US, Iraqi forces target Syrian-based network

Iraqi and US special operations forces took aim yesterday at al Qaeda’s Syrian-based network operating in northern Iraq. The joint forces conducted an operation to take down senior leaders of Abu Khalaf’s facilitation network operating west of Mosul along the Syrian border.

The special operations forces raided a compound near Tall al Hawa, a town in Ninewa province about 12 miles east of the Syrian border near the Tal Kujik border crossing point. The operation netted three of Abu Khalaf’s associates, Multinational Force Iraq stated in a press release. One of the men was wanted for his involvement in car bomb attacks in the region.

The Tal Kujik and the nearby Sinjar crossing points have become al Qaeda’s main pipeline to push foriegn fighters into Iraq from Syria. According to al Qaeda documents and a manual intended to aid foreign fighter crossing into Iraq from Syria, the border crossing at Husayba/Al Qaim in Anbar province became too dangerous for al Qaeda while the northernmost point in Kurdistan has always been considered to be too dangerous.

Abu Khalaf, whose real name is Sa’ad Uwayyid ‘Ubayd Mu’jil al Shammari, was identified by the US Treasury just days ago as a terrorist under Executive Order 13224 [see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader in Syria sanctioned by US Treasury]. The designation allows the US to freeze his assets, prevent him from using financial institutions, and prosecute him for terrorist activities.

Khalaf “is believed to be responsible for facilitating the main pipeline of suicide bombers, as well as the flow of money, weapons, terrorists and other resources from Syria into Iraq,” Multinational Force Iraq stated.

Khalaf recruits terrorists from North Africa to serve as suicide bombers and aids in setting up their travel arrangements into Syria and ultimately Iraq. Recently, General David Petraeus, the Commander of US Central Command, said the bombers behind four of the most deadly suicide attacks in Iraq during April were from Tunisia. The suicide bombers were identified after one of the Tunisians was captured. The Tunisians are thought to have been moved into Iraq via Khalaf’s network, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

Khalaf also helps al Qaeda suicide bombers based in the Persian Gulf region travel to the Levant to conduct suicide attacks. The Levant consists of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea and includes Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. Khalaf is believed to operate in Tal Hamis in Syria and Tal Wardan and the ‘Awinat village in the Rabiah district in Iraq.

Al Qaeda’s network in Syrian behind suicide attacks in Iraq

Syria has long supported or looked the other way as al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents used the country as a transit point and safe haven for fighters entering western Iraq. More than 90 percent of the suicide bombers who have entered Iraq since the insurgency began in 2003 have entered Iraq via Syria.

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

In the manual, he 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, and the Tal Kujik and Sinjar border crossings were also recommended.

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 al Qaeda’s efforts to organize, coordinate, and transport foreign terrorists into Iraq and other places. 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 that 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 that 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.

The US began to target al Qaeda’s Syrian facilitation network after General Petraeus took command of Multinational Force Iraq in January 2007 and implemented the counterinsurgency program. Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers were wreaking havoc in Iraq and threatened to push the country into civil war.

An estimated 120 plus foreign fighters a month are thought to have entered Iraq from Syria at the peak of the violence in Iraq in 2007; the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point estimated that 75 percent of those entering Iraq from Syria conducted suicide attacks. The number of foreign fighters is now estimated in the single digits, but there is concern that the Syrian network is being rejuvenated, according to a report in The Washington Post.

The US sent a strong message to Syria in October 2008 when it launched the first recorded cross-border strike inside the country since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nine terrorists were reported killed after US commandos dropped from helicopters conducted a raid in eastern Syria. The target was Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who had been in charge of the Syrian facilitation network since 2005. Ghadiya and his staff were killed in the attack. Abu Khalaf is thought to have taken Ghadiya’s place.

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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  • Steve337 says:

    AWESOME WORK TROOPS!!! We’re getting closer to the roots of that bad tree!

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    How many people died in Iraq from these killers as opposed to the number of Americans who would have died if we had invaded Syria?

  • My2cents says:

    Don’t get too excited. The last time around the US had to launch a raid inside Syria before the network would stay shut down. The people on the receiving end in Iraq are a lot easier to replace than the main coordinators that are in Syria. Until they are nailed this will just be more of a ‘wack-a-mole’ operation.

  • Chris says:

    Invading Syria would be bad ju-ju…
    Although I have the utmost confidence that the government of Syria is well aware of the networks operating in Iraq, the networks are not part of the government, directly. We must retain, however, the ability to attack terrorist cells anywhere. Invading Syria as we did in Iraq would be costly and unnecessary. Use of specialized forces for just such a raid are the best option. The US should seriously look at an increase in these forces for just such opportunities.

  • Major Scarlet says:

    attacking terrorist cells is useless. they’ll simply regenerate elsewhere. one of the fundamentals of COIN is to make sure your enemy does not have an unassailable base of operations. syria is such a base, as is iran and pakistan. unserious attempts to attack bases won’t win this “war”. these little attacks are an attempt to look like you are doing something without doing anything.

  • KW64 says:

    Re: Major Scarlet at May 17, 2009 11:34 AM ET:
    In Fall 2001 attacks on Syria or into Northwest Pakistan may have been publically and politically accepted but talk of going to war with Syria, making an incursion into the Tribal areas of Pakistan and invading Iran are not supportable with the existing military, nor would the public or congress support such moves now.
    Should Iran openly test a nuclear weapon, the dynamic there might change.

  • Kirk Sowell says:

    Given Iraqi participation here, it is worth noting that government policy is being driven – or at least supported – by public awareness that Syria is a culprit. I’ve got a post up regarding a report on the Iraqi Shia al-Fayha television that accuses the Syrian government of complicity:

  • Major Scarlet says:

    Why do we have to go to “war” to make someone fear us? We don’t. Syria doesn’t fear us and they are acting accordingly. I’m saying that we should send a very loud and clear kinetic message to them their actions will have consequences. I suggest you read up on Machiavelli if you don’t understand how to do that.

  • reizon says:

    Stop war, us, please leave Iraqi. US failed to deliver the Iraqi people from their misery.

  • KnightHawk says:

    “US failed to deliver the Iraqi people from their misery. ”

    Actually Iraqi people have been given the opportunity to deliver themselves from misery, if there is a failure there it rests mostly with themselves.

  • Shirley Freeman says:

    Re Chris’ comment 5/17 above and Major Scarlet’s response: Chris’ special op’s attacks on foreign supply bases, and routes into our battle areas is a sound idea, and more sustainable from our Congress as well as civilian populations in battle field areas. If the special ops are conducted in a swift and “clean” (absolutely minimal civilian injuries, deaths, and property damage), then local populations in the battle areas may see Coalition forces as the right choice for safety and peace, and join us in the fight against Taliban and Al queda. This could be the way to turn a quagmire into a win, win situation for the Coalition and the war-torn civilians in the battle area for so long. This type of operation could greatly weaken Taliban and Al queda over time by substantially cutting off their supplies of new troops, equipment and funds.


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