIFIL and Lebanese figures: "Syria seems willing to play this game of chicken. It believes it can survive it. The fact that there have been no successful acts of terrorism in Syria for 20 years has produced a sense of invulnerability."

This game of chicken is the support of Islamist terrorism in the neighborhood without the slightest worry of a "blowback." Syria supports Islamists abroad, and either coopts them or represses them at home. If they play along, like Abu Qa'qa', Fathi Yakan, Hashem Minqara, Bilal Shaaban, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc., then they're welcome.

So please, spare me the very old canard that the "secular Alawite" Syrian regime "cannot" work with Islamists. They do it better than anyone, and they've been doing it for years and years.

Now, back to the Naharnet story around which Landis is trying to build his dishonest strawman "argument." First of all, the piece does not specify who the source is and never once specifies his nationality. So I know Landis is frustrated with the evil "Lebanese lobby" (though not with a capital L), but there's nothing in the story to indicate he's Lebanese. In fact, I've seen this claim made by Syrians in the opposition, including on Khaddam's website, which noted that Abu Qa'qa's assassination came after the Lebanese government made public some of the results of the investigation into Fateh al-Islam and their ties to Syrian military intelligence. It added that there were rumors in Aleppo that the decision to liquidate Abu Qa'qa' was taken by Asef Shawkat to cover the liaison relationship that he maintained between terrorist organizations and the Syrian military intelligence apparatus. Also, dissident Ma'moun Homsi touched on the regime's use of terrorist Islamists in a recent statement. He accused the regime of terminating Abu Qa'qa' after his role in "forming and exporting terrorist cells" was finished.

Furthermore, the Saudi al-Watan published a report along those lines, also noting "various media outlets" positing ties between Abu Qa'qa's organization and Fateh al-Islam and Jund al-Sham.

The al-Watan report concludes: "Reports add that the services of the fighters who were supposed to be sent to Iraq through Abu Qa'qa' were used and channeled outside Syria, and they were categorized into groups according to priorities of jihad based on the reports of their sheikhs who recruited and trained them, and who are, according to the reports, all from Syrian intelligence."

Of course, the rumors from Khaddam's site and about the regime's responsibility for Abu Qa'qa's assassination are speculative, but the point is that Syria has set up networks of "assets" like Abu Qa'qa' (whose case was no secret, and there are possibly many more like him) to recruit and use foreign Jihadists. They could be channeled to Iraq, or, they could be channeled to Lebanon, or, as Le Figaro recently reported, to Jordan; Wherever the Syrian regime needed their services, as per Zisser's description.

Whether Abu Qa'qa' was involved with Absi is immaterial. It's beside the point. Absi's ties to the regime lie elsewhere. The link, if one exists, would be in the recruitment and channeling of foreign Jihadists from Syria, which Le Figaro accurately described as "the rear base" for Jihadists. Whether the Fateh al-Islam fighters came from Abu Qa'qa's network or some other network in Syria is also immaterial (speaking of networks, see the latest reports from Germany about the plot to attack US facilities in Germany. The network and the detonators were traced back to Syria). They clearly came from Syria, as did Absi (who was based in pro-Syrian proxy Fateh Intifada camps), and Abu Salim Taha, who came from the Yarmouk camp, i.e., the bosom of Syrian intelligence.

Abu Qa'qa' was hardly the regime's only Islamist "asset." Aside from the likes of Fathi Yakan, I noted the case of Ahmad Mer'i, who, according to the pro-Syrian/Hezbollah/Iran rag al-Akhbar, was known, along with his father, to have ties with and a cover from Syrian intelligence. He was reported to have been a liaison between Syrian intelligence and Fateh al-Islam. Given the reports about his ties to them, it hardly seems far fetched.

"Not convincing"?! Puh-lease.

Update: Here's Asharq al-Awsat's Abdel Rahman al-Rashed on Abu Qa'qa' and the Syrian intelligence services.

Update 2:
Muhammad Abu Rumman echoes al-Rashed and writes in the Jordanian al-Ghad: "The Abu Qa'qa' model raises several issues such as the great penetration from which many al-Qaeda-linked groups suffer. This penetration does not stop at internal spying on these groups, but extends to their employment by regional parties to serve their goals and interests." Abu Rumman specifies Syria and Iran.

This argument was touched on in a piece by Talal Nizameddin, when he spoke of the dynamic of "a loose network of extremist cells that needed another state structure to provide it with cover, logistical support and intelligence guidance" and "states that need proxy groups to fight their battles." It was also discussed by Abdel Karim Abul Nasr. See also the Zisser article linked above and the Michael Young pieces linked here.

In a recent post I also noted that "[i]n the ongoing discussion about non-state actors in the Middle East, it's crucial not to ignore the role of states. In this case, to quote Barry Rubin again, Syria along with Iran are essentially functioning as, or are basically the closest thing to, state sponsors of al-Qaeda jihadism."

Update 3: Nicholas Blanford, who interviewed Abu Qa'qa' in 2003, writes in a piece for NOW Lebanon: "For the Syrian authorities, Qaqa represented a useful - and safe - medium to channel rising Islamic sentiment away from violence against the state and to direct it against the US instead. Qaqa apparently accepted the arrangement, which allowed him to preach once-dangerous views on Islam in Syria, while maintaining strong support for the state."