Syrian strike aimed at al Qaeda’s coordinator in Syria

Map of Syria. Click map to view.

The US military incursion into Syria was aimed at the senior leader of al Qaeda’s extensive network that funnels foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq, a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

US special operations hunter-killer teams entered Syria in an attempt to capture Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who has been in charge of the Syrian network since 2005. US intelligence analysts identified Ghadiya as the leader of the Syrian network, The Washington Post reported in July. Ghadiya was identified as a “major target” by the US military in February 2008.

The raid to capture Ghadiya occurred in the town of Sukkariya near Albu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. Four US helicopters crossed the border and two of the helicopters landed to drop off special operations forces, who then proceeded to clear structures.

Nine people were reported killed and 14 were wounded. Syrian officials claimed innocent construction workers and women and children were killed in the raid.

US officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not comment if Ghadiya was killed or captured during the raid.

The US military has officially refused to confirm or deny the raid took place. But several senior intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject told The Long War Journal that the raid was indeed carried out inside Syria.

The raid is the first of its kind against Syria. The US has been striking regularly at Taliban and al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan’s tribal areas since the beginning of September.

Ghadiya, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan al Mazidih, is an Iraqi from the northern city of Mosul. Ghadiya succeeded Suleiman Khalid Darwish, a Syrian national and lieutenant of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by US forces in June 2006. US forces killed Darwish in a raid in Al Qaim in June 2005.

Serving Syria notice

The cross-border raid took place just three days after Major General John Kelly, the commander of Multinational Force – West, said Syria is “problematic.” Kelly said the Syrian the government refused to secure the border and al Qaeda operatives are openly working inside Syria.

“The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side,” Kelly said. “And periodically we know that they try to come across.”

Kelly said that while al Qaeda has been diminished in the al Qaim region, it still remains a threat to Iraqi and US forces. A May 11 raid in Al Qaim by al Qaeda teams resulted in the death of 11 Iraqi policemen.

The Iraqi border police, with the help of the US military, are “redoubling” efforts to stand up the Iraqi border guards. The military is also rebuilding a berm along the Syrian border in an effort to stop infiltration into Iraq from Syria. “We’re doing much more work along the Syrian border than we’ve done in the past,” Kelly said.

The Syrian Network

Syria has long been a haven for al Qaeda as well as Baathists who fled the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Terrorists and insurgents took advantage of the long, desolate, and unsecured border, which stretches more than 460 miles along Iraq’s western provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, and Dohuk.

At the height of the Iraqi insurgency, an estimated 100 to 150 foreign fighters poured into Iraq from Syria each month. Operations in Anbar and Ninewa have pushed that number down to 20 infiltrators a month, according to the US military.

Wanted insurgent leaders, such as Mishan al Jabouri, openly live in Syria. Jabouri, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, fled to Syria after being charged with corruption for embezzling government funds and for supporting al Qaeda. From Syria Jabouri ran Al Zawraa, a satellite television statement that aired al Qaeda and Islamic Army of Iraq propaganda videos showing attacks against US and Iraqi forces.

Al Qaeda established a network of operatives inside Syria to move foreign fighters, weapons, and cash to support its terror activities inside Iraq. An al Qaeda manual detailed ways to infiltrate Iraq via Syria. The manual, titled The New Road to Mesopotamia, was written by a jihadi named Al Muhajir Al Islami, and discovered in the summer of 2005.

The Iraqi-Syrian border was broken down into four sectors: the Habur crossing near Zakhu in the north; the Tal Kujik and Sinjar border crossings west of Mosul; the Al Qaim entry point in western Anbar; and the southern crossing at Al Tanf west of Rutbah near the Jordanian border. Islami claimed the Al Tanf and Habur crossing points were too dangerous to use, and Al Qaim was the preferred route into Iraq.

The US military learned a great deal about al Qaeda’s network inside Syria after a key operative was killed in September of 2007. US forces killed Muthanna, the regional commander of al Qaeda’s network in the Sinjar region.

During the operation, US forces found numerous documents and electronic files that detailed “the larger al-Qaeda effort to organize, coordinate, and transport foreign terrorists into Iraq and other places,” Major General Kevin Bergner, the former spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, said in October 2007.

Bergner said several of the documents found with Muthanna included a list of 500 al Qaeda fighters from “a range of foreign countries that included Libya, Morocco, Syria, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.”

Other documents found in Muthanna’s possession included a “pledge of a martyr,” which is signed by foreign fighters inside Syria, and an expense report. The pledge said the suicide bomber must provide a photograph and surrender their passport. It also stated the recruit must enroll in a “security course” in Syria. The expense report was tallied in US dollars, Syrian lira, and Iraqi dinars, and included items such as clothing, food, fuel, mobile phone cards, weapons, salaries, “sheep purchased,” furniture, spare parts for vehicles, and other items.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point later conducted a detailed study of the “Sinjar Records,” which was published in July 2008. The study showed that al Qaeda had an extensive network in Syria and the Syrian government has allowed their activities to continue.

“The Syrian government has willingly ignored, and possibly abetted, foreign fighters headed to Iraq,” the study concluded. “Concerned about possible military action against the Syrian regime, it opted to support insurgents and terrorists wreaking havoc in Iraq.”

Al Qaeda established multiple networks of “Syrian Coordinators” that “work primarily with fighters from specific countries, and likely with specific Coordinators in fighters’ home countries,” according to the study. The Syrian city of Dayr al Zawr serves as a vital logistical hub and a transit point for al Qaeda recruits and operatives heading to Iraq.

A vast majority of the fighters entering Iraq from Sinjar served as suicide bombers. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point estimated that 75 percent conducted suicide attacks inside Iraq.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • don juice says:

    hopefully we got him

  • Steve says:

    [Moderator: Read comments policy. We have a “no politics in the mess” rule here.]

  • pedestrian says:

    Pakistan and Syria, I think Iran should be tried next for similar operations. US should strike Iran.

  • ajacksonian says:

    Hopefully the documents captured go further than local infrastructure and indicate ultimate supply sources of cash, arms and equipment. Syria most likely is getting a ‘middleman’s cut’ from that traffic and agreements to hit outside Syria. The Kurds in Northern and Eastern Syria can tell you what the conditions of political repression are there, and of similar agreements with the PKK and other groups.
    We may hear some moaning about the border tribes who tend not to recognize National borders, just like in Afghanistan. Strange that these also have been conduits of smuggling for tens of generations if not longer, and have always been able to tell you who rules what patch of ground over all that time.
    Iraq’s more mountainous eastern border with Iran has been a very hard thing to control, even under dictators, and actually getting a capable border force that is efficient and hard to corrupt is essential to cutting of Iranian supply of arms into Iraq. In the west I would think that more work with the tribes there, and a better integrated border presence would help, so that tribal leaders on *both sides* know that they are part of a solution. There are civil means of enticement for that, like special border markets and such with low or no taxes… and any unregulated goods get stiff fines, and ferrying people gets something a bit nastier. And you need yet another, different approach to the Kurds in the north… the basics need to be done in all of them with surveillance, overwatch and ground units (either in situ or airlifted) to do such work. Notice that the Iraqis are much further along in this than the US is along *its* southern border, to which I give the Iraqi people and the Coalition Forces very, very high marks.

  • Alex says:

    I was a bit more hopeful about Syria’s future role, but looks like my hopes were overoptimistic. There was some talk earlier in the year about a possible pipeline from Iraq through Syria and later ports in Turkey to give Iraq an alternate supply route to the world energy markets instead of the Persian Gulf (Iranian minefield threat), and also talk of Israeli-Syrian detente. I guess old habits die hard.
    If memory serves, Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

  • My2Cents says:

    Don’t worry about the pipeline, that’s business. The support for the insurgents is politics, and only rarely does one seem to effect the other.

  • AAndrew says:

    According to Fox News, Abu Ghadiyain was killed in the action.
    Personally, I hope we have him alive somewhere and are using all means necessary to get him to spill all the beans he’s got.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/27/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • AAndrew says:

    Looks like I got my wish – Fox is now reporting that Abu Ghadiyain was captured!
    Well, I guess Abu G can put the 72 virgins on hold for while. Like I said before, he would have some interesting beans to spill and we need to use whatever means necessary to get him to spill them.
    Captures of HVTs are always so much better than kills. Now we’ll see what other dominos fall once Abu G starts singing like a canary.

  • Lawrence Kohn says:

    It is true that Syria was allied with Iran during the Iran Iraq war. However during the final years of Sadaam’s regime Syria and Iran made a rapprochement with Iraq. Syria support for AQ and the Baathists reflects this rather than a desire to deflect terrorists from the Syrian regime. The actions described in the West Point report and in Roggio’s are long overdue and Syria should pay a continuing price for its support of terror. The President has an opportunity to explain the situation publicly and repeatedly, based on these findings but probably won’t. Too many people have been deluded in thinking that Syria is a potential partner in Arab Israeli peace talks. Diplomacy resultin in Syria acquiring additional territory whether in the Golan or Lebanon would be a strategic blunder of immense proportions.


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