Three years ago, it was hard to find anything significant about Syria in books about al-Qaida. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which many consider the definitive history of al-Qaida, contains only five references, while Fawaz Gerges’s The Rise and Fall of al-Qaida mentions Syria just once, as the home of Osama bin Laden’s mother. Today, by contrast, Syria is widely – and correctly – seen as the cradle of a resurgent al-Qaida: a magnet for jihadist recruits, which offers the networks, skills and motivation needed to produce a new generation of terrorists. How did this happen? And why did it happen so quickly?
For Bashar al-Assad, the blame lies with outsiders – especially Turkey and the Gulf monarchies – who have used their money and influence to sponsor the uprising, arm the rebels and supply foreign recruits. This is certainly the case, but it’s only part of the story. In the years that preceded the uprising, Assad and his intelligence services took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims. It was then that foreign jihadists first entered the country and helped to build the structures and supply lines that are now being used to fight the government. To that extent Assad is fighting an enemy he helped to create.
To make sense of his policy, it is important to understand the long history of confrontation between Islamists and the Baath Party governments of Bashar and his father Hafez. Violent clashes between the government and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood broke out in 1964 – less than a year after the Baath Party seized power. From the Islamists’ perspective, the country had been taken over by people who were diametrically opposed to everything they stood for: the Baath Party’s stringent secularism ruled out the creation of an Islamic state; its socialism threatened the interests of the small traders and businessmen who were the Brotherhood’s main constituency; and its strong support among minorities – especially Christians and Alawites – meant that the Sunni majority was going to be ruled by ‘unbelievers’ and ‘apostates’.
It was not until 1976, however, that a sustained uprising took shape. Initiated by the so-called Fighting Vanguard (an aggressively sectarian group on the Brotherhood’s fringes) it eventually gained support from all factions of the Brotherhood, parts of the secular opposition and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The confrontation culminated in a three-week battle in the city of Hama in February 1982 during which government forces killed thousands of people and caused virtually every known supporter of the Brotherhood to flee the country. This marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria and explains why its voice and presence during the current conflict has been so marginal: the Syrian Brothers, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, have had no organisation, no structure, and most of their (surviving) leaders haven’t set foot inside the country for decades.
The ruthless elimination of the Brotherhood didn’t mean that the country was exempt from the ‘religious turn’ which many Arab societies experienced during the 1990s. Fuelled by economic and political grievances, widespread corruption and a sense that Syrian society in its existing state offered no hope, direction or opportunity, many Sunnis embraced Islam and adopted more religious lifestyles. Conscious of what was happening, Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, sought to co-opt and control this revival. In the first years of his presidency, he spent much of his time grooming religious leaders, controlling mosques, and making sure that the burgeoning Islamic sector was playing by the regime’s rules. He also funded religious institutions, created Islamic banks and loosened government regulations on public displays of piety, such as the wearing of headscarves in public buildings and prayer in the armed forces. In Islamic Revivalism in Syria (2011), the academic Line Khatib noted that Bashar’s conciliatory attitude towards Islam stood in marked contrast to the Baath Party’s original doctrine, which regarded any mention of religion as politically deviant and denounced Islam as a ‘reactionary ideology’.
Bashar’s more accommodating approach towards Islam did not, at the time, extend to the jihadists, who had quietly gained a following among Salafist communities in Syria’s deprived suburbs and the countryside: places like Dara in the south, Idlib in the north, and the outskirts of Aleppo. In late 1999 a jihadist ambush resulted in four days of clashes and prompted a nationwide crackdown, resulting in the arrest of 1200 suspected militants and their supporters. Following the 11 September attacks, Bashar offered his government’s assistance in the war on terror. Though wary of his motives, the Bush administration agreed to co-operate, rendering ‘high-value’ jihadist suspects to Syria until at least 2005.
The Syrian government’s ‘secret weapon’ against jihadists was to infiltrate their networks and turn suspects into government collaborators – a technique that had been used with great success against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. The director of one of Syria’s intelligence services told visiting US officials, according to a WikiLeaked US State Department cable, that ‘we have a lot of experience and know these groups.’ He went on: ‘We don’t attack or kill them … We embed ourselves … and only at the opportune moment do we move.’ This approach, he said, had resulted in ‘the detention of scores of terrorists, stamping out terror cells’.
The American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 caused outrage among Syrian Salafists, who considered the occupation of ‘Muslim lands’ a legitimate reason to take up arms. The regime’s well-honed strategy for dealing with such events – organising staged demonstrations, allowing people to vent their anger on state television – was no longer an option: the Salafists were unappeasable, they wanted to go to Iraq and kill Americans. For Assad and his intelligence chiefs, this presented a serious challenge; after weeks of hesitation, they decided to embrace a bold new strategy: rather than suppressing the Salafists’ rage, they would encourage it.
Allowing the Salafists to go to Iraq was thought to be a good idea for two reasons: first, it got rid of thousands of the most aggressive Salafists with a taste for jihad, packing them off to a foreign war from which many would never return to pose a threat to Assad’s secular, minority-dominated government; second, it destabilised the occupation of Iraq and thwarted Bush’s quest to topple authoritarian regimes (everyone in Assad’s inner circle feared that Syria would be next). According to Assad’s biographer David Lesch, ‘Damascus wanted the Bush doctrine to fail, and it hoped that Iraq would be the first and last time it was applied. Anything it could do to ensure this outcome, short of incurring the direct military wrath of the United States, was considered fair game.’
Practically overnight, Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency. Inside the country, Assad’s intelligence services activated their jihadist collaborators. The most prominent among them was Abu al-Qaqaa, a Salafi cleric from Aleppo who had studied in Saudi Arabia and whose sermons attracted hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people. Before the invasion of Iraq, Abu al-Qaqaa’s followers acted as religious vigilantes, meting out punishments for ‘indecent behaviour’ and stirring up hatred against the infidel governments of Israel and America. After the invasion, his group turned into a hub which provided Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq with Syrian recruits. Qaqaa’s efforts were so successful that for most of 2003 Syrians constituted the largest foreign fighting contingent of the (emerging) insurgency. Four years later, when the political calculus had changed and the Syrian government wanted to slow down the traffic, Qaqaa was shot dead in mysterious circumstances. His funeral was attended by members of the Syrian parliament along with thousands of Islamists. According to a Lebanese media report, ‘his coffin was draped in a Syrian flag and the affair had all the trappings of a state occasion.’
Qaqaa was important, but he was not the only person involved in sending foreign fighters to Iraq. According to records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town of Sinjar, the logistics were handled by an elaborate network of at least a hundred facilitators, who were spread throughout the country and maintained weapons caches and safehouses in Damascus, Latakia, Deir al-Zour and other major Syrian cities. They, in turn, worked closely with tribes along the Iraqi border whose smuggling business had suffered as a result of the war and for whom facilitating the flow of jihadists was a welcome substitute.
Less than a year after it had been set up, the Syrian pipeline was so well established that it started attracting jihadists from countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, who flew into Damascus or travelled via one of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 2007, the US government estimated that 90 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were foreigners, and that 85-90 per cent of the foreign fighters had entered Iraq through Syria. The jihadist networks in Syria had, in essence, become an extension of those in Iraq and operated without the Assad government’s active support, though almost certainly with its knowledge.
By 2005, it was already obvious that Operation Iraqi Freedom was in trouble and that the Syrians wouldn’t have to worry about being next on the list. The constant flow of refugees from Iraq put a heavy burden on the Syrian economy (by 2008 it was clear that Syria wanted to see stability, not turmoil, in Iraq). Moreover, al-Qaida in Iraq – the group with which Abu al-Qaqaa had collaborated so closely – was turning its attention away from fighting the US towards the possibility of a civil war with the Shiites, a prospect the Syrian government, dominated by Alawites, viewed with horror. There was, however, no chance of simply turning off the tap. The jihadist networks had expanded so quickly, even Abu al-Qaqaa, who was told to call for ‘moderation’ when the insurgency started turning into a sectarian war, had lost much of his influence; and the smuggling of fighters had become so lucrative and deeply ingrained that it would have taken a full-scale conflict with the tribes to stop it. The regime had created a phenomenon it could no longer control.
For some of the jihadists who started returning to Syria after 2005, Assad’s intelligence services came up with what seemed like an ingenious plan. Once again, they sought to externalise the jihadist threat while turning its protagonists into the (unwitting) tools of Syrian foreign policy. This time the target was Lebanon, where Syria had recently been forced to end a 30-year military occupation and was held responsible for the assassination of the prime minister, Rafik Hariri. As a result, many of the foreign jihadists who had entered Iraq through Syria were now told to return to the Palestinian camps near Sidon and Tripoli where they had started their journey into Iraq. Neither Fatah al-Islam nor Usbat al-Ansar, the local jihadist groups, were fully controlled by Syrian intelligence, but both were corrupt enough to serve its purposes in Lebanon, where they hoped to destabilise the political order, stir up sectarian conflict and derail the investigations of the special tribunal set up to investigate Hariri’s assassination.
It soon transpired that sending jihadists to Lebanon didn’t solve the problem. A good many jihadist returnees decided to stay in Syria, where they embarked on a terrorist campaign. This included high-profile attacks against government buildings, state television, the US Embassy and a Shiite shrine, all reported by the international press. But there were hundreds of smaller incidents and failed attacks which the government kept secret, and outsiders had little way of knowing about. Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis’. The leaked State Department cables mention bombings and numerous shoot-outs in the years 2004 and 2005; a suicide bombing and several armed clashes and attempted bombings in 2006; more gun battles, several attempted car bombings in Damascus and the seizure of ‘suicide belts, vehicles and 1200 kg of explosives’ in 2008; as well as the bombing of a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in March 2009.
The first wave of these attacks, from 2004 to 2006, was claimed by Jund al-Sham, an obscure group which experts believe had been started by Zarqawi, while the second, from 2008 to 2009, was the work of ‘rogue members’ of Fatah al-Islam. Whatever the label, the people responsible were, without exception, former foreign fighters who had been part of the Iraqi insurgency and fetched up in Syria, where they used their fighting experience and combat skills to attack the government and, increasingly, the Shiite population.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of the way in which Assad’s policy backfired were the Sednaya prison riots. After the Iraq invasion, Syrian intelligence officials offered Islamist inmates at this notorious facility just outside Damascus the chance to receive military training and fight against Coalition forces in Iraq. According to a leaked State Department cable, of those who accepted the offer and subsequently managed to return to Syria, ‘some remained at large … others were sent to Lebanon, and a third group were re-arrested and remanded to Sednaya.’ The ones who went back to prison felt ‘cheated’: they ‘had expected better treatment, perhaps even freedom, and were upset over prison conditions’. In July 2008 they rioted, taking a number of prison staff and military cadets hostage. Despite the deployment of special forces, the prisoners maintained control over part of the prison for several months. In January 2009 the long stand-off was resolved in a ferocious battle, which cost the lives of a hundred prisoners and dozens of soldiers. For the military, the episode was a ‘black mark’. The Syrian media never mentioned it.
The transfer of former fighters to Lebanon also caused problems for Assad. The leader of Fatah al-Islam, Syria’s main jihadist ‘partner’ in Lebanon, was widely believed to be a Syrian intelligence asset, and the original idea was for Damascus to turn the group into its own jihadist faction in Lebanon, rivalling efforts by the prime minister, Saad Hariri (the son of Rafik Hariri) and his Saudi allies. According to the French academic Bernard Rougier, an expert on Lebanon’s refugee camps, the Syrians succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. In addition to foreign fighters, the group attracted aspiring jihadists from across Lebanon. Based in the Palestinian camp Nahr al-Bared, Fatah al-Islam quickly grew to more than five hundred men, with money coming not just from Syria but from the Gulf and even from Hariri’s supporters (whose influence it was originally meant to counter). In Rougier’s words, ‘it took on its own life. It had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country.’
By early 2007 the group had declared its intention to establish an Islamic emirate in the north of Lebanon and sparked a confrontation with the Lebanese army, culminating in a three-month stand-off and the group’s eventual defeat. The surviving members found refuge in the tightly knit Salafi communities of northern Lebanon or went straight back to Syria, where they launched attacks against Shiites and the Syrian government. During the current conflict, Fatah al-Islam emerged as one of the first rebel groups to adopt a jihadist agenda, and its supply routes and recruitment networks in Lebanon continue to be used by other jihadists.
The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.
This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.
When the current conflict broke out, it was hardly surprising that jihadist structures first emerged in the eastern parts of the country, where the entry points into Iraq were located, and in places like Homs and Idlib, which were close to Lebanon; or that it was jihadists – not the Muslim Brothers – who could offer the most dedicated and experienced fighters with the skills, resources, discipline and organisation to hit back at the government. They were also the ones who found it easiest to prevail on international networks of wealthy sympathisers, especially in the Gulf, to supply weapons and funding. The clearest example is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a viciously sectarian player in the current conflict, descended from Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which draws on the same networks and supply lines that enabled the transfer of fighters from Syria to Iraq – except that now, of course, the traffic flows in both directions.
Given the history and genesis of groups like ISIS, many Syrian opposition figures now claim that the jihadist groups in Syria are puppets of Assad, and that they continue to be used and manipulated by Syrian intelligence in its efforts to discredit the revolution, divide the opposition and deter the West from intervening on their behalf. Indeed, there can be little doubt that many of the older and more senior figures in groups like ISIS will have records with Syrian intelligence, and that some are likely to be collaborating with the regime. Nor is there any question that the Syrian government, which is fighting large numbers of secular defectors from its own forces, has an interest in portraying the opposition as crazy fanatics, or that some of its actions – such as releasing more Islamists from Sednaya prison, or sparing ISIS-controlled areas from attack – have been designed to strengthen the jihadists vis-à-vis their rivals. There still is no solid evidence, however, that the jihadists as a whole are controlled by the regime, despite repeated announcements by opposition figures that such evidence would be forthcoming. No one doubts that jihadist groups in Syria draw on external support and international networks, including foreign fighters from across the Middle East and even Europe. But the reason they were able to mobilise them – and mobilise them quickly – is that Assad’s government had helped to set them up.