Iraq attacks and the Syrian connection

As Iraq takes greater responsibility for its security, the government has begun to lash out at Syria for serving as a sanctuary and training ground for al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni and Ba’athist insurgent groups. Today the Iraqi government aired the confession of Mohammed Hassan al Shemari, a Saudi al Qaeda member who claims to be the leader of the terror group’s forces in Diyala province. Sherari said Syrian intelligence, or the Mukhabarat, actively supports al Qaeda in Iraq. From Reuters:

Shemari said when he arrived in Syria from Saudi Arabia, he was met by a militant who took him to an al Qaeda training camp in Syria. The head of the camp was a Syrian intelligence agent called Abu al-Qaqaa, he said. “They taught us lessons in Islamic law and trained us to fight. The camp was well known to Syrian intelligence,” he said.

Once inside Iraq he undertook more training in its vast desert province of Anbar, bordering Syria, alongside 30 other foreign fighters. He then met a purported al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Omar al-Baghdadi, who he said appointed him head of al Qaeda in the violent Diyala province.

He launched gun attacks on police checkpoints in Diyala, kidnapping Iraqi officers and extorting money for their release or killed them with knives and set up suicide bombings, he said.

You can find more information on Abu al-Qaqaa (or Abu al-Qaqa, whose real name is Dr. Mahmud al-Aghasi) here, here, here, and here. He was assassinated after leaving a mosque in Aleppo in September 2007. It is believed he was killed by a rival takfiri group. The Jamestown Foundation explained that al-Qaqaa was widely thought to have worked for the Syrian governemnt.

Abu al-Qaqa was frequently criticized by Syrian opposition parties, some of which suggested he was an agent of the Baathist regime. At times, there seemed to be little effort to disguise al-Qaqa’s links to Syrian intelligence. The preacher moved freely around Syria with bodyguards whom many believed were supplied by one of Syria’s four main intelligence agencies. Al-Qaqa gave regular sermons at Aleppo’s al-Tawabbin mosque, something normally done only with the permission of Syria’s Al-Awqaf Ministry (al-Watan, September 30). At one point, al-Qaqa even suggested unifying the religious and security establishments in Syria (al-Rai al-Aam, June 14, 2006). Various mujahideen internet forums warned against dealing with the preacher, accusing al-Qaqa of working for Syrian intelligence or US authorities. Although these types of accusations are common in the covert world, appearance can sometimes be as good as reality. Syria is now trying to act as a sponsor to the armed Sunni opposition in Iraq (including former Baathists), but suspicions in Iraq surrounding al-Qaqa’s loyalties might have necessitated his removal to advance the new policy.

Islamists like al-Qaqaa and al Qaeda operatives Abu Ghadiya (killed in a US commando raid in September 2008), Abu Khalaf, and now Sheikh Issa al Masri cannot operate in a police state like Syria without the countenance of the Mukhabarat and the government.

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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  • Tyler says:

    I obviously don’t know everything which goes on in the world of espionage and international intrigue. I’m only going to point out its an improper assumption that police states know everything about everyone within their territory. In fact its quite wrong. The failure of Tehran to permanently squelch the Greens is testament to that.
    While I don’t put it past Syria to try and ‘channel’ the stream of foreign fighters passing through their borders and leveraging their interdiction efforts for political favors from the West…and I certainly believe Syria took an active role in recruiting Baathist and Palestinian foreigners for Saddam’s militias in 2003…I’ve always been of the mind that the main driving force behind Al Qaeda’s exploitation of Syria as the entry point into Iraq has been Syria’s historically open immigration laws. Anyone from an Arab country is given legal recognition nearly the same as a Syrian citizen.
    Always be suspicious of these ‘confessions’ that the Iraqi government airs. They always seem to be a little too ‘perfect.’ Clean, detailed, tying together all of the Shia-dominated government’s enemies, and emerging rapidly after the attacks they are ‘confessing to.’ It would be one thing if the MNI were endorsing the intelligence.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    No one said “that police states know everything about everyone within their territory.” What I did say is that high profile terrorists “like al-Qaqaa and al Qaeda operatives Abu Ghadiya (killed in a US commando raid in September 2008), Abu Khalaf, and now Sheikh Issa al Masri cannot operate in a police state like Syria without the countenance of the Mukhabarat and the government.”
    The US knows quite a bit about this network inside Syria. The US has directly implicated Khalaf, and Ghadiya was killed during a US raid. I suggest following those links. Also look at what US military commanders were saying about AQ sheltering and operating in Syria last summer and fall, just before Ghadiya was killed. And read the CTC’s dossier on the Sinjar documents. Qaqaa’s involvement was well known. And Sheikh Issa is being hosted by the Mukhabarat. Do you think all of this slipped by the Mukhabarat?
    Sherami was in detention before the Aug. 19 Baghdad attack. I’m told by US military intel officials that Sherami’s account is accurate. It does match what we know about AQ in Syria and Qaqaa’s involvement.

  • Tyler says:

    Bill, thank you for responding
    My complaint has to do with the certainty. That, in general, there’s no way high-profile Islamists could hide in Syria without deliberate protection from state security services. They very well could. It would be more responsible to say ‘it is highly unlikely they could operate without the state’s knowledge.’ Operating under slam dunk certainties has led us down some bad paths in recent years.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I believe I was very specific in who they are and why they aren’t under the radar of Syrian intel. I wasn’t speaking in generalities here; I provided four names and links to supporting information. I’d be interested in hearing why you think they were operating without Syrian intel in the know.
    Is it possible? Of course. In these four instances? Highly unlikely.

  • Tyler says:

    I don’t know the extent to which Syria aids Al Qaeda in Iraq, or vice versa.
    I don’t doubt Al-Qaqaa’s links to Syrian intel since even the jihadis seem to believe it. I imagine he was a plant…an asset run by Syria to make sure the jihadis within Syrian territory had their anger directed anywhere but Assad’s regime, with US troops in Iraq as the easiest target. That he was assassinated perhaps for his Syrian links is a good reason to think AQI doesn’t actively seek to work with the Syrians.
    Though of course the Syrians could be doing what they can to indirectly help AQI by deliberately ignoring them. I have a tough time believing Sheikh Al-Masri is being moved from safehouse to safehouse by a crew of Syrian Republican Guard like he’s Mugniyah or Meshaal.
    I believe Syria doesn’t see their AQI problem in an ideological light. They see AQI as an asset to be exploited. When they seek to curry favor with America, they’ll help us (like they may have re:Ghadiyah.) When they want to see us tied down, they’ll relax the kill chain, perhaps throw AQI a bone or two. Akin to how, at least until recently, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan treated their own jihadi problems.


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