In the mainstream view, al-Qaeda did not play a role in the Syria conflict until Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched his deputy, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, to Syria in August 2011 to establish a wing of the group there, called Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front. Additionally, al-Qaeda allegedly did not carry out any military operations until December 2011 and did not announce its establishment until January 2012.
However, there is evidence that al-Qaeda affiliated militants were involved in the Syrian conflict much earlier. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri all played key roles in dispatching al-Qaeda affiliated militants to Syria in the early stages of the conflict. They did so at the direction of U.S. and UK planners, who hoped to spark a sectarian civil war that would lead to regime change in Damascus.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) were dispatched to Syria from neighboring Iraq starting in late 2010. Starting in March 2011, they began attacking Syrian security forces, police, and soldiers under the cover of anti-government protests. Militants from Fatah al-Islam were dispatched from Lebanon to Syria for the same purpose as early as April 2011. Militants from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) began fighting in Syria in October 2011, after successfully toppling the Libyan government under the cover of NATO airpower. Additionally, there is evidence that the first protestors killed in Deraa on March 18, 2011 were killed by Salafist militants as part of a false flag attack, rather than by Syrian government security forces, as is commonly assumed.
In this essay, I review U.S. and UK efforts to partner with al-Qaeda affiliated groups to topple the Syrian government, and the role played by such militants in the first weeks and months of the 2011 Syrian conflict.
Regime Change Coming Your Way
U.S. planners have long sought to topple the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. U.S. General Wesley Clark famously revealed that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was part of a larger plan developed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office “to take out seven countries in five years,” including Iran, Libya, and Syria.
In December 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that within U.S. government circles, the “Pressure for regime change in Damascus is rising,” and that according to prominent neoconservative and architect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle, “Assad has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.” Perle, a member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board, made his comments in the context of a U.S.-sponsored effort to blame the Syrian government for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
In March 2006, former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam partnered with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali al-Bayanouni to form a new opposition group in exile, the National Salvation Front (NSF). In October 2006, several NSF members met with Michael Doran of the U.S. National Security Council, who was a close associate of prominent neoconservative and Bush administration official Elliott Abrams to discuss the possibility of regime change in Syria. Representatives of the NSF were also given a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz the same month.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Elliott Abrams warmed to the idea of partnering with the Brotherhood after Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in the summer of 2006, which caused Washington to become “increasingly concerned about Syria’s military alliance with Iran, and the threat it posed to U.S. interests in the region.”
Hezbollah’s surprisingly strong performance during the 2006 war, coupled with the rise of Iranian influence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, prompted what journalist Seymour Hersh described as a “redirection” in U.S. policy in the Middle East. This massive shift in policy was led by then Vice President Dick Cheney, Abrams, and Saudi national security advisor and former ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
The redirection involved working with Washington’s Sunni regional client states “to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.” As part of this effort, the “Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir [sic] Assad, of Syria.” Hersh notes further, “There is evidence that the Administration’s redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood,” and that according to a former high-ranking CIA officer, Abd al-Halim Khaddam and the NSF were receiving both financial and diplomatic support from the Americans and Saudis. Hersh notes further that Vice President Dick Cheney had been advised by Lebanese politician, Walid Jumblatt, that “if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be ‘the ones to talk to.’”
Salafis Throwing Bombs
Hersh details further that the U.S. effort to topple the Syrian government would involve not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also Salafist militant groups controlled by Saudi intelligence. According to a U.S. government consultant, “Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that ‘they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
In December 2006, the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. embassy in Damascus, William Roebuck, had already acknowledged the possibility of exploiting Salafist militants to promote regime change in Syria. Roebuck wrote that, “We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real,” including “the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising. These proposals will need to be fleshed out and converted into real actions and we need to be ready to move quickly to take advantage of such opportunities. [emphasis mine].”
We Have a Liberal Attitude
One reservoir of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants to be leveraged by U.S. planners was in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Seymour Hersh notes that according to a 2005 International Crisis Group (ICG) report, pro-Saudi Lebanese politician, Saad Hariri (son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri) had helped release four Salafist militants from prison who had previously trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and were arrested in Lebanon while trying to establish an Islamic state in the north of the country. Hariri also used his influence in parliament to obtain amnesty for another 29 Salafist militants, including seven suspected of bombing foreign embassies in Beirut a year prior. Hersh notes as well that according to a senior official in the Lebanese government, “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here.”
Charles Harb of the American University of Beirut similarly observed in May 2007 that Saad Hariri was giving “political cover” to “radical Sunni movements.” Harb explains that to attract Sunni voters in the 2005 national parliamentary elections, Hariri had “pardoned jailed Sunni militants involved in violence in December 2000.” Harb also warned that “Courting radical Sunni sentiment is a dangerous game. Fear of Shia influence in Arab affairs has prompted many Sunni leaders to warn of a ‘Shia crescent’ stretching from Iran, through Iraq, to south Lebanon.” Harb also noted the involvement of Saudi intelligence in cultivating these groups. He explained that “Several reports have highlighted efforts by Saudi officials to strengthen Sunni groups, including radical ones, to face the Shia renaissance across the region. But building up radical Sunni groups to face the Shia challenge can easily backfire.”
Harb was writing in response to the eruption of violence in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp on May 19, 2007. The camp, located in northern Lebanon, had been occupied by militants from the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Fatah al-Islam. Fighting had erupted between the militants and members of the Lebanese security forces, allegedly after an attempted bank robbery. The fighting left the camp almost entirely flattened and its Palestinian refugee population homeless.
Two months before the outbreak of violence in Nahr al-Bared, the New York Times had interviewed Fatah al-Islam’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, a former associate of notorious al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The NYT reports that, “Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government.” Major General Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces told the NYT that to enter the camp and detain al-Abssi, “We would need an agreement from other Arab countries.” In other words, al-Abssi was being shielded by Saad Hariri and Saudi intelligence.
America’s Jihadi University
Another reservoir of Salafist militancy from which U.S. and Saudi planners could draw was in Iraq, which had become the epicenter of the transnational jihadi movement after foreign militants flooded into the country to fight against U.S. occupation forces following the 2003 U.S. invasion. In 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s insurgent group, al-Tawhid w al-Jihad, became the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. Starting in 2007, Sunni tribes and insurgent groups that had once fought alongside al-Qaeda against U.S. occupation forces became disillusioned by the terror group’s indiscriminate violence. Recognizing al-Qaeda as a bigger threat, they partnered with their former enemies in the U.S. military as part of the Awakening movement to fight the group. This led supporters of al-Qaeda to lament that the “people of Iraq completely betrayed the mujahids.”
Without a Sunni support base in Anbar, the majority of al-Qaeda militants were quickly killed or imprisoned. By 2009, al-Qaeda in Iraq (by that time known as the Islamic State of Iraq) had been all but defeated. Islam scholar and former State Department advisor William McCants observed that during this time al-Qaeda was on “life support,” and that fellow jihadists were mocking the group, describing it as a “paper state” because it lacked control of any territory.”
Though al-Qaeda was weak and in disarray on the battlefield, it was at the same time thriving within U.S. prisons, most notably in Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run detention facility in the south of the country, which held some 26,000 detainees at its height in 2007. According to Lt. Col. Kenneth Plowman, a spokesman for Task Force 134 which ran the prison, al-Qaeda members were effectively functioning as a gang within the camp’s walls, including operating “jail house sharia courts…despite the presence of U.S guards, to enforce an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. They were then used to convict moderate inmates, who were then tortured or killed.”
In 2008, Marine Major General Douglas Stone was tasked with running the facility. He concluded that Bucca had become a “jihadi university,” giving the al-Qaeda leadership the opportunity to recruit, organize and plan within the prison. General Stone conducted extensive screening to identify which prisoners did not pose a security threat and could be released, and which were extremists or “takfiris” that should be isolated from the broader prison population. He estimated that one third, roughly 8,000, constituted “genuinely continuing and imperative security risks.” The Independent reported in 2014 that according to the terrorism analyst firm the Soufan Group, “nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca.” Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the future leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, was among those al-Qaeda leaders held in Camp Bucca. He was detained in 2006 and released by US officials in 2008.
An Islamic state member later told the Guardian, “We had so much time to sit and plan…It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”
The Great Prison Release
Islamic State of Iraq militants were by this time “doing it better” because of what Craig Whiteside of the U.S. Naval War College dubbed, “the Great Prison Release of 2009.” 5,700 detainees were released from Bucca that year and Whiteside writes that, “An unknown number of these men were destined to return to ISI [Islamic State of Iraq], to execute operations as part of cells assembled during their time in Bucca.” Whiteside, himself a former US army infantry officer and Iraq war veteran, was puzzled by the release plan, which did not meet the usual preconditions for the early release of prisoners after a conflict, including that the “population must support the release.” He notes that support for the release of these militants was likely low, even among Iraq’s Sunnis, given that “the Awakening movement had conducted a skillful campaign to rally tribal allies and pacify militant members of their own tribes in order to dramatically reduce the violence in tribal areas, and the release of thousands of highly organized and committed ISI recruits from prison had a predictable impact on the Awakening groups’ ability to control Sunni areas beyond 2010.” Whiteside notes further that, “The United States is often unjustly blamed for many things that are wrong in this world, but the revitalization of ISIL [ISIS] and its incubation in our own Camp Bucca is something that Americans truly own…The Iraqi government has many enemies, and the United States helped put many of them out on the street in 2009. Why?”
The danger of such a policy was immediately apparent to Iraqi officials and was quickly reported by then Washington Post journalist Anthony Shadid. In March 2009, Shadid visited the town of Garma (al-Karma), some 16 kilometers from Falluja, a former al-Qaeda stronghold in Anbar province. Shadid asked the local police chief about the nature of the released detainees, who replied, “These men weren’t planting flowers in a garden. They weren’t strolling down the street,” when they were detained. The police chief admitted to being overwhelmed by the return of hundreds of former Bucca inmates to the area while estimating that 90% would return to the fight. The deputy police chief in Garma noted that the one-time driver of al-Zarqawi was among those who had been released and had already carried out a car bomb attack that had killed 15. An Iraqi ministry of interior official further told Shadid that “Al-Qaeda is preparing itself for the departure of the Americans. And they want to stage a revolution.”
Few understood at the time that this so-called revolution would be directed first at Syria instead of Iraq. CIA director John Brennan later acknowledged that al-Qaeda had been defeated in Iraq but was soon able to reconstitute itself under the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal by turning its attention toward Syria. Brennan noted in 2015 that the Islamic State “had its roots in al-Qaida in Iraq. It was, you know, pretty much decimated when U.S. forces were there in Iraq. It had maybe 700-or-so adherents left. And then it grew quite a bit in the last several years, when it split then from al-Qaida in Syria, and set up its own organization.”
With the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Syria in 2014, the U.S. press acknowledged the U.S. role in incubating the group’s leadership in its own prisons, but claimed this was inadvertent, an accident resulting from ignorance. For example, the New York Times acknowledged in 2015 that Islamic State leader Baghdadi had indeed been held at Bucca in 2004, but that the United States had only “unintentionally create[d] the conditions ripe for training a new generation of insurgents [emphasis mine].”
There are several reasons to doubt that the prison release that led to the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2009 was unintentional, however. When asked by journalist Mehdi Hassan about U.S.-coordinated arms transfers to al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria in 2012, lieutenant general and former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head Michael Flynn responded “I will tell you, it goes before 2012. I mean, when we were, when we were in Iraq and we still had decisions to be made before there was a decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011. I mean, it was very clear what we were, what we were going to face [emphasis mine].”
As mentioned above, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had assured his U.S. counterparts that he controlled Salafist militant groups in the region (“We’ve created this movement, and we can control it”), and that these groups could be re-directed against what U.S. planners viewed as their now more significant foes, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. For Bandar to reconstitute a decimated al-Qaeda organization and unleash it in the direction of Syria as requested by U.S. planners, a large-scale release of U.S.-held prisoners of the sort seen in 2009 would have been needed.
The “redirection” embraced by U.S. planners in 2007 was therefore simply an adoption of previous Saudi policy, adopted by U.S. planners once they realized their strategic mistake of empowering Iran via their own invasion of Iraq.
Piss Outside the Tent, Not Inside the Tent
It may seem conspiratorial to suggest that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its later iterations were controlled by Prince Bandar, but Saudi support for the organization throughout the terror group’s evolution is no longer in question. As Iraq expert Joel Wing notes, Saudi support for al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Iraq by 2007 (the time of Hersh’s reporting) was already well documented. Wing notes that the Saudis were providing cash to al-Qaeda groups, and that some 40% of foreign fighters in Iraq were Saudis, as were 40% of the foreigners detained in US prisons such as Camp Bucca.
The U.S. military therefore found itself fighting an enemy in Iraq supported by its own close ally. This mirrored the situation in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military was fighting the Taliban, which was supported by the intelligence services of close U.S.-ally Pakistan.
U.S. officials were aware of the crucial Saudi role in stoking the Iraqi insurgency, and allegedly raised concerns about it with their Saudi counterparts in private, but chose to publicly focus blame on Syria and Iran instead. Wing notes that, “In April 2008 President Bush sent General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to Saudi Arabia to try to get them to support Iraq. The two U.S. emissaries were also supposed to discuss the Saudis’ role with the insurgency. Back in August 2007 the U.S. had a similar mission when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to the kingdom to discuss the same topics. Earlier in that year the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalizad had accused the Saudis of destabilizing Iraq with their backing of the insurgency. Both times the U.S. administration was rebuffed. Saudi officials admitted that their young people were going to Iraq, and said they were doing what they could to stop them but denied any role in fund raising for the insurgents. In 2006 the Iraq Study Group also mentioned the Saudi role, saying that the government was either passive about it or didn’t care.”
A leaked State Department cable from 2009 further reinforced the view that Saudi Arabia continued to be “a critical source of terrorist funding,” including for al-Qaeda. The cable stated that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
Joel Wing observes further that “The Saudis have four reasons for their policy. First, the Saudi kingdom opposed the U.S. invasion, and warned the Bush administration against it. Second, the Saudi elite rejected having a Shiite led government in Iraq. There are some ultra-religious Sunnis who do not believe that Shiites are real Muslims. Third, the Saudis felt that the combination of the American-led war and the ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiites would open the door to Iran, the Saudis main rival in the region.”
Saudi control over al-Qaeda likely extended at this time beyond the group’s franchise in Iraq, and to Osama bin Laden, himself. Seymour Hersh reports that “bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] at the Abbottabad compound since 2006” and that Saudi Arabia “had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis” until his killing by U.S. special forces in May 2011. This gave both the Saudis and Pakistanis leverage over the group’s albeit greatly diminished activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Though Saudi support for al-Qaeda is often blamed on private businessmen or religious charities, it is implausible that these private efforts would be possible without the knowledge, assistance, and approval of Saudi intelligence.
Writing for Vanity Fair, Anthony Summers and Robyn Swann detail the extensive evidence of Saudi state support for al-Qaeda stretching back decades. They cite former CIA officer John Kiriakou as explaining in 2002 that, “We had known for years…that Saudi royals—I should say elements of the royal family—were funding al-Qaeda.” The authors further quote former deputy homeland-security adviser to President Bush, Richard Falkenrath, as explaining that al-Qaeda was “led and financed largely by Saudis, with extensive support from Pakistani intelligence.”
Bin Laden’s British Connection
Britain provided another reservoir of al-Qaeda linked fighters that could be deployed to effect regime change in Syria on behalf of U.S. planners, courtesy of their counterparts in British intelligence.
It is often forgotten that Britain has long served as a haven for al-Qaeda affiliated groups. As journalist Mark Curtis observed in his book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, “London had by  become, along with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan which housed bin Laden, the principal administrative centre for global jihad, where authorities were, at the very least, turning a blind eye to terrorist activities launched from their soil.”
The Guardian reports that, “Bin Laden’s British connection dates back to the early 1990s, when he founded a London-based group, the Advisory and Reform Committee, that distributed literature against the Saudi regime.” Academic Christopher M. Davidson notes in his book Shadow Wars: the Secret Struggle for the Middle East that bin Laden visited the UK personally and considered applying for asylum there, while his London office “was designed both to publicize the statements of Osama bin Laden and to provide a cover for activity in support of al-Qaeda’s ‘military activities,’ including the recruitment of military trainees, the disbursement of funds and the procurement of necessary equipment including satellite telephones and necessary services,” per New York federal court documents indicting bin Laden for carrying out 9/11.
Several prominent jihadist theoreticians lived in London for extensive periods in the 1990’s, including Abu Musab al-Suri, viewed by many as the “architect of global jihad,” Abu Qatada, known as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador to Europe,” and long suspected of having links with British intelligence, and Abu Abdallah Sadiq.
Abu Abdallah Sadiq, better known as Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, was the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Mark Curtis explains that the LIFG was formed in 1990 in Afghanistan by 500 Libyan jihadists then fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government that then went on to fight with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) against the Algerian government. According to the British Home Office, the LIFG’s “aim had been to overthrow the Qadafi regime and replace it with an Islamic State,” while the U.S. government described the LIFG as an “al-Qaeda affiliate known for engaging in terrorist activity in Libya and cooperating with al-Qaeda worldwide.” Curtis reports that in 1996, British intelligence partnered with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to carry out a failed assassination attempt against Libyan president, Colonel Muamar Qaddafi, and that prominent members of the group were allowed to establish a base for logistical support and fundraising on British soil. Curtis notes that the group’s communiques calling for the overthrow of the Libyan government were issued from London, where several prominent LIFG members were living after having received political asylum.
Another prominent Salafist theoretician living in London during this period was the Syrian preacher, Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abedine. According to Raffaello Pantucci of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Muhammad Sarour was “One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom…A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s…A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the www.alsunnah.org website.” Sarour was known for his anti-Shia sectarianism, and under a pseudonym wrote the book “Then Came the Turn of the Majus,” which inspired al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to advocate genocide against the Shia in Iraq before his killing by US occupation forces in 2006.
Sarour’s role in the early days and weeks of the 2011 Syrian conflict will be discussed below. It should be noted here that according to Pantucci, Sarour would later establish “himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”
Convoys of Murder
As detailed by Mark Curtis, U.S. and UK intelligence relied on young men from Britain’s Salafist community to fight in the war in Bosnia in the early 1990’s. This was later acknowledged even in the mainstream UK press. Labour MP Michael Meacher wrote in 2005 in the Guardian that, “During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. funded large numbers of jihadists through Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, the ISI. Later the U.S. wanted to raise another jihadi corps, again using proxies, to help Bosnian Muslims fight to weaken the Serb government’s hold on Yugoslavia. Those they turned to included Pakistanis in Britain.”
British jihadi recruits and weapons were smuggled into Bosnia under the pretext of humanitarian aid efforts, specifically through “Convoys of Mercy.” In one notable case, British-Pakistani and London School of Economics graduate Omar Saeed Sheikh joined an aid convoy to Bosnia, which he acknowledged in his journal was for “organising clandestine support for the Muslim fighters.” Upon reaching the Croatian port town of Split, near the Bosnian border, Sheikh joined a jihadist group called the Harakut-ul- Mujaheddin (HUM) and was sent to Pakistan for training. Sheikh was later convicted of kidnapping Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Pearl was beheaded and his death captured on video. As noted by the Guardian, Sheikh also wired $100,000 to 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta, at the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence service.
In the late 1990’s, British intelligence also dispatched British-Pakistani Jihadis to Kosovo under the cover of humanitarian convoys to continue the war against Serbia. Labour MP Meacher writes further that, “For nearly a decade the U.S. helped Islamist insurgents linked to Chechnya, Iran and Saudi Arabia destabilise the former Yugoslavia. The insurgents were also allowed to move further east to Kosovo,” and that “the former US federal prosecutor John Loftus reported that British intelligence had used the al-Muhajiroun group in London to recruit Islamist militants with British passports for the war against the Serbs in Kosovo.”
The al-Muhajiroun group was established in 1996 in Britain by Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, who, as journalist Nafeez Ahmed details, was a long-time informant for British intelligence, meeting regularly with MI5 agents throughout the 1990’s. Bakri himself acknowledged his role in training jihadists to be dispatched abroad. He explained to the Guardian in May 2000 that al-Muhaijiroun has a network of centers around the world, divided into two wings: “There is the Da’wah (propagation) network, and there is the Jihad Network.” The Guardian notes that Bakri “admitted that there is a global network of agents with connections to the military camps, some of whom work from Britain.”
Al-Muhajiroun founder al-Bakri left Britain for Lebanon one month after the 7/7 attacks in July 2005, in which suicide bombers targeted the London transit system, killing 52. Although former al-Muhajiroun members participated in the attack, British officials did not prevent Bakri from leaving Britain. By 2009, Lebanese security forces were accusing Bakri of training al-Qaeda members, while Bakri himself boasted, “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organize their jihad against the Shi’ites…Al-Qaeda in Lebanon…are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.”
Seek and Destroy
In 2009, the same year in which U.S. planners were helping to resurrect al-Qaeda in Iraq, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was told by top British officials that “they were preparing something in Syria…Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate.” When asked why the British would undertake such a plan, Dumas responded, “it’s important to understand, that the Syrian regime makes anti-Israeli talk,” and that he had previously been told by an Israeli prime minister that the Israelis would “seek to ‘destroy’ any country that did not ‘get along’ with it in the region.”
It is doubtful that UK planners would undertake such a project without guidance from their U.S. counterparts. This suggests that UK efforts to organize “an invasion of rebels into Syria” was part of the broader U.S. effort to promote regime change in the country. Dumas did not indicate, or perhaps did not know, who exactly would constitute the so-called rebels that would invade Syria. It appears however that British officials speaking to Dumas were referring to militants from both the LIFG and al-Muhajiroun, given the groups’ long histories of cooperation with British intelligence.
The rebel army referred to by Dumas was first dispatched not to Syria, but to Libya, at the start of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.
LIFG activities had been harshly curbed in 2004 after the “Deal in the Desert” between then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Qaddafi led to rapprochement between the two countries. The British government then placed the LIFG on its terror list in 2005 and assisted in the rendition of two senior LIFG leaders, Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, to Libya. The British security services allowed other LIFG members to remain in the UK but placed them under surveillance, house arrest, or detention.
However, British foreign policy regarding Libya pivoted against Qaddafi once again in 2011. Middle East Eye (MEE) reports that according to Ziad Hashem, an LIFG member granted asylum in Britain, “When the revolution started, things changed in Britain.” MEE reports further that “The British government operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.” LIFG members under counter-terrorism control orders in Britain were allowed to travel to Libya with “no questions asked,” and many had their passports returned to them for this purpose. One British-Libyan speaking with MEE explained that “These were old school LIFG guys, they [the British authorities] knew what they were doing..The whole Libyan diaspora were out there fighting alongside the rebel groups.” Another “described how he had carried out ‘PR work’ for the rebels in the months before Gaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed in October 2011. He said he was employed to edit videos showing Libyan rebels being trained by former British SAS and Irish special forces mercenaries in Benghazi, the eastern city from where the uprising against Gaddafi was launched.”
LIFG leader Belhaj had himself been released from prison by Libyan authorities in 2010 as part of a reconciliation deal arranged by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. With the start of the UK-backed Islamist insurgency in 2011, Belhaj commanded the Tripoli Brigade, which played a key role in toppling the Libyan government on behalf of NATO, spearheading the ground assault on the Libyan capital.
The Tripoli Brigade was itself formed by Mahdi al-Herati, who lived for 20 years in exile in Ireland, and had fought against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in 2003. Herati returned to Libya at the outset of anti-government protests in February 2011 and partnered with his Irish-born brother-in-law, Husan al-Najar and other Libyan exiles to organize the Tripoli brigade. According to fellow anti-government fighters, Herati’s group received assistance from French, Qatari, and CIA intelligence officers. Both Herati and al-Najar would go on to fight in Syria in 2011, as discussed further below.
Once the NATO-backed campaign to topple Qaddafi in 2011 was successful, Herati, al-Najar and other Libyan LIFG exiles were dispatched to fight in Syria, as will be discussed below.
Pockets and Bases on Both Sides
In the lead up to the so-called Arab Spring, the interests of U.S. planners were aligned with those of the al-Qaeda groups in Iraq under Saudi control, making cooperation against the Syrian government beneficial for both parties.
A 2012 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document noted for example that “AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media. AQI declared its opposition of Assad’s government because it considered it a sectarian regime targeting Sunnis [Emphasis mine].” The document notes further that AQI spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani “declared the Syrian regime as the spearhead of what he is naming Jibha al Ruwafidh (Forefront of the Shiites) because of its (the Syrian regime) declaration of war on the Sunnis.”
A more common translation of Jibha al-Ruwafidh is the “Rejectionist Front,” with “rejectionist” being a derogatory reference to Shiites. The “Rejectionist Front” concept identified by al-Adnani parallels the “Shiite Crescent” feared by U.S. and Saudi planners, and which spurred the 2007 “redirection” of US policy as reported by Seymour Hersh.
The DIA document notes further that “AQI had major pockets and bases on both sides of the [Iraq-Syria] border to facilitate the flow of materiel and recruits. There was a regression of AQI in the western provinces of Iraq during the years 2009 and 2010; However, after the rise of the insurgency in Syria, the religious and tribal powers in the regions began to sympathize with the sectarian uprising. This (sympathy) appeared in Friday prayer sermons, which called for volunteers to support the Sunnis in Syria.”
In other words, the infrastructure was in place (pockets and bases on both sides of the border) before the eruption of protests in March 2011 for al-Qaeda in Iraq, under Saudi instruction, to launch the anti-government insurgency.
Leaders of the Jihad
American journalist Theo Padnos, who was a captive of the Nusra Front for two years, including after Nusra split from the Islamic State and the two groups became rivals, pointed to al-Qaeda’s early involvement in the Syria conflict. Padnos explained that the “ISIS [Islamic State] commanders and foot soldiers with whom I was sometimes imprisoned believed that their leaders, directing matters from planning rooms in Anbar Province in Iraq, dispatched fighters into Syria in late 2010, long before any child in Deraa scrawled his graffiti on a schoolyard wall.”
Padnos explained further that, “in probably late 2010, before all the demonstrations in Deraa, at the very beginning of things, before the beginning of things, they made this point to me often, they came into Syria in order to destroy the country…They wanted to basically topple the government. And at the same time there was a wave of demonstrations sweeping the country. These al-Qaeda people from Iraq infiltrated as many demonstrations as they could. And with the weapons they brought into Syria from Iraq they started shooting at the police and they started murdering the police officers and surrounding the police stations and throwing smoke bombs and waiting until the police guys come out and then shooting the policemen and then capturing the weapons and going off to the next police station. They told me about this from the beginning, they are very proud of this. They do not believe that the Syrian revolution really began with demonstrations. For them, it began because they made it begin by killing the police officers. They were the ones who launched the whole thing. It’s important for them to feel it’s a jihad and they are leaders of the jihad.”
Syria’s First al-Qaeda Franchise
The early military involvement of al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in the so-called revolution is further confirmed by the fact that the first declared armed group to begin fighting the Syrian government was a Salafist militia known as the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, or Ahrar al-Sham. Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine reported that according to one fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, the group “started working on forming brigades ‘after the Egyptian revolution…well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.”
Writing in Al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within the group, a number of foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.” Suleiman notes that these Saudi fighters joined Ahrar al-Sham based on recommendations from senior al-Qaeda figures, and that long time al-Qaeda operative and former Fighting Vanguard member Abu Khalid al-Suri played an important role in establishing the group. Opposition activist and later McClatchy journalist Mousab al-Hamadee explained that “One of my friends who is now a rebel leader told me that the moment the group announced itself in 2011 it got a big bag of money sent directly from Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaida.” As noted above, Saudis constituted the largest contingent of foreign militants fighting for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and were among the prisoners released by US forces from the prison at Camp Bucca in 2009.
Elements From Outside
The first major protests in Syria as part of the so-called Arab Spring erupted on March 18, 2011. After Friday prayers in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, a crowd of protestors marched from the al-Omari Mosque to the Political Security office of Atef Najib. Reuters claims that three men, Wissam Ayyash, Mahmoud al-Jawabra, and Ayhem al-Hariri “were killed when security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians at a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.” BBC Arabic similarly claimed that according to sources in Daraa, “four demonstrators were killed by security forces during a peaceful demonstration demanding political freedom and an end to corruption.” Pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl claimed as well that the Syrian “regime did not tolerate protests opposing its rule and opened live fire directly on the protestors” killing Mahmoud al-Jawabra and three of his relatives.”
A closer look at events in Deraa suggests that the above descriptions provide a distorted view of what happened that day. Syrian security forces did not simply open fire on peaceful protestors to crush dissent as suggested above. Instead, they were responding to a chaotic situation that included mixture of peaceful protests and violent rioting. Further, there is evidence that al-Qaeda militants may have played a role in the killing of the first protestors on March 18 as part of a false flag operation.
In contrast to Western and opposition media reporting of events in Deraa on March 18, 2011, Syrian state media claimed that “During a gathering of citizens in Daraa province near the Omari Mosque on Friday afternoon, some infiltrators took advantage of this situation and caused chaos and riots,” while claiming that infiltrators had “inflicted damage on public and private property, and destroyed and burned a number of cars and public shops, which necessitated the intervention of policemen to ensure the safety of citizens and property. The rioters assaulted the police before being dispersed.”
The government version of events is of course likely to be biased. However, Muhammad Jamal Barout, associate researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar, provides a rather detailed account of the protest on March 18 that broadly supports the account provided by Syrian state media. Based on his interview with al-Jazeera’s then Damascus bureau chief, Abdul Hamid Tawfiq. Barout writes that “protestors, with the families of the children [who were detained for writing anti-regime graffiti on a school wall] at the front, headed towards the al-Omari mosque. They chanted ‘Where are you, oh people of al-Faz’a’ and ‘God, Syria, freedom, that’s all’ and ‘There is no fear after today,’ and they also chanted against the head of the political security branch, Atef al-Najib and against the governor Faisal Kalthum, and against business tycoon Rami Makhlouf…Then they headed to the political security branch building to burn it down. After about two hours, at about three thirty in the afternoon, four helicopters arrived that had been called in by the head of the security branch, and they were carrying counter-terrorism soldiers dressed in all black [my emphasis].”
Sheik Ahmed Siyasna, imam of the al-Omari mosque, gave credibility to the state media version of events, telling the government-run Tishreen newspaper that, “There were elements from outside Dara’a determined to burn and destroy public property…These unknown assailants want to harm the reputation of the sons of Hauran…The people of Dara’a affirm that recent events are not part of their tradition or custom.” It is possible that supporters of Siyasna instigated the rioting, and that Siyasna was simply blaming the violence on unknown, outside elements to shield his own supporters from blame, but he does not deny that violent rioting occurred.
The violence, whether by local or outside elements, continued in subsequent days. The Israel National News reported just two days later that over the weekend not only four protestors but also “seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence on Sunday.”
It is not surprising that Syrian security forces would intervene to prevent public buildings from being burned down, both to prevent the destruction of public property generally and to safeguard the lives anyone inside.
Subsequent protests illustrate the dangers involved in situations of this sort, where events can quickly spin out of control. Three are worth highlighting here. During an anti-government protest on June 4, 2011, armed protestors threw an incendiary device inside the front doors of the post office in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shagour, setting it on fire and burning 8 people to death inside. Two days later, on June 6, 2011, protestors in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs attempted to burn down the headquarters of a pro-Syrian government Palestinian political party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC). In the process, one PFLP-GC official was stabbed to death by protestors and a PFLP-GC guard was burned to death inside the building, while PFLP-GC guards shot and killed two protestors. On February 18, 2011, during the first days of anti-governments protests in Libya, protestors in the eastern city of Derna burned to death several government supporters after locking them in holding cells in the local police station, and then setting it on fire.
Responding to Protestors’ Demands
Amidst the chaos in Deraa on Friday March 18, 2011 the Syrian government attempted to diffuse the situation by sending a top government official from Damascus to negotiate with a group of prominent Deraa elders representing the protesters, led by Sheikh Siyasna. Barout writes further that, “At the same time, a high-level political delegation arrived, led by Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of the office of National Security, who was known for dealing with crises and putting out fires. The central security committee, led by Ikhtiyar, agreed with the elders of Deraa on 13 points, foremost among them the resignation of the political security head [Atef al-Najib] and the governor of Deraa [Faisal Kalthum]. Ikhtiyar also agreed to expel the companies of Rami Makhlouf from Deraa, apologize to the local people, and allow a meeting between Deraa’s elders and president Bashar al-Assad, and also to political reform, and more freedoms, and the return of teachers who wear the niqab to their teaching posts, and to repeal unjust laws regarding the buying and selling of land, such as law 48 and law 26, and to lower the prices of fuel, and to some other local demands. Ikhtiyar further informed the elders of Deraa that the president [Bashar al-Assad] had agreed to these demands, and the people now awaited them being carried out.”
The Motorcycle Men
The efforts of Ikhtiyar and Siyasna to calm the situation were soon sabotaged, however. Barout reports that according to Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq, the Damascus bureau chief of al-Jazeera, “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna, a group of masked militants riding motorcycles opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four people between the hours of six and eight in the evening, including Ahmad al-Jawabra, who was considered the first martyr.”
And who were the masked militants riding motorcycles? Barout takes for granted they were from the government side. It is far from clear this is the case, however. Even if the government wished to suppress the protests with violence, it is likely it would have used either the counter terror forces that had arrived earlier that day from Damascus or local plain clothes security men (known by opposition supporters as shabiha) to confront and disperse the protestors. For example, plain clothes security men beat protestors to disperse a small demonstration outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on the same day. It is unclear why the government would instead resort to using masked men on motorbikes in Deraa.
One possibility is that the masked men on motorcycles were “saboteurs” or “infiltrators” from a third party. Subsequent events also show that armed Salafist militants commonly used motorbikes to conduct hit and run attacks against the Syrian security forces and army, which raises the possibility that the killers of the first protestors on March 18 were saboteurs from a third party of this sort.
Evidence of Salafist militants using motorbikes to carry out attacks in this way comes not only from pro-government, but also independent, and opposition sources. For example, on April 19, 2011 al-Jazeera reported that “The Syrian Interior Ministry issued a circular in Homs governorate to prevent the entry of motorbikes into the city, ‘because some armed groups in the province implement their criminal plans using motorbikes.’” On the same day, the pro-government Akhbariya news channel claimed that “masked men” riding in “GMC vehicles and on motorcycles” opened fire on a funeral tent, shooting at both civilians and the security forces and police, injuring 11 policemen.
On May 5, 2011, the Christian Post reported that International Christian Concern, a Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “says that protesters are being led by hardline Islamists and that Christians have come under pressure to either join in protests demanding the resignation of President Bashir Assad, or else leave the country,’” and that “Eyewitnesses report seeing around 20 masked men on motorcycles open fire on a home in a Christian village outside Dara’a, in southern Syria.”
Muhammad Jamal Barout himself notes that on June 3, 2011 tens of masked young men from the area of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province arrived in the town of Jisr al-Shagour on motorcycles with weapons they had purchased on the black market or had captured from government caches. These men were among those that attacked the Popular Army headquarters in the town to capture additional weapons. Two days later, on June 5, opposition militants attacked the local post office and military security headquarters, leading to a 36-hour gun battle. Opposition militants then ambushed a Syrian army convoy coming to Jisr al-Shagour as reinforcements, killing some 120 soldiers.
Human Rights Watch, which has links to the U.S. government and is supportive of the Syrian opposition, reported that an opposition activist witnessed a protest in Homs city on July 8, 2011 in which “several defectors showed up on motorcycles and killed 14 or 15 members of the security forces using Kalashnikovs and pump-action shotguns.”
Opposition sources also acknowledged the possibility of saboteurs and infiltrators playing a role in early events of the uprising. As mentioned above, Sheikh Siyasna also acknowledged there were “unknown assailants” present at the protest on March 18 in Deraa who were “determined to burn and destroy public property.” Journalist Alix Van Buren of Italy’s la Repubblika newspaper reported on April 13, 2011 that “several Syrian dissidents believe in the presence and the role of ‘infiltrators.’ Michel Kilo [prominent opposition intellectual], though he accepts that possibility, cautioned that the issue of ‘infiltrators and conspiracies’ should not be exploited as an obstacle in the quick transition towards democracy.”
Additionally, the claim that the first protestors were killed in Deraa by militants on motorcycles, rather than by Syrian security forces or riot police comes from an against interest source, namely an al-Jazeera journalist. The Qatari-owned channel had a clear agenda to demonize the Syrian government, in cooperation with U.S. planners. Because of the editorial line of his employer, Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq was incentivized to relay a story that blamed the government for the first killings, but instead made a claim, at least privately, that would appear to exonerate the Syrian government and suggest the possibility of false flag killings.
Interestingly, Tawfiq resigned from his post in May 2011, citing only vague “pressures,” which many assumed to be coming from the Syrian government side. However, this period would see several prominent al-Jazeera journalists resign from the channel to protest what they viewed as coverage that was biased against the Syrian government and in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 24, 2011 Ghassan Bin Jeddo, the head of al-Jazeera’s Beirut office resigned because of the channel’s “alleged abandonment of professional and objective reporting, as it became ‘an operation room for incitement and mobilization.’” Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem resigned in 2012, citing the channel’s censorship of his Syria reporting during this early period, which revealed armed groups crossing from Lebanon into Syria in late April 2011 (discussed in detail below). Beirut bureau chief Hassan Shaaban resigned shortly after Hashem.
It’s A Sabotage
But why would saboteurs from a third party want to kill protestors during the first major day of anti-government protests, in Deraa on March 18? If protestors were killed during a demonstration, and the deaths could be attributed to the security forces, this would help turn locals in Deraa, traditionally considered a Ba’athist stronghold, against the government.
Killing protestors right at this critical juncture and blaming it on the government would also sabotage Sheikh Siyasna’s efforts to win concessions from the government through negotiations, in exchange for putting an end to the protests and rioting. As noted above, Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq of al-Jazeera reported the first protesters were killed “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna,” the perfect time to ensure any agreement between the two sides would fall apart. The father of one of the boys detained and tortured for writing the graffiti on the school wall in Deraa one month before indicated that the conflict could have been resolved peacefully, but that as the deaths of protestors mounted, “People became uncontrollable.”
An end to the protests in exchange for government efforts to answer local grievances and demands for reform was a disaster scenario for hardline elements of the opposition, who demanded the “fall of the regime” and wanted “revolution” from the start. This attitude was evidenced when local supporters of the exiled Salafist preacher Muhamad Sarour later accused Sheikh Siyasna of treason for his willingness to negotiate with the government and call for calm, and pressured Siyasna to radicalize his position, which he refused to do. Sheikh Anas Sweid, a pro-opposition Sunni cleric from Homs, similarly stated a few weeks later that any clerics who stood against “the street” by cooperating with the government to end protests would be attacked, and therefore they had no ability to calm the protestors, as government officials had demanded of them.
There are several possibilities then, to account for the deaths of the first four protestors of the uprising on March 18, 2011. One possibility is that, as the opposition claims, the protestors were killed in an unprovoked manner by Syrian security forces during a completely peaceful protest. Another is that, as the government claims, they were killed by infiltrators or saboteurs from Salafist armed groups (including foreign al-Qaeda militants) who wished to sabotage any agreement to end the crisis, and to turn Deraa’s residents against the government. A final possibility is that the first protestors were killed in the chaos that resulted when protestors were rioting and tried to burn down the political security branch building, which Syrian security forces were trying to prevent.
If the first protestors were indeed killed by Syrian security forces, this played into the hands of opposition activists, who needed people to get killed to bring people into the streets against the government. If instead the security forces had orders not to open fire and did not kill the protesters as the government claims, Salafist militants on motorcycles made sure people were killed anyway to falsely blame the government and to provide the spark needed for further protest.
That four police officers were killed on the third day of protests and riots (Sunday March 20) is particularly significant, given claims by Islamic State members to Theo Padnos that the group was infiltrating protests and killing police officers during this early period.
It should be noted here that there was significant confusion, even among locals in Deraa, whether pro-opposition or pro-government, about who was killing who during this early period. Just being present in Deraa at the time, including at a protest where killings took place, does not necessarily mean one could determine the source of the violence. Additionally, first impressions can change once more evidence emerges.
For example, in 2014 Sharmine Narwani interviewed a “member of the large Hariri family in Daraa, who was there in March and April 2011, [who] says people are confused and that many ‘loyalties have changed two or three times from March 2011 till now. They were originally all with the government. Then suddenly changed against the government—but now I think maybe 50% or more came back to the Syrian regime’…The province was largely pro-government before things kicked off. According to the UAE paper The National, ‘Daraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area.’ But as Hariri explains it, ‘there were two opinions’ in Daraa. ‘One was that the regime is shooting more people to stop them and warn them to finish their protests and stop gathering. The other opinion was that hidden militias want this to continue, because if there are no funerals, there is no reason for people to gather.’ ‘At the beginning 99.9 percent of them were saying all shooting is by the government. But slowly, slowly this idea began to change in their mind – there are some hidden parties, but they don’t know what,” says Hariri, whose parents remain in Daraa.”
Summarizing the situation in Syria as of one month after the beginning of anti-government protests, Muhammad Jamal Barout writes, “There were signs of an initial and simple armament process for some groups of young men, ‘mysterious’ attacks on some army and police units, and the emergence of some Salafi players abroad, especially the ‘Sarourists,’ who have bases of influence among the youth of Houran, to develop the protest movement into an overall revolution against the regime.”
But who were the “hidden militias” carrying out these “mysterious attacks,” including potentially the killing of the four protestors on March 18? Barout’s observation that supporters of Muhummad Sarour wished to “develop the protest movement into an overall revolution” suggest his supporters may have been among the early armed elements in Deraa. As noted above, Sarour, who spent 20 years in Britain, emerged as “one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”
This may explain the attack on Syrian security forces in the town of Nawa, near Deraa, on April 22, 2011. Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed that seven members of the security forces were shot to death under the cover of protests that day. The witness cited by HRW tries to emphasize the peaceful nature of the protestors, claiming they approached the local political security building holding olive branches to demand the release of two detainees. He nevertheless acknowledges that some of the protestors were at least lightly armed, and that once the protestors succeeded in storming the building, “they saw seven members of the security who had apparently been shot and killed by the protesters during the confrontation.” That more presumably heavily armed political security men (seven) died in the confrontation than protestors (four) suggests that well-armed militants had infiltrated the protest to attack the security forces, and that the four dead protestors may instead have been armed militants. This would align with claims made by al-Qaeda militants to Theo Padnos, and such a scenario was repeated several times in subsequent weeks elsewhere in Syria as I discuss below.
Additionally, there evidence pointing not only to the possibility of local Salafist militants carrying out such attacks, but also to foreign terrorist elements affiliated with al-Qaeda. We have evidence of an al-Qaeda attack near Deraa, just four weeks after the eruption of protests there. This comes from the Indian ambassador to Syria, V.P. Haran, who noted that on April 18, 2011 Syrian media reported that between 6 and 8 Syrian soldiers were killed when an armed group raided two security posts on the road between Damascus and the Jordanian border. After visiting the area two days later and speaking with locals, Haran had the impression that something even more serious had taken place. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and the Iraqi Ambassador to Syria both expressed their view in private conversations to Haran that the Syrian security forces had not only been killed, but beheaded, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the killings.
According to Haran, al-Qaeda had carried out attacks even earlier as well, on March 25 in Latakia. Syrian government sources claimed that twelve people were killed in Latakia that weekend, including security personnel, after unidentified gunmen shot at crowds from rooftops.
Firing Up the Old Sunni Network
The al-Qaeda leadership was not acting independently in preparing for a so-called revolution in Syria. As mentioned above, Seymour Hersh reported in 2007 that Prince Bandar bin Sultan had planned to deploy Salafist militants to undermine the Syrian government as part of the broader U.S. redirection in policy to “counteract Shiite ascendance,” and that Saudi officials had assured US planners that, “We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.”
Former Bush Administration official and neoconservative John Hannah also alluded to Bandar’s control of a Salafist militant network being directed at Syria just days after the al-Qaeda attack noted by V.P. Haran and encouraged his successors in the Obama administration to partner with Bandar to achieve U.S. goals in Syria. Hannah wrote in Foreign Policy on April 22, 2011 that “no one can discount the danger that, with its back against the wall, the [Saudi] Kingdom might once again fire up the old Sunni network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran,” and that “Bandar working without reference to U.S. interests is clearly cause for concern. But Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset. Drawing on Saudi resources and prestige, Bandar’s ingenuity and bent for bold action could be put to excellent use across the region in ways that reinforce U.S. policy and interests: through economic and political measures that weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime.”
Using Tanks Against Protestors?
Because Salafist militants, including militants from al-Qaeda, were infiltrating protests and attacking Syrian soldiers and police, the opposition and Western press were able to falsely conflate the government’s military operations against these militants with efforts to respond to peaceful protests.
For example, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on April 25, 2011 that “A handful of videos posted on the Internet, along with residents’ accounts, gave a picture of a city under broad military assault, in what appeared to mark a new phase in the government crackdown. Tanks had not previously been used against protesters, and the force of the assault suggested that the military planned some sort of occupation of the town [emphasis mine].” Shadid quoted a Deraa resident as claiming, ‘It’s an attempt to occupy Dara’a,” and that “soldiers had taken three mosques, but had yet to capture the Omari Mosque, where he said thousands had sought refuge. Since the beginning of the uprising last month, it has served as a headquarters of sorts for demonstrators. He quoted people there as shouting, ‘We swear you will not enter but over our dead bodies.’”
Opposition sources confirmed however, that armed clashes between the Syrian army and unknown militants were taking place, meaning the tanks were sent against armed militants, rather than protestors as Shadid suggested. Al-Jazeera quoted a Deraa resident on April 27, 2011 as noting that, “The army is fighting with some armed groups because there was heavy shooting from two sides…I cannot say who the other side is, but I can say now that it is so hard for civilians.”
Opposition activists Sally Masalmeh and Malek al-Jawabra also confirmed to Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher that during the Syrian army’s assault on the al-Omari mosque in April 2011, opposition militants had barricaded themselves inside the mosque and were stockpiling weapons there. Masalmeh and Jawabra resorted to conspiracy theories to explain the presence of weapons in the mosque, however, suggesting that “there were people among the protestors working secretly with the Mukhabarat [Syrian intelligence] and that it was they who facilitated the procurement of weapons and urged confrontation with the army.”
These claims of conspiracy are not credible however, given additional admissions from other pro-opposition sources. For example, the activist from Deraa, Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, was proud to acknowledge that two of his cousins fought and died in clashes with Syrian security forces at the al-Omari mosque during this period. He stressed to the interviewer that claims they were “terrorists” were false, but that they were indeed armed militants using Kalashnikovs and pump action shotguns.
To Arm a Resistance
Anwar al-Eshki, a former Saudi general, alluded to his government’s arming of militants in Deraa during this early period. In an interview with the BBC, al-Eshki explained that he had been in contact with opposition militants in Deraa, and that they were stockpiling weapons in the al-Omari mosque, apparently against the wishes of the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Siyasna. Al-Eshki then described the Saudi rationale for providing weapons to the militants, explaining that “To arm a ‘resistance’ doesn’t necessarily mean to give them tanks of heavy weapons like what happened in Libya. However, you give them weapons, so they can defend themselves and exhaust the army. The goal is to drive the government forces outside the cities to the villages.”
Foreign efforts to covertly spark an insurrection from Daraa, as described by al-Eskhi, are unsurprising, given the city’s location near the Jordanian border. CIA plans to spark an insurrection in Syria all the way back in 1957 recommended the same strategy. Historian Mathew Jones writes that the ”creation of an incident along the Syrian–Jordanian border was seen as the most promising scenario to spark outside military intervention. King Hussein’s [of Jordan] cooperation and influence could be enlisted to induce one or two of the Bedouin tribes residing in southern Syria to stage a rising of sufficient scale to provoke a Syrian army counter-attack…In addition, SIS [British intelligence] and CIA should gather Syrian opposition groups together in Jordan under the aegis of a ‘Free Syria Committee,’ while ‘Syrian political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities should be prepared for execution of specific tasks suited to their talents.’”
Other pro-opposition sources detailed efforts to smuggle weapons to opposition militants inside the country during March 2011, which also contradicts conspiracy theories that the militants fighting in Deraa were secretly receiving weapons from the Syrian government to corrupt an otherwise peaceful protest movement.
Prominent opposition and human rights activist Haitham Manna’ provided evidence that elements close to pro-Saudi Lebanese politician Saad Hariri were funneling weapons to militants into Syria, including in Deraa. Muhammad Jamal Barout notes that Manna’ publicly disclosed in an interview on al-Jazeera on March 31, 2011, that “he had received offers to arm movements from Raqqa to Daraa three times by parties he did not identify in the interview.” Barout additionally writes that, according to Manna’, there were secret communications between some Syrian businessmen abroad who found themselves in a battle of revenge with the Syrian regime because their interests had been harmed by the network of the pro-regime businessman Rami Makhlouf, and that these groups were willing to fund and arm opposition movements throughout the country. Barout notes that these businessmen apparently had relations with professional networks capable of delivering weapons to any location in Syria and that some members of the Future Movement (a prominent political party in Lebanon led by Saad Hariri and known to have strong Saudi support) were among those arranging these weapons shipments.
Manna’ confirmed further details to journalist Alix Van Buren of Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, speaking “about three groups having contacted him to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria. First, a Syrian businessman (the story reported by Al Jazeera); secondly, he was contacted by ‘several pro-American Syrian opposers’ to put it in his words. (he referred to more than one individual); thirdly, he mentioned approaches of the same kind by ‘Syrians in Lebanon who are loyal to a Lebanese party which is against Syria,’” presumably referring to the Future Movement in Lebanon as well.
Further confirmation of Hariri’s involvement in arming Salafist militants fighting the Syrian government later emerged from reporting by Lebanese journalist Radwan Murtada. In December 2012, Murtada reported that his newspaper, al-Akhbar, had obtained audio recordings of Future Movement parliament member Okab Sakr organizing weapons transfers to the armed Syrian opposition groups at the behest of Saad Hariri. Murtada’s reporting indicated further that Sakr was directing attacks against the Syrian army from operations rooms in both Lebanon and Turkey, and that he enjoyed close relations with intelligence officials from Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
The early involvement of al-Qaeda was also evident in Latakia. On March 25 and 26, 2011 protests and violence also erupted in the northern coastal town, home to both Sunnis and Alawites. As elsewhere, conflicting reports emerged about the source of the violence. Human Rights Watch reported that “Anti-government demonstrators in Latakia who spoke to television outlets accused the security forces of opening fire on them, while officials and pro-government protesters accused the anti-government protesters of having guns and shooting at police.” Government sources claimed 12 were killed, including civilians, members of the security forces, and two unknown gunmen that allegedly opened fire from rooftops, and that the army was dispatched to the city in response to the violence.
On March 27, 2011 Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that an organized effort was in place to spread rumors that Alawites would be murdered by Sunnis, and Sunnis murdered by Alawites, and that the security services had arrested several foreigners, most likely Jordanians. The paper also reported that gunmen had been roaming through Latakia in cars, some carrying fake plates, while firing shots at homes and in the streets, leading to three deaths. This resulted in locals forming self-defense committees to prevent strangers from entering their neighborhoods.
The general government version of events was supported by the Indian ambassador, V.P. Haran, who as noted above, claimed that al-Qaeda militants had carried out attacks in Latakia on March 25.
On March 29, 2011 the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir detailed unconfirmed reports from an Arab diplomatic source claiming that Syrian authorities had confiscated seven boats loaded with weapons coming from the northern Lebanese coast, and that Syrian and Lebanese militants had entered Syrian territory through the Bekaa valley and some points in northern Lebanon. Further, these militants had allegedly carried out military operations, including sniping and shooting using night vision equipment and sniper rifles.
Time Magazine journalist Rania Abouzeid similarly reported al-Qaeda affiliate militants were active in Latakia province early in the crisis. She reports that a Salafist militant “enlisted a small group of Salafi friends from Latakia who, along with a few local men he’d armed, overran half a dozen small police stations in villages dotted around the city. The first raid was in mid-April…Mohammad said he netted nine Kalashinikovs and ammunition. It wasn’t hard.” Muhammad had previously recruited fighters to go to Iraq to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003 and went on to become a commander in al-Qaeda’s official Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.
The role of U/S. and Saudi planners to topple the Syrian government was also evident during the early weeks of the crisis in the coastal town of Banias, where the government also deployed tanks, not to suppress protests but to respond to opposition attacks on Syrian soldiers and to prevent a sectarian war erupting between Alawite and Sunni residents. In this case, the agent working on behalf of U.S. and Saudi interests was former Syrian Prime Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam. As discussed above, he defected from the Syrian government in 2005, and began working toward regime change at that time with both the Muslim Brotherhood and neoconservatives from the Bush administration.
According to researcher Sabr Darwish of the EU-funded and pro-opposition Syria Untold, protests in Banias began on March 18, 2011 as well, and were organized and led by Anas Ayrout, a local Sunni cleric and Imam of the al-Rahman mosque, with activist Anas al-Shaghri also playing a prominent role. Ayrout later became a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) and in 2013 called for killing Alawite civilians to create a “balance of terror” to compel them to abandon support for the government.
The demands of the protesters in Banias included some of a conservative Islamic nature, rather than for democracy. According to opposition activist Bissam Walid, these demands included the release of a detainee, Ahmed Hudhayfa, who had been arrested in Damascus, returning veil wearing female teachers who had been transferred to jobs in other ministries to their teaching positions, the lowering of electricity prices, and the separation of boys and girls in schools.
During the first protest, demonstrators attacked an Alawite truck driver before Anas Ayrout intervened to stop them. According to Sabr Darwish, protests in Banias were otherwise peaceful and allowed to go forward unsuppressed by government officials over the following three weeks, while government officials were responsive to protestors demands. During protests on April 1, 2011 demonstrators chanted slogans against Iran and Hezbollah, criticizing their alleged intervention in Syria. The next week, demonstrators began a sit-in in the center square of the city.
If They Shoot At You
Events in Banias became violent on Saturday April 9, 2011 when 9 Syrian soldiers were killed while traveling by military bus in Banias. Regarding the attack, the Guardian reported that, “Syrian soldiers have been shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters, witnesses said, as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations intensified. Witnesses told al-Jazeera and the BBC that some soldiers had refused to shoot after the army moved into Banias in the wake of intense protests on Friday.” The Guardian also linked to footage on YouTube that it claimed, “shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces.”
Prominent Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis quickly showed claims made by the Guardian and Wissam Tarif to be false. Landis showed that the soldiers were instead killed by opposition militants using sniper rifles from a distance as the soldiers’ bus was entering the town. Landis writes that, “Video of one soldier purportedly confessing to being shot in the back by security forces and linked to by the Guardian has been completely misconstrued. The Guardian irresponsibly repeats a false interpretation of the video provided by an informant…The video does not ‘support’ the story that the Guardian says it does. The soldier denies that he was ordered to fire on people. Instead, he says he was on his way to Banyas to enforce security. He does not say that he was shot at by government agents or soldiers. In fact, he denies it. The interviewer tries to put words in his mouth, but the soldier clearly denies the story that the interviewer is trying to make him confess to. In the video, the wounded soldier is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to say that he was shot by a military officer. The soldier says clearly, ‘They [our superiors] told us, “Shoot at them IF they shoot at you.”’”
Landis notes further that the “interviewer tried to get the wounded soldier to say that he had refused orders to shoot at the people when he asked : ‘When you did not shoot at us what happened?’ But the soldier doesn’t understand the question because he has just said that he was not given orders to shoot at the people. The soldier replies, ‘Nothing, the shooting started from all directions.’ The interviewer repeats his question in another way by asking, ‘Why were you shooting at us, we are Muslims?’ The soldier answers him, ‘I am Muslim too.’ The interviewer asks, ‘So why were you going to shoot at us?’ The soldier replies, ‘We did not shoot at people. They shot at us at the bridge.’”
Azmi Bishara, a well-known al-Jazeera analyst and the general director of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, later confirmed that opposition militants killed the soldiers as well. Bishara cites a political activist from the “Together” movement in Banias as explaining that opposition militants fired on the soldiers from an observation bridge on the international highway opposite the city which links Latakia and Damascus. Bishara links the attack on the military convoy to “the ongoing arms smuggling operation across the Lebanese border,” which was used to smuggle weapons into both Homs and Banias. Bishara writes that “Muhammad Ali al-Biyassi, (one of the people working with [former Syrian Vice President] Abd al-Halim Khaddam) requested arming the people which went out in protests in the beginning of April 2011. And this person led the operation to send weapons to Banias. And the operations to smuggle weapons led to military confrontations with the Syrian army and security forces.” Bishara cites as his source “a person from the family of al-Biyassi who witnessed these operations and who soon was among those who carried weapons and told the witness the details of the operations.”
The attack on the soldiers on April 9, 2011 was the first effort to launch an armed insurrection to take control of Banias. Pro-opposition activist Sabr Darwish acknowledges that Ayrout’s supporters sought a violent takeover of the city. Darwish tries to portray it as defensive in nature, despite the killing of the 9 Syrian soldiers and weapons smuggling that preceded it. Darwish writes that, “There is no real consensus about the exact day the decision was made to liberate the revolutionary neighborhoods. However, according to many testimonies, it is agreed that Sheikh Anas Ayrout played a crucial role in every aspect of the events. Following Ayrout’s recommendation to self-defense and the subsequent blockades created by the youth, entire neighborhoods fell to the control of the residents.” Darwish claims that Anas Ayrout ordered his supporters to arm themselves, set up roadblocks, and to take control of several neighborhoods amidst rumors that Syrian security forces would invade the city and after cuts in the electricity and phone lines. Darwish writes that, “Although there was no clear sign that the regime was about to storm the city, with no increase in security presence in the streets or military reinforcements surrounding the city, the people were still worried. Rather than use his clout to ask about the power and communications, Ayrout called for the residents to practice self-defense, and made things worse. The citizens mobilized, carrying their arms, and the youth erected checkpoints and roadblocks, cutting off access to public roads with garbage. The atmosphere of the city was charged with anticipation and concern.”
Muhammad Jamal Barout characterizes events on Saturday April 9, 2011 somewhat differently, writing that an “angry demonstration took place, where several of the demonstrators were wearing shrouds, as symbolic evidence of their willingness to be martyred, which the speaker made as the ultimate goal of achieving freedom. And in the evening of the same day, an armed group took control of the city and called for jihad and provoked the neighborhoods with a majority Alawite and Christian population by chanting sectarian slogans.” Regarding the protestors wearing shrouds, Barout cites al-Jazeera as reporting that the “’Syrian Revolution 2011’ movement had broadcast on its Facebook page a videotape of a demonstration in the city in which dozens participated, some of whom wore white shrouds,” and that “preachers of mosques in the city had urged citizens in Friday sermons to exercise their right to demonstrate.”
On Sunday April 10, the day following the attack on the soldiers and after Ayrout’s followers took over several neighborhoods, sectarian tensions erupted. Pro-opposition lawyer Haitham al-Maleh reports that, “a group barricaded themselves in the Abu Bakr al Siddiq mosque. It was shortly after dawn, the dawn prayer. Armed with sticks, they mounted the defense around the shrine to face the security forces.” As described above, Ayrout’s supporters had more than sticks, however.
Plain clothes security forces in speeding cars coming from Alawite neighborhoods then opened fire on Sunni men guarding both the Rahman and Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosques, injuring 12 according to opposition sources. Reuters reports that one of the injured, Osama al-Sheikha, died from his wounds a week later.
Sabr Darwish reports further armed sectarian clashes between Alawite and Sunni young men on the same day. He reported that, “amidst the atmosphere of fear and anticipation, sounds of heavy fire were heard from the bridge. Later, people learned that a group of youth from the Alawite villages surrounding Baniyas had clashed with some of the activists stationed at the entrance of the city.” Darwish reports further that, “The intruders fled following the clashes, leaving behind a young Alawite man. The activists decided to detain this man, and videos emerged of them beating him. On the way to hand him to Sheikh Ayrout, the man was stabbed multiple times with sharp knives which lead to his death several hours later.”
The man stabbed to death by Ayrout’s supporters was Nidal Janoud, an Alawite vegetable seller. Janoud’s murderers filmed the killing and uploaded the video to the internet. The shocking footage was later shown on Syrian state television, and which led to the arrest of two of the killers as well as widespread outrage among government supporters.
We Are Happy It’s the Army
To avert further sectarian violence, government authorities struck a deal with local notables to withdraw the security forces from Banias and replace them with units from the army to maintain order. After Syrian army units entered Banias on Monday April 11, 2011, one resident told the Associated Press that, “schools and shops were closed because people feared more clashes,” and that “the army’s arrival was met mostly with relief.” The resident explained further that, “We are happy it’s the army and not security forces who are like regime-hired gangs.”
Reuters reported that “The deal, struck in Damascus between a Baath Party official and imams and prominent figures from Banias, was intended to help calm the city,” while citing Rami Abdul Rahman of SOHR as explaining that “Banias residents arrested over the past several weeks are already being released,” and that, “The army will go in but there is also a pledge to pull out the secret police…and improve living conditions.” Al-Jazeera reported further that, “the army’s entry into the city was preceded by the release of 200 people on Wednesday and 150 Thursday who were arrested in connection with the events witnessed in the city in the past weeks. Those found to have carried a weapon and were involved in violence remained in detention.”
Sectarian tensions remained high, however. On April 14, 2011 Syrian state media claimed that “a group of armed snipers shot today a number of army members while they patrolled the city of Banias…One was martyred and another wounded.” After additional anti-government protests in Banias on Friday April 15, 2011, Muhammad Jamal Barout noted that “the culture of this period took on a changed character, with religious slogans and speeches, blessing the victims and expressing readiness for martyrdom, and some protestors wore shrouds, which symbolized the readiness to militarize the conflict and mobilize for jihad. And protestors wore shrouds in at least two areas, Banias and Sanamein.”
Meddling With the Blood of Innocents
It soon became clear that former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who had been working for years with U.S. planners and the Muslim Brotherhood to topple the Syrian state, was behind the attacks that killed 9 the Syrian soldiers on April 9, 2011 and the subsequent armed insurrection that threatened to spark a sectarian war in Banias.
As mentioned above, Azmi Bishara reported that the person responsible for smuggling weapons into Banias, Muhammad Ali al-Biyassi, was an associate of Khaddam.
Additionally, when asked about events in Banias by la Repubblica journalist Alix Van Buren, prominent opposition figure and lawyer Haythem al-Maleh blamed the government for sectarian violence, but also acknowledged the “elements that want to poison the relationship between the people and the regime: those who shoot demonstrators and soldiers to sow terror.” When asked further whether he gave credibility to rumors of “infiltrators,” al-Maleh stated that “How can you not, given the ambushes against the army?” Al-Maleh directed blame at Khaddam, saying that, “His fiefdom is Banias. Today two of his men were arrested for having stirred up protests and criminal gangs.”
Van Buren notes that another opposition source had pointed to Khaddam’s role in arming militants in Banias, writing that, “The veteran blogger Ahmed Abu ElKheir, unfortunately now in prison for the second time in less than a month, and not yet released, has links to Banyas. The first, peaceful demonstration of Saturday morning was also sparked by the request for his release. In his Facebook profile, before being arrested, he too lashed out against Khaddam. Several commentators from that area agreed with him, cursing Khaddam for meddling ‘with the blood of the innocents.’”
Another place where al-Qaeda affiliated militants were deployed by Washington’s regional partners was in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Homs lies near the Lebanese border and its residents enjoy close ties to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The city was populated by Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites. Homs was one of the early epicenters of anti-government demonstrations and later became known as the first “capital of the revolution.”
The opposition movement in Homs became militarized on April 17, 2011, in the wake of the death of a local tribal leader named Sheikh Badr Abu Musa. Reuters cited an unnamed “human rights defender” as explaining that “that protests against the rule of the Baath Party intensified in Homs after the authorities handed over the body of Sheikh Badr Abu Musa of the Al-Fawara tribe to his family for burial on Saturday [April 16]. A 12-year-old boy was killed at Abu Musa’s funeral, which turned into a demonstration on the same day. Abu Musa was arrested a week ago in front of a mosque after he participated in a pro-democracy demonstration.” Reuters’ unnamed source in Homs explained further that on Sunday April 17, “Syrian forces killed eight protesters during the night in Homs in clashes after the killing of” Abu Musa.
This narrative, that security forces killed peaceful protestors demonstrating in response to Abu Musa’s death, provides a distorted view of events. Muhammad Jamal Barout and Azmi Bishara both point to the clashes between Abu Musa’s supporters and the security forces on that day as armed confrontations, rather than peaceful demonstrations attacked by security forces. Bishara describes these clashes as the first “signs of popular militarization,” in the Baba Amr neighborhood, which became the epicenter of fighting between opposition militants and the Syrian army in Homs in late 2011.
Bishara writes that “security forces delivered the body of Sheikh Bader Abu Musa, one of the leaders of the Fawa’ara tribe who was killed under torture after his detention. And this resulted in military confrontations between youths from Abu Musa’s group and security forces in which 14 people were killed and 50 others were wounded.” Barout writes that “The death of the revered Sheikh in this context led to the eruption of heavy clashes,” in which 14 people were killed, and more than 50 injured.
Further evidence of armed opposition activity comes from the killing of several Syrian army officers during this time. As journalist Sharmine Narwani reports, Syrian Brigadier General Abdo al-Tallawi was assassinated on Sunday April 17, alongside his two sons and a nephew, Ahmad al-Tallawi, Khader al-Tallawi and Ali al-Tallawi. Large crowds attended the funeral procession of the four victims the following day, with attendees chanting pro-government slogans. Syrian state media claimed the bodies had also been mutilated.
The Clock Tower Fabrication
Reports of events on the following day, Monday April 18, were once again distorted by local opposition activists, and uncritically passed on by the Western press. Funerals for the supporters of Sheikh Abu Musa who were killed on Sunday April 17 were held on Monday April 18 and turned into protests. Activists then took the decision to march to the New Clock Tower Square, located in the center of Homs, and to establish a sit-in there to resemble that established in Egypt’s Tahrir Square previously. The sit-in would set the stage for another alleged massacre that was used to suggest the Syrian government was using appalling levels of violence to suppress peaceful dissent.
Human Rights Watch obtained testimony from an alleged defected intelligence officer claiming that “We were there with Air Force security, army, and shabeeha. At around 3:30 a.m. [early Tuesday morning, April 19], we got an order from Colonel Abdel Hamid Ibrahim from Air Force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs.”
Al-Jazeera similarly reported that “the early hours of dawn on Tuesday [April 19] saw an intervention by security forces to break up the sit-in of thousands of protesters, who spoke of a ‘real massacre.’ Omar Adlabi, a human rights activist, spoke to al-Jazeera about heavy gunfire at the demonstrators and said there was a ‘massacre,’ while an eyewitness from Homs named Abu Essam said, ‘that shooting was being carried out directly on the demonstrators.’”
It turns out that there was no massacre, however, and that such claims were propaganda disseminated by opposition activists to demonize the Syrian government. Time journalist Rania Abouzeid reported the alleged clock tower massacre, “was a turning point in the struggle for Homs, although years later some of the men present that night would admit that claims of a massacre were exaggerated, even fabricated, by rebel activists to garner sympathy.”
Instead, the violence at New Clock Tower Square likely involved armed clashes between opposition militants and Syrian security forces under the cover of the protests and sit-in, as was the case in the wake of the death of Sheik Abu Musa two days previous.
Such a view is consistent with the observations made by Father Frans Van der Lugt, a Dutch priest who lived in Homs for nearly fifty years. Van der Lugt explained that “From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.” He notes further that, “from the outset there has been the problem of armed groups, which are also part of the opposition…And that opposition is armed and often proceeds cruelly and violently and then blames the government. Many government people have been tortured and shot by them. Van der Lugt’s testimony is valuable because he is an objective, on the ground source. Van der Lugt refused to leave Homs despite the violence of the subsequent years and was respected by both government and opposition supporters at the time of his assassination by an unknown gunman in 2014.
Instead of a massacre of demonstrators in Homs, opposition militants were once again carrying out attacks on Syrian police and security forces. Al-Jazeera’s report from April 19 also quoted an eyewitness who reported “heavy shooting near the police command center in the city and said that the shooting was like ‘rain showers.’” The eyewitness also indicated that calls for jihad and to support the protesters were launched through loudspeakers from mosques near the Clock Tower Square and the Bab Seba’ neighborhood. In the wake of these armed clashes and assassinations, the Syrian Interior Ministry issued a circular in Homs governorate to prevent the entry of motorbikes into the city, “because some armed groups in the province implement their criminal plans using motorbikes.”
In addition to the gun battle at the police station, Major Iyad Harfoush, an off-duty Commander in the Syrian army, was killed by opposition militants on Monday April 18. Sharmine Narwani reports that according to his wife, “someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs—Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed.” Another Syrian officer, Colonel Mu’een Mahalla was assassinated in Zahra the same day. According to Barout, both Mahalla and Harfoush were Alawite, and their killings led to further sectarian tensions in the mixed-sect neighborhoods of al-Humaydia and al-Wa’er, and also the neighborhoods of al-Khaliddiya and al-Zahra.
The calls for jihad, attack on the police station, and assassination of the three Syrian officers on April 17 and April 18 coincided with the formation of a Salafist militia known as the Farouq Brigade, which went on to become an early and prominent faction of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). French journalist Jonathon Littell visited Homs in 2012 and met an Islamist commander who claims the FSA began organizing in Homs in April 2011. Littell writes, “Abu Ahmad, who commands the north zone of al-Qusayr. An officer who deserted, a mulazim. Thick beard, moustache shaved, Islamist style. He had quit the army before the uprising, because of a personal conflict, and joined the FSA at its start. In April already, they were trying to organize themselves militarily, but there weren’t yet any confrontations.”
Opposition activist Walid al-Faris notes that the Farouq Brigades were founded by a young student of Islamic law with a Salafi orientation, Amjad Bitar, who had begun supporting various armed groups, most notably in the neighborhoods of al-Khalidiya and Baba Amr, which were the two most important gathering points for opposition fighters in Homs. Among the fighters were some who had fought in Iraq previously. Training camps for the fighters and bomb-making factories were set up in orchards on the outskirts of the city. These orchards provided cover for the fighters and facilitated their movements.
The Salafist militias forming in Homs under the Farouq banner soon received additional support from fighters from nearby Lebanon. Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem witnessed heavily armed fighters crossing into Syria in late April 2011 from the Wadi Khaled area. Hashem explained that, “we saw armed men just crossing the river, the great northern river, which is the only, you know, natural barrier between Lebanon and Syria. They were just crossing that barrier and going into Syria, and then clashing with the Syrian Army. That was in May. And even something similar happened in April, but it wasn’t on camera. But in May it was on camera and we had the footage, and, you know, no one wanted to have them on air…I’m not sourcing or quoting; I just saw with my eyes, and it was in the beginning of the revolution, it was just, like, one month and a half from the revolution…I was seeing a lot of weapons, people with RPGs, people with Kalashnikovs, you know, just crossing from the borders. And they were not one or two; they were a big number; they were just dominating the whole village that we were on the borders with. So, you know, the militarization of the revolution started early.”
Hashem later resigned from al-Jazeera to protest the channel’s refusal to broadcast his reports of armed militants crossing into Syria. He speculated that al-Jazeera’s editors were attempting obscure the violent nature of the uprising, as there were those who “wanted to say that al-Assad is facing the peaceful crackdown with weapons, while the others on the revolution side are kind of peaceful people, are not holding weapons.” This is unsurprising, given that al-Jazeera had been coordinating its news coverage with U.S. planners since at least 2010. Lebanese academic Asad Abu Khalil noted for example that “the head of al-Jazeera told me in 2010 that the US embassy in Doha Qatar sends a weekly report in which they provide a critique of every program that appears on al-Jazeera in order to have them change their tunes, to change it towards America.”
Hariri’s Holy War
Reporting from Der Spiegel suggests that the fighters witnessed crossing into Syria by Ali Hashem were Salafist militants from the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The German magazine reported that Sheikh Masen al-Mohammad, a prominent Salafist cleric in Tripoli, was sending fighters into Syria as early as summer 2011 because, in his view, “Assad is an infidel” and “There is a holy war in Syria and the young men there are conducting jihad. For blood, for honor, for freedom, for dignity.” According to one of the fighters interviewed by Der Spiegel, around 60 percent of the Lebanese fighters crossing the border from Tripoli to Homs had already fought in Iraq.”
These Salafist fighters included militants from an al-Qaeda affiliated group known as Fatah al-Islam. Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, director of the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies explained that, “When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, many of the remaining Fatah al-Islam members crossed the border and joined groups in the Free Syrian Army.”
Just as in Banias, the flow of arms and Salafist fighters into Homs was facilitated by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a close ally of both US and Saudi intelligence. Azmi Bishara noted that, “The circles close to the people who took up arms confirm that arms smuggling from Lebanon began in late April 2011” and that “The weapons were initially used for individual kidnappings or assassinations (in one day in the city of Homs in July, about 30 people were kidnapped and killed) while the public appearance of weapons in the streets began in August 2011. The armed battalions were formed in October 2011. Saad Hariri appears to have funded the smuggling of arms from Lebanon, as evidenced by the naming of some battalions by his name or by his father’s name.”
As discussed above, Hariri had partnered with Saudi intelligence to cultivate Salafist groups in Tripoli starting in 2005, including providing protection for militants from Fatah al-Islam in 2007. This was part of the “redirection” in U.S. policy in the region. U.S. planners had been battling Salafist militants in Iraq, including militants from al-Qaeda in Iraq, but pivoted to supporting such groups in response to growing fears about a so-called Shia Crescent.
The above-mentioned al-Qaeda tactic of infiltrating demonstrations and attacking police stations was also evident in June 2011, in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shagour.
As noted above, on June 3, 2011 tens of masked young men from the area of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province arrived in Jisr al-Shagour on motorcycles with weapons they had purchased on the black market or had captured from government caches. These men were among those that attacked the pro-government Popular Army headquarters to capture additional weapons. Two days later, on June 5, Islamist militants attacked the local post office and military security headquarters, leading to a 36-hour gun battle.
According to journalist Rania Abouzeid, the violence began when an armed militant named Basil al-Masry was killed while attacking a government check point. Masry’s death angered many residents of the town, who believed rumors that Masry had been unarmed when he was killed, rather than carrying out an armed operation. As a result, his funeral doubled as an anti-government demonstration. As protestors approached the local post office, several hundred Islamist militants emerged from among the protestors and opened fire on government snipers stationed atop the post office roof. The militants then threw incendiary devices inside the post office doors, lighting the building on fire and burning eight people to death, before turning to attack the nearby military security building, where state security and political security personnel were holed up inside. When the Syrian authorities sent a convoy of soldiers to come to their assistance, the Islamist militants ambushed their convoy, killing some 120 of the soldiers.
Mass Graves, but Whose?
Opposition activists spread the false claim that the slain soldiers were defectors killed by their own Alawite superiors in the army, despite evidence to the contrary provided by Syria expert Joshua Landis, showing the soldiers had been killed by opposition gunmen. As Rania Abouzeid reported, it was only years later that activists involved in the incident acknowledged that the story of the soldiers defecting was fabricated. Abouzeid had herself reported on the incident at the time, and unwittingly passed on the false claims suggesting the dead soldiers had first defected. Abouzeid later reversed her reporting and provided full details of the event after interviewing an Islamist militant who had participated in the attack, as well as other civilians that were present in the initial protest outside the post office. The militant acknowledged to Abouzeid that he and his men had filmed the bodies of some of the security forces they killed and presented the videos as if they showed “mass grave’s full of the regime’s victims.” The fabricated claim about defecting soldiers was used to conceal the fact that the soldiers were killed by Islamist militants, and thereby allow the uprising to continue to be viewed as peaceful.
The militant quoted by Abouzeid, named Muhammad, had helped Islamist militants travel to Iraq to fight with al-Qaeda after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Muhammad’s brother had himself fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Falluja. Starting in 2009, Muhammad spent close to two years, off and on, in prison in Syria due to suspicions of his Salafist leanings, and was released without charge on January 11, 2011, shortly before the crisis erupted in March. He was detained again briefly for ten days on March 13, 2011 but released after signing a pledged to refrain from participating in anti-government activities. As discussed above, Mohammad quickly “enlisted a small group of Salafi friends from Latakia who, along with a few local men he’d armed, overran half a dozen small police stations in villages dotted around the city. The first raid was in mid-April, the same time as Jisr al-Shagour’s first protest.” After the attacks on Syrian security forces in Jisr al-Shagour in June 2011, Muhammad went on to become a commander in al-Qaeda’s official Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.
Tending to the Necessary Details
Another Salafist militant who participated in the June 2011 ambush in Jisr al-Shagour, Hassan Aboud, had previous links to al-Qaeda as well. Aboud had traveled to Iraq to fight against U.S. occupation forces in 2004 in Falluja and was seen in a video with al-Zarqawi. After returning to Syria in 2005, Aboud led an apparently unremarkable life as a mason and laborer, though locals from his hometown of Sarmin in Idlib province speculated he was sent back to Syria as part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell.
Aboud participated in anti-government protests starting in March 2011, and then founded an armed group called Liwa Daoud as the opposition movement quickly became militarized. His brigade had expertise in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Aboud later became a double amputee after an improvised rocket accidentally exploded near him.
C.J. Chivers of the New York Times writes that, “In June 2011, while Syrian protesters appealed for international support, Mr. Aboud participated in the ambush of an army convoy near Jisr al-Shoughour, four associates said.” Aboud’s friend, Daoud al-Sheikh, was killed in the fighting, leading Aboud to establish Liwa Daoud, or the Daoud Brigade, in his honor. “His brigade started small. But it set up a guerrilla base among olive groves and caves, where it trained, manufactured weapons, and extended its fight. By late 2011, it joined Suqour al-Sham, or Sham Falcons brigade…Many early rebel groups lacked experience, money, training, and cohesion. The Dawood Brigade was different, Mr. Aboud’s townspeople said. It tended to details necessary to become a fighting force.”
Saqour al-Sham, the FSA group of which Liwa Daoud became a part, was a Salafist militia and the strongest armed opposition group in Idlib for the first years of the conflict. Aboud became one of the most important military commanders in Saqour al-Sham after participating in several key battles against the Syrian army, including at the Taftanaz military airport, the Shabiba military base, the Air Defense College and the Madajin checkpoint Aleppo, the Jadida checkpoint in Hama, the Hamishu checkpoint in Idlib.
In 2014, Aboud defected with his fighters to ISIS, bringing with them weapons and a convoy of armored vehicles and tanks. Aboud became a prominent ISIS commander and led the ISIS assault on the Aleppo countryside in August 2014. He was known for threatening in songs to kill his former FSA counterparts. Aboud helped lead the attack to capture the ancient town and heritage site of Palmyra, after which ISIS publicly murdered Khalid al-Asaad, the retired director of antiquities for the site. Hassan Aboud was killed in March 2016 when his convoy struck a roadside bomb.
Six days after Salafist militants killed the 120 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shagour in June 2011, Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times reported a similar incident, where Islamist gunmen used the cover of a demonstration to attack Syrian security forces, this time in the nearby town of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, also in Idlib province. According to tribal elders from the town, men armed with rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers joined some 5,000 protestors demonstrating outside a military barracks in the middle of the town. The armed men attacked the barracks, where roughly 100 police were barricaded inside, causing a military helicopter to come to the aid of the police. Four policemen and 12 of the armed men were killed, while 20 policemen were wounded. The barracks was ransacked by a mob and set on fire, as was the local courthouse and police station.
Founding Of the FSA
In a rare admission of the armed nature of the fledgling anti-government uprising, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on May 8, 2011 that, “American officials acknowledge that some protesters have been armed,” and that “Syrian television is suffused with images of soldiers’ burials.” By this time, at least 81 soldiers and police had been killed.
However, after the killing of the 120 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shaqour in June 2011, cracks in the narrative of a peaceful uprising being crushed by a ruthless dictator were beginning to emerge. To reinforce the narrative that these soldiers were killed by their own officers after defecting, interviews were quickly arranged for journalists in the Western and Gulf press with Colonel Hussain Harmoush, who claimed to have defected from the Syrian army with thirty of his soldiers to protect civilians in Jisr al-Shagour after the alleged mutiny. These same outlets began airing YouTube videos of other alleged Syrian officers defecting to the opposition, including of colonel engineer Riad al-Asad, and Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, whose defection was deemed important because he is a relative of Manaf Tlass, the then-Brigadier General and childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, and of Manaf’s father, Mustafa Tlass, the former Syrian Defense Minister and close advisor to Hafez al-Assad.
The publicity given to Harmoush, Tlass, al-Asad and other defectors paved the way for the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on July 29, 2011. The establishment of the FSA provided cover public relations cover for a nascent Salafist-led insurgency that had already been active for months. The myth of a secular rebel army comprised of defected officers fighting to establish democracy and protect civilians was officially born.
Clear Sectarian Overtones
By August 2011, Homs had emerged as the epicenter of the conflict. The Salafist militants fighting in the city formally announced the founding of the Farouq Brigades, which began fighting under the FSA banner. One of the founders of Farouq, a lawyer named Abu Sayyeh, explained to journalist Rania Abouzeid that the group chose a name with “clear sectarian overtones tied to Assad’s alliance with Shiite Iran. The Farouq Battalions were named for Farouq Omar bin al-Khatab, a sahaba or companion of the prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and the second caliph who conquered the Sassanid Persian empire, among other territories. ‘We wanted to be called Farouq as an indication of our desire to confront Persian ambitions in our Arab lands,’ the lawyer Abu Sayyeh said.”
Walid al-Faris also notes the dominant role played by Salafists generally in the establishment of Farouq. He writes that “the biggest part of the financial support came from religious students of the Salafi methodology in Homs and outside it. This was confirmed by the announcement of the actual leadership of the brigade, which originally belonged to the Salafi methodology, and this was not apparent initially.” As mentioned above, the most important founder of the Farouq Brigades was a Salafi preacher named Amjad Bitar, who was able to fund the group via donations from Salafi networks in the Gulf states.
The Salafist orientation of the Farouq Brigade fighting in Homs was not apparent initially because the group was publicly led by a defected Syrian army officer, Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, who had defected from the Syrian army in June 2011 as mentioned above. Farouq also adopted the FSA brand, which gave it a secular veneer and allowed it to be presented as moderate in the Western press.
Al-Faris notes however that while Tlass handled military responsibilities, it was Bitar who was the actual leader of the group. After a trip to Syria in August 2012, opposition activist Ammar Abd al-Hamid similarly confirmed that although Farouq was apparently “run by a charismatic young defector, Captain Abdurrazzaq Tlas, it was guided from behind the scenes by a Salafi scholar by the name of Amjad Bitar.”
It was also commonly claimed that Farouq consisted primarily of army defectors who had refused to fire on peaceful civilian protestors. However, Farouq fighters consisted primarily of civilians from the Salafi community in Homs and/or militants from Fatah al-Islam who joined the group after crossing the border from Lebanon. Rania Abouzeid reports for example that “Opposition media activists pushed the idea that Farouq and the broader Free Syrian Army were largely comprised of defectors, but they were mainly armed civilians.” She quotes a Farouq commander named Abu Azzam as explaining that, “We are a civilian revolution, not a revolution of defected soldiers.”
McClatchy journalist David Enders spent time with a unit of Farouq fighters in April 2012. He notes that the group’s commander refused to say how many of his fighters were defectors, suggesting there were few, if any. Enders notes however that several fighters eagerly acknowledged to him that they had fought in Iraq against U.S. occupation forces, including in 2004 in Falluja, after Enders indicated he himself had reported from Fallujah at the time. Similarly, al-Jazeera journalist James Bays observed that the Farouq Brigades unit he was embedded with in al-Qusayr in May 2012, “includes many more civilian volunteers. Many don’t wear uniform, and some cover their faces with the keffiyeh, or arabic scarf. We were told some of these fighters had fought in Iraq.”
Despite the Salafist and explicitly sectarian orientation of Farouq, and its connections to al-Qaeda affiliated groups in both Lebanon and Iraq, Foreign Policy magazine would later describe the group as “at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a ‘moderate’ opposition” in Syria.
Jolani Returns to Syria
In August 2011, after al-Qaeda elements had been already active in Syria for five months, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched his deputy Abu Muhammad al-Jolani from Iraq to formally extend the group’s franchise into Syria, which became known as the Nusra Front.
The Associate Press published a report providing an outline of Jolani’s life based on information from Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence and from a prominent Jordanian Salafi leader. The report explains that Jolani “was once a teacher of Arabic before moving to Iraq, where he turned to militancy and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the militant group al-Qaeda in Iraq. After al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, al-Golani left Iraq, briefly staying in Lebanon, where he offered logistical support for the Jund al-Sham militant group, which follows al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology, the officials said. He returned to Iraq to continue fighting but was arrested by the U.S. military and held at Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison on Iraq’s southern border with Kuwait. At that camp, where the U.S. military held tens of thousands of suspected militants, he taught classical Arabic to other prisoners, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were revealing information from secret files. After his release from prison in 2008, al-Golani resumed his militant work, this time alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq. He was soon appointed head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul province. Shortly after the Syrian uprising began, al-Golani moved into Syrian territory and, fully supported by al-Baghdadi, formed the Nusra Front, which was first announced in January 2012.”
These same details of Jolani’s life were confirmed by al-Jazeera in July 2015, and noted that al-Jolani returned to Syria from Mosul specifically in August 2011. Al-Jazeera is in a good position to know the outline of Jolani’s past, given that Jolani granted two major interviews to the network, one in December 2013 (Jolani’s first), and the other in 2015. These reports from the Associated Press and al-Jazeera contradict pro-opposition propaganda claiming that Jolani was held by the Syrian government in the prison at Sednaya, and deliberately released early in conflict to Islamize and militarize an otherwise peaceful and secular uprising.
Jolani’s presence in Syria remained secret, as did the role of foreign jihadists working with FSA groups during this period. For example, Aaron Zelin, an expert on Tunisian Jihadism, observed that, “In 2011, before jihadist groups officially announced their presence in Syria, foreign fighters began mobilizing to Syria with the non-jihadist Free Syrian Army…As for the announcement of foreign fighter martyrs, this began in February 2012, with the posting of the first recorded martyrdom notice on the jihadist forum Shamukh al-Islam. This announcement was long delayed, with the fighter in question, a Kuwaiti named Hussam al-Mutayri, having died August 29, 2011, while fighting with the FSA in Damascus.”
The announcement of the deaths of these foreign jihadists supporting the FSA was delayed until early 2012 because al-Qaeda had not yet formally announced its existence in Syria, though of course it had existed since the beginning of the conflict.
A Daily Diet of Suicide Bombings
Al-Qaeda first made its presence in the Syria conflict apparent with a suicide bombing in Damascus on December 23, 2011. Suicide car bombers targeted General Security Directorate and another branch of the security services, killing 44 including civilians and security personnel. Opposition activists claimed this was a false flag attack carried out by the government to discredit the armed opposition. However, Syria expert Joshua Landis cast doubt on this view, noting, “I am only surprised that we haven’t seen the use of suicide bombing sooner.” With the continued break down of law and order, radical groups would be able to spread and “the chances are that the daily diet of suicide bombings that have become a part of political life in Iraq, will also become common in Syria.”
As Landis expected, more such bombings quickly followed. According to Syrian state TV, a suicide bomber detonated explosives near a bus, killing some 26, including both civilians and security personnel in the Maidan district of Damascus on January 6, 2011. Opposition activists once again tried to claim the attack was a false flag carried out by the government.
Three weeks later, al-Qaeda made its role in the conflict public and explicit. On January 24, 2012, al-Jazeera reported that al-Jolani issued a “statement announcing the formation of the ‘Support Front for the People of the Levant’ whom he called ‘the Mujahideen of al-Sham,’ and took his homeland, ‘al-Shuhail’ as a starting point for the work of this front. In his statement, he also called on the Syrians to wage jihad and take up arms to bring down the Syrian regime.”
To the embarrassment of the U.S. and Gulf-backed political opposition, AFP reported that Nusra soon claimed responsibility for the Maidan attack, as well as another mass casualty suicide bombing in Aleppo that killed 28 on February 10, 2011, and that U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested that the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that militants from the group had infiltrated into Syria to join the fight against the government.
Clapper’s acknowledgement of al-Qaeda’s operations in Syria coincided with warnings from Iraqi security official Adnan al-Assadi that “a number of Iraqi jihadists went to Syria,” and that “weapons smuggling is still ongoing.” Al-Assadi explained that the prices of weapons in Mosul (the province’s capital) are higher now because they are being sent to the opposition in Syria,” including through a border crossing near Abu Kamal,” a town in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province on the Euphrates river and opposite the Iraqi town of al-Qaim.
Cradle of the War
Assadi’s statements point to the early importance of Deir al-Zour province, which quickly became the epicenter of al-Qaeda’s activities in Syria. Guardian journalist Leith Abdul-Ahad was one of the few journalists to visit the province, and in July 2012 he noted that “Al-Qaida has existed in this parched region of eastern Syria, where the desert and the tribes straddle the border with Iraq, for almost a decade. During the years of American occupation of Iraq, Deir el-Zour became the gateway through which thousands of foreign jihadis flooded to fight the holy war. Many senior insurgents took refuge from American and Iraqi government raids in the villages and deserts of Deir el-Zour…[The regime had] for years played a double game, allowing jihadis to filter across the borders to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping them tightly under control at home.” Abdul-Ahad writes that, “In the pre-revolutionary days when the regime was strong it would take a year to recruit someone to the secret cause of jihad,” but according to a Nusra fighter, who had himself fought in Iraq as a young man after 2003 and participated in early demonstrations against the Syrian government in 2011, “Now, thanks to God, we are working in the open and many people are joining in.”
Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s hometown of al-Shuhail played a particularly important role, as noted in the announcement of the Nusra Front’s establishment. Abdul-Ahad also visited al-Shuhail and noted that the town “has become the de facto capital of al-Qaida in Deir el-Zour. More than 20 of its young men were killed in Iraq. In Shahail the al-Qaida fighters drive around in white SUVs with al-Qaida flags fluttering.”
As mentioned above, American journalist Theo Padnos, a fluent Arabic speaker who was held captive by Nusra for two years, including for ten months in al-Shuhail, also pointed to the importance of Deir al-Zour in the anti-government insurgency that erupted in 2011. According to the fighters, fellow prisoners, and civilians with which he managed to speak, the Syrian revolution was not about democracy or human rights, but about waging war against the Alawites from the Syrian government and establishing an Islamic state. Padnos writes that, “I suspect now that the true cradle of the war in Syria wasn’t Deraa, where the famous graffiti ‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime’ first appeared on a schoolyard wall, but rather the Euphrates River Valley, especially the eastern portions of it, downstream from Raqqa, where Syria’s oil and gas fields lie,” and that “I suspect I quizzed dozens if not hundreds of Deiris, as people from this region are known (after the provincial capital, Deir Ezzor)…As it happened, I did not encounter a single person in the eastern half of Syria who believed that peaceful demonstrators in Deraa—or mosque goers in the restive suburb of Duma or citizens anywhere else in the west—were the true fomenters of a rebellion in Syria. The true fomenters, in the opinion of my prison interviewees, were the men of the jihad.”
The full name of the group established by Jolani suggests that Nusra (which means “support”) was meant to provide aid and assistance the existing Salafist armed groups already fighting under the Free Syrian Army brand. Ghaith Abdul Ahed quoted a Nusra commander in the town of Muhassan in Deir al-Zour named Abu Khuder who explained that “his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. ‘We meet almost every day,’ he said. ‘We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.”
An Open Secret
In early 2012, FSA groups were not only receiving assistance from al-Qaeda in the east of the country in Deir al-Zour, but also in the northwest, near the border with Turkey. The assistance came in the form of al-Qaeda affiliated militants from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) as well as shipments of Libyan weapons facilitated by the CIA and British intelligence.
Seymour Hersh reports that the CIA was running a “rat line” to ship weapons from Libya (from government stockpiles captured after the fall of Qaddafi in September 2011) to opposition militants in northern Syria. Hersh reports that, “The rat line, authorized in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syria border to the opposition. Many of those who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of the affiliated with al-Qaida.” Hersh notes that according to a classified annex to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, an “agreement was reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdogan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA with support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by [CIA director] David Petraeus.”
Though Hersh reports the CIA and MI6 weapons shipments began in early 2012, they likely began earlier, in at least November 2011, when “volunteer” fighters from the NATO-backed interim Libyan government began traveling to Syria to fight with FSA groups. On November 29, 2011 al-Bawaba reported that “600 rebel fighters have already gone from Libya to Syria in order to support the Syrian opposition” and “that the Libyan rebels entered Syria through Turkey, to join ‘the free Syrian army’” and “that the door is still open to more volunteers in Libya in case they wish to fight.”
The most prominent Libyan commander to travel to Syria was Mehdi al-Herati, a Quran teacher with Irish citizenship who had previously fought against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in 2003. Al-Herati traveled from Ireland to Libya in February 2011 to form the Tripoli Brigade along with LIFG founder Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. The Tripoli Brigade spearheaded the invasion of the Libyan capital in August 2011 under the cover of NATO bombs.
Belhaj and other former LIFG militants were in turn partnering with British intelligence during the conflict. Middle East Eye (MEE) reported that Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt acknowledged that the British government was in communication with Libyan insurgents during this period, and it was “likely that this included former members of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” MEE reports further that according to Salafist activist and former Guantanamo detainee Moaezzem Begg, the “British government’s use of and support for former members of the LIFG during the Libyan uprising was a ‘pretty open secret.’”
Mahdi al-Herati then traveled to Syria in October 2011, just two months after the fall of Qaddafi, under the pretext of providing humanitarian aid. After crossing the border from Turkey, Herati went to the Jabal a-Zawiya region of Idlib province and met with leaders from an al-Qaeda affiliated Salafist militia, Ahrar al-Sham. According to Herati, he was welcomed “as a brother.”
Herati founded his own brigade, Liwa al-Ummah, in April 2012. Foreign Policy (FP) notes that the Facebook page for Liwa al-Ummah promoted a “video clip of the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar who provided the theological underpinning for the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, outlining when jihad becomes fard ayn, meaning an individual duty. A message bylined by Harati contains an invitation to ‘join the jihad in the land of al-Sham.’” FP noted further that Herati’s men were well armed, with 12.5 mm and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and rifles including PKCs and M16s at their disposal. Herati was able to recruit fellow Irish nationals to fight in Syria due to his standing in Ireland’s Salafist community. One young Irish fighter admitted that his plan to come fight in Syria initially worried his family, but that “They respect and trust Sheikh Mahdi, so when they learned I was coming to join him here, they felt a little better.”
Herati claimed that the brigade was almost entirely Syrian but that he and fellow Libyans were providing “training and organization,” as well as “playing a combat role and providing our Syrian brothers with our experience of the Libyan revolution.
In 2013, Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a Brit of Libyan descent, allegedly became the first British jihadist to die in the Syrian conflict. The Independent reported that “According to the Facebook page set up in his honour, the north Londoner had fought in Libya in 2011 before heading to fight alongside his ‘brothers in Syria last August,” and that “He took part of [sic] a major operation against the Assad regime forces yesterday and passed in the ensuing battles.” According to journalist Tam Hussein, Mazwagi had fought in Libya for Herati’s and Belhaj’s Tripoli Brigade.
In Syria, Mazwagi fought as part of a group known as Katibat al-Muhajireen, or the Emigrants Brigade which consisted of foreign fighters from various countries, including Abu Omar al-Shishani, a red-bearded ethnic Chechen who went on to become one of the most noted military commanders of the Islamic State. As a former member of the Georgian military, al-Shishani received training from U.S. special forces.
Muhammad Emzawi, another Londoner who later became a prominent member of the Islamic State, also fought for Katibat al-Muhajiroun after traveling to Syria in 2012. Known in the British press as “Jihadi John,” Emzawi gained notoriety after beheading journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig, as well as 22 Syrian soldiers.
Shades of Bosnia
Emzawi and Mazwagi’s cases illustrate the role played by British intelligence in the pipeline that was established to facilitate the travel of British Jihadis to Syria. Journalist Nafeez Ahmed reports that according to former British counterterrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, the UK authorities “turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there,” because it “suited the US and UK’s anti-Assad foreign policy.” Ahmed notes this “terror-funnel is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with [the Islamic State] – despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list. He had been blocked by the security services from traveling to Kuwait in 2010: why not Syria?”
UK planners were once again relying on the jihadist networks they had built in London starting in the 1990’s. As Raffaello Pantucci of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point observed, “The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria, but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.”
As discussed above, al-Muhajiroun founder and British intelligence asset Omar Bakri Muhammad had facilitated the flow of British jihadists to Kosovo in the 1990’s. Bakri then left Britain for Lebanon in 2005 in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and by 2009 was wanted by Lebanese security forces for training al-Qaeda militants. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported on November 12, 2010 that Bakri was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor, but a retrial was ordered and Bakri was released on bail. Bakri continued training jihadists and in November 2012 gave an interview to the British Sun newspaper describing the training camp he had established on the Lebanon-Syria border. Bakri claimed to have trained fighters from various European countries, including Britain, and that “After their training they will do their duty of jihad (holy war) in Syria and maybe Palestine.”
The “shades of Bosnia” included the ostensibly humanitarian “convoys of mercy” that served as a cover for the flow of fighters from Britain to Syria. Raphael Pantucci himself observed several of these convoys organized by British charities, and described how “Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.”
One Salafist activist traveling from Britain to Syria as part of an aid convoy in mid-2012 was former Guantanamo detainee Moaezzam Begg. According to Foreign Policy, one of Begg’s close colleagues acknowledged Begg had provided basic physical training to foreign fighters from Katibat al-Muhajireen in Aleppo. The group later dissolved, with some fighters, such as Emzawi, joining the Islamic state, while others joined the Islamic Front, a Salafist umbrella group that collaborated closely with the Nusra Front. As noted above, Katibat al-Muhajiroun was led by Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen jihadist who later became a prominent Islamic State commander.
Begg was arrested by British police in 2014 on terrorism charges for his activities in Syria, but the case against him was dropped after British intelligence intervened, illustrating to the prosecutors that Begg’s support of jihadist fighters had been in accordance with UK foreign policy objectives at the time. The Guardian reported that Begg was freed after MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, “belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents that detailed the agency’s extensive contacts with him before and after his trips to Syria,” and which showed that MI5 told Begg he could continue his work for the so-called opposition in Syria “unhindered.”
The fact that Begg had been released from Guantanamo years before, specifically at the request of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and had been in close contact with British intelligence in regards to his activities in Syria, led author Nu’man Ab al-Wahid to ask whether “British intelligence was funneling jihadis through Mr. Begg on an individual basis and/or through the aid convoy he was travelling with,” and whether Muhammad Emzawi, the Islamic State militant responsible for some the most shocking atrocities in the Syria conflict, was among those Katibat al-Muhajireen foreign fighters trained by Begg.
The UK government role in sending LIFG members to Libya and later Syria became a scandal after Salmen Abedi, the British born son of an LIFG fighter, carried out the Manchester Arena attack in 2017, killing 22 and injuring hundreds more during an Ariane Grande concert. Abedi had himself fought in Libya in 2011 alongside his father. This led the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to note “there have been networks of British-Libyan Islamists in Manchester and Libya, some of whom had connections to global jihadi groups, over two generations.” Abedi was encouraged to carry out the attack by his friend, Abd al-Raouf Abdallah, an ISIS recruiter in Manchester. Abdallah was also of Libyan descent and had traveled to Libya in 2011 to fight with the LIFG-affiliated 17 February Martyrs Brigade. He was shot in the spine and became a paraplegic before returning home. In 2014, Abdallah used his family home in Manchester as a hub to facilitate the travel of British citizens to join the Islamic State in Syria.
United States Backed ISIS
U.S., UK, Turkish, and Gulf support for the Islamic State in Syria continued for years, including after the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013, after the schism between the Nusra Front and its parent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had made the two organizations fierce competitors.
The direct support provided to ISIS by the Gulf states was acknowledged by Hillary Clinton in an August 2014 leaked email. The email, which came at a time when ISIS was quickly capturing huge amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, noted that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the same in a Senate hearing in September 2014. Dempsey explained to Senator Lindsey Graham that he knew of Arab countries closely allied to the U.S. that funded ISIS. Graham then argued that this was justified because these allies were using ISIS to fight the Syrian government. Then Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged the same in a speech at Harvard University in October 2014. Rather than express shock and concern over such a revelation, the Washington Post sought to downplay Biden’s remarks, describing them as a “gaffe.”
Given the Saudi support both for al-Qaeda in Iraq (as discussed above) and its later iteration, ISIS, it would be appropriate to refer to the terror group as “Saudi-backed ISIS,” or as journalist Leith Marouf has suggested, “Wahhabi Contras.” Ironically, though the phrase “Saudi-backed ISIS” has never entered the lexicon of the Western press, Iranian sponsored militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, are invariably described as “Iranian-backed.”
Neither has the term “U.S.-backed ISIS” ever been used in the mainstream Western press or in respectable foreign policy circles. Such a label would be justified as well, however, given that the Saudis were simply acting as proxies for U.S. planners. As described above, Prince Bandar started partnering closely with U.S. planners in 2007 to eventually unleash al-Qaeda militants in the direction of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, as reported by Seymour Hersh.
In January 2014, just as ISIS was taking full control of Raqqa to establish its first capital, U.S. Senator John McCain famously quipped, “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,” illustrating that Bandar had indeed been successful in advancing U.S. interests in Syria.
This partnership is not surprising, given that Bandar has long been an asset of the U.S. intelligence services, upon whom U.S. planners relied to execute off-the-books operations on their behalf. Slate reports that Prince Bandar held accounts at Riggs Bank, long known to have ties to the CIA, and that in the 1980’s Bandar had funded the Contras, allowing them to execute the Reagan administration’s dirty war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and that Bandar had supported Islamic fundamentalists known as the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the same period.
Bandar’s usefulness to his partners in U.S. intelligence and his closeness with the Bush family later shielded him from scrutiny after it was discovered his wife had likely provided indirect funding to two of the 9/11 hijackers. As Vanity Fair reports, “In spite of the fact that it had almost immediately become known that 15 of those implicated in the attacks had been Saudis, President George W. Bush did not hold Saudi Arabia’s official representative in Washington at arm’s length. As early as the evening of September 13, he kept a scheduled appointment to receive Prince Bandar at the White House. The two men had known each other for years. They reportedly greeted each other with a friendly embrace, smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony, and conversed with Vice President Dick Cheney and National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.”
As Hersh reports further, the CIA and Obama administration policy of backing the al-Qaeda-led Syrian insurgency via their regional allies caused dissension in the ranks of the Pentagon and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). DIA head Michael Flynn’s “constant stream of classified warnings” about the dangers of US support for the jihadist-led Syrian insurgency, and Turkish support for it, were met by “enormous pushback” from the Obama administration. This led General Dempsey to begin the indirect sharing of intelligence with the Syrian army starting in the summer of 2013 to help it counter ISIS and Nusra. This is another indication of U.S. support for ISIS in many, though not all, US foreign policy circles, further justifying the “U.S.-backed ISIS” label be applied to the group.
While U.S. planners later turned against ISIS, their support for the other al-Qaeda wing in Syria, the Nusra Front, persisted. Obama administration officials themselves acknowledged in November 2016 to the Washington Post that they had struck “a deal with the devil,” years before, “whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
In the mainstream view, al-Qaeda only entered the Syria conflict in January 2012, as part of a plan to hijack and Islamize a supposedly secular and democratic armed revolution led by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, as I have illustrated above, the insurgency that exploded in 2011 against the Syrian government was initiated and led by al-Qaeda affiliated groups from the Islamic State of Iraq, Fatah al-Islam, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) long before the formal entry of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, led by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Further, the al-Qaeda-led insurgency was sparked as a result of the efforts of U.S. planners, who worked with their British, Saudi and Lebanese allies to unleash these groups in Syria. They did so in the hope of triggering a sectarian civil war that would topple the Syrian government, destroy Syria’s delicate religious co-existence, and open the way for U.S. military intervention in the country. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died, and millions become refugees or displaced during the more than 10-year conflict their actions sparked.