|Syria has allowed hundreds of Qaida men to settle in Lebanon |
By Ze'ev Schiff
Damascus has allowed some 150-200 Qaida operatives to settle in the Palestinian refugee camp Ein Hilwe near Sidon in Lebanon. The group, including senior commanders, arrived from Afghanistan through Damascus, Iran and directly to Lebanon. These Qaida operatives are responsible, among other things, for the latest outbreak of fighting inside the refugee camp, as part of their effort to take over the camp.
These details and others have lately been gathered by various intelligence services.
Among the new details now known: Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Qaida group that conducted the Sept. 11 airplane suicide attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, flying the first plane into the towers, visited Syria twice or three times. The Syrians did not give that information to the Americans on their own volition.
Osama bin Laden's son, Omar, left Syria together with his mother Nagwa, three weeks before the attack on the Twin Towers, after receiving anonymous instructions to do so. The son returned to Syria after 9-11, and has since visited twice more. Bin Laden's wife and son lived in the Alawite stronghold in Latakiya in an arrangement that gave refuge to bin Laden's close relatives. The two are not now in Syria.
Intelligence services have also managed to find detailed information about contacts between one of the leading Hezbollah military figures, Imad Mourghniyeh, and a Qaida operative in Sudan. There is no evidence yet of that relationship developing into continuing ties, but there is no doubt the meeting could not have taken place without Syrian intelligence knowing of it.
Much evidence now shows that before 9-11, Syria was a stomping ground for Qaida operatives, considered a place where they could move around in relative freedom. The country served as transit point for them and Qaida had an infrastructure there. They were able to operate with relatively few of the restrictions that other Arab countries, like Egypt, put on them.
After 9-11, the Syrians initially believed there would be no significant change in the geopolitical developments. Syrian President Bashar Assad told a Lebanese newspaper that "there is no sign that there has been any great change since September 11." He said that "there are ways" to stand up to the military and technological superiority of others. For example, the U.S. "has the most power, the best technology, and the strongest mechanisms, but it has not been able to provide security in its cities because force is not a necessary condition for providing security and stability."
Therefore, said Assad, "the current developments require serious judgment and sticking to basic principles. Following September 11, everything must be examined with better judgment especially when discussing the ramifications of what happened to our region."
Shortly afterward, as American rage grew and the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan began, the Syrians changed position, and said they were ready for intelligence cooperation with the U.S. on the Qaida issue. But there are now clear indications that it was tactical and only partial cooperation.
Readiness for cooperation mostly came via information about Qaida cells in other countries and not what Qaida representatives were doing in Syria. Important information came from Syria, for example, on Qaida cells in Germany. That apparently is what kept Syria off President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" list.
Most of the Syrian information about Qaida activities in Germany came from the interrogation of a German citizen of Syrian descent, Mohammed Haider Zemer. He was questioned by Syrian intelligence before 9-11, and the Syrians were ready to hand him over to the Germans, who were not interested at the time.
But the Germans changed their minds after 9-11, after the Americans gave them the information provided by the Syrians, which led to information about Qaida operatives in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany, including information about Mohammed Atta. The Germans then asked the Syrians to extradite Zemer so they could continue questioning him and put him on trial, but the Syrians refused, and refuse to do so to this day. Meanwhile, Zemer's passport was found in an apartment in Afghanistan that belonged to a senior Qaida commander.
Another link between Qaida and Syria can be found in the arrest in Spain of three Syrians. One says that Mohammed Atta met with another of the three in Spain. The three were found with videotapes of various possible targets in America, and they apparently served as an intelligence gathering cell for Atta before 9-11. One of those arrested, Mohammed Hirel Sak, is an Alawite. Another, Abarash Kaliyon, has been identified as a former member of the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria. The third, Abdel Rahman Arnot, has admitted he had links to the commander of the Qaida training camps of western Afghanistan. It is also known that Atta's phone number was found in the apartment of one of the Syrians arrested in Spain.
Meanwhile, the Syrians repeatedly changed their position since 9-11. Nowadays, they appear to be deliberately turning a blind eye to Qaida activity, particularly in Lebanon. A key question so far unanswered is what Atta was doing on his visits to Syria, and whom he met. It's known that he was in Aleppo in northern Syria, but it is not known whom he met. He was in Syria at least twice and possibly three times.
The change in Syrian attitudes can be seen in the permission they gave to Qaida men on the run from Afghanistan to find refuge in Lebanon, which is under control of the Syrian army and intelligence. After the defeat of the Taliban, Qaida began fleeing Afghanistan, heading home. Chechnyans, for example, used Turkey as a way station on their way home. Palestinians, Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, as well as a few Lebanese, headed back to Lebanon. The Syrians arrested some of them for interrogation and it is known that mostly the Qaida have gone to Ein Hilwe.
The Ein Hilwe battles last month were initiated by the Qaida men there, with three of them killed in the fighting. The fight for control over the camp is not over. Meanwhile, the Qaida there, led by commanders from Afghanistan, is establishing a local infrastructure. One bit of intelligence says they are interested in getting material for chemical weapons.
The gun-battle in the refugee camp was angrily condemned by Lebanese. A Nahar editor Jibran Tuwany wrote on August 15, that "what is happening now in Ein Hilwe camp could become a turning point on the way to the establishment of a state within a state, which would mean a siege of Lebanon and Lebanese territory still in control of the state.
"There are fears that Lebanon will become an isolated island because of all the enclaves created by the Palestinian camps from south to north, through the Bekaa and Beirut. The danger is in all these enclaves managing to connect to one another. What happened in Ein Hilwe is a real war ... reminiscent of the war of 1975," Tuwany wrote.
Very little is known about the connection between Qaida and the Hezbollah and there is no certainty those contacts were developed. The first evidence came in testimony by Al Rahman Mohammed, who was arrested after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. He said he knows a Hezbollah official met in 1996 in Sudan with someone later identified as a Qaida representative. The mediator for the meeting was a Sudanese sheikh named Ali Numeini. Bin Laden had extensive activity in the country at the time, as did Iranian intelligence. The intelligence reports say that the initiative for the meeting came from Qaida, whose leaders were impressed by Hezbollah attacks on foreign embassies in Lebanon and Argentina.