That is a fascinating Washington Post account of Syria’s role in the Iraq insurgency Kathryn linked to earlier. The reporter interviews an insurgent organizer in Syria named Abu Ibranhim. You’ve got to read the whole thing. But here are some excerpts.
Remember how secular dictatorships were supposed to have nothing to do with jihadis? Abu Ibrahim was a a follower of a radical cleric named Abu Qaqaa. The group around the cleric held twice-weekly anti-American “festivals” in 2002:
Jihad was being allowed into the open. Abu Ibrahim said Syrian security officials and presidential advisers attended festivals, one of which was called “The People of Sham Will Now Defeat the Jews and Kill Them All.” Money poured in from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
“We even had a Web site,” Abu Ibrahim said.
The young men around the cleric found themselves wielding a surprising amount of power. They were allowed to enforce their strict vision of sharia , or Islamic law, entering houses in the middle of the night to confront people accused of bad behavior.
Abu Ibrahim said their authority rivaled that of the Amn Dawla, or state security. “Everyone knew us,” he said. “We all had big beards. We became thugs.”
Then, Syria actively aided the coming insurgency:
Worried that it would be Washington’s next target, Syria opposed the military coalition invading its neighbor. State media issued impassioned calls for “resistance.” The nation’s senior Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro, undid his reputation for moderation by issuing a fatwa endorsing suicide attacks.
In Aleppo, Abu Ibrahim went door to door encouraging young men to cross the border. Volunteers boarded buses that Syrian border guards waved through wide-open gates, witnesses recalled.
Saddam Hussein’s government embraced the volunteers, handing them weapons and calling them Arab Saddam Fedayeen. But ordinary Iraqis were often less welcoming, pleading with them to go home; some Syrians were shot or handed over to the invading Americans.
This is how it worked once the insurgency got going–not the lie about “collateral damage”:
“We had specific meeting places for Iraqi smugglers,” Abu Ibrahim said. “They wouldn’t do the trip if we had fewer than 15 fighters. We would drive across the border and then into villages on the Iraqi side. And from there the Iraqi contacts would take the mujaheddin to training camps.”
Because Syrian men already had served two years of compulsory military service, most of them skipped the training. “It’s mostly the Saudis who need the training,” Abu Ibrahim said.
Afterward, the fighters were sent to join small cells usually led by Iraqis. They planted booby traps for U.S. convoys and laid ambushes.
“Once the Americans bombed a bus crossing to Syria. We made a big fuss and said it was full of merchants,” Abu Ibrahim said. “But actually, they were fighters.”
Here’s an indication of the good Fallajuh did:
In the summer of 2004, Abu Ibrahim got to go to Iraq. He crossed the dunes with 50 other volunteers, dodging U.S. patrols on the Iraqi side.
In Iraqi society he moved without drawing attention. He would not discuss much of what transpired during the subsequent months. But when he returned to Syria after the massive U.S. offensive in Fallujah, only three people were alive from the original 50, he said. One was a suicide bomber.
And this is the latest phase, with an emphasis on Saudis:
In January, shortly after Abu Ibrahim returned to Syria, he was summoned to Amn Dawla headquarters along with scores of fellow jihadi cell leaders. The security agents said the smuggling of fighters had to stop. The jihadis’ passports were taken. Some were jailed for a few days. Abu Ibrahim’s jailers shaved his beard.
Also in January, Richard L. Armitage, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, visited Damascus. After long lambasting Syria for supporting the insurgency, Armitage brought praise. “We have seen a lot of improvement regarding foreign fighters who were using Syria to enter Iraq,” he said. “And this is a good thing.”
The timing was fortuitous, Abu Ibrahim said. Recently, he said, his contacts in Iraq have said they were not in need of fighters, but money. He said he personally carried cash, provided by sympathetic Saudis, between Saudi Arabia and Syria. But lately, a more efficient system has emerged.
“Our brothers in Iraq are asking for Saudis,” he said last month. “The Saudis go with enough money to support themselves and their Iraqi brothers. A week ago, we sent a Saudi to the jihad. He went with 100,000 Saudi riyals,” or about $27,000. “There was celebration amongst his brothers there!”