February 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 487

Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran Part III – Syria, Saudi Arabia Clash over Fath Al-Islam

February 24, 2009 | By H. Varulkar*
Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 487


Tension has recently escalated between Syria, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the March 14 Forces, on the other. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian press (both governmental and non-governmental) have been accusing Saudi Arabia and the March 14 Forces of funding and supporting fundamentalist organizations in Lebanon, including the Fath Al-Islam cell that carried out the September 2008 bombing in Damascus. Saudi Arabia and the March 14 Forces have turned the accusation back on the Syrian regime, calling Fath Al-Islam a Syrian creation founded in order to undermine Lebanon's stability, and to prepare the ground for a new Syrian military intervention there.[1]

Syria: Saudi Arabia, March 14 Forces Responsible for Terror Against Syria

Assad: Northern Lebanon – A Terrorist Base Threatening Syria

The accusation that northern Lebanon is a hotbed of terror threatening Syria was first made by the Syrian president in early September 2008. In a joint press conference with the French president , the Qatari emir and the Turkish prime minister held following the quadripartite summit in Damascus, Assad expressed concern that extremist forces in Lebanon, supported by forces outside the country, would aggravate the instability in Tripoli. He added that he had asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to reinforce the Lebanese troops in the north of the country, lest Lebanon become destabilized. He stressed the paramount importance of solving the problem of extremism and that of Salafi organizations operating in Lebanon, and that certain countries [i.e. Saudi Arabia] were officially supporting these forces.[2]

A few weeks later, Assad repeated these allegations in an interview with Lebanese newspaper editors' union director Melhem Karam. In response to a question about the reinforcement of Syrian troops along the Lebanese border, Assad said: "The deployment [of troops] is directly linked to the smuggling, or, more accurately, to the infiltration and movement of terrorists between Syria and Lebanon. Recent military observations made it clear that northern Lebanon has become a real hotbed of extremism... which is threatening Syria. We naturally took steps to defend this border..."[3] March 14 leaders response by saying that Assad's statements were meant to prepare the ground for a new Syrian military intervention in Lebanon.[4]

On October 17, 2008, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir published further statements by Assad in a similar vein: "Syria," he said, "has become a target for extremist fundamentalist groups in northern Lebanon who wish to use it as a corridor to Iraq, and have recently been trying to turn it into a theater for [their] operations... [We] have exposed some of these groups [operating] in Syria, and are presently pursuing them." According to the daily, "Assad implied that some of these terrorist groups had been funded by the March 14 Forces. He did not rule out the possibility that some of them also received support from certain regional [forces, i.e. Saudi Arabia]..."[5]

Testimonies by Perpetrators of September 2008 Damascus Bombing Aired on Syrian TV

On November 6, 2008, Syrian TV aired testimonies by detainees, allegedly members of the terrorist cell that had perpetrated the September 27, 2008 bombing in Damascus. The detainees claimed membership in Fath Al-Islam, and testified that this organization had been funded by Saudi Arabia and by the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal faction, headed by Sa'd Al-Hariri. The detainees also described how they had been smuggled from Lebanon into Syria and supplied with funds and explosives to carry out the Damascus bombing.

Yasser Al-'Unad, a Syrian citizen presented as a Fath Al-Islam member, testified: "When I was in Nahr Al-Bared, I heard that the organization [had been founded] with the help of some members from the Gulf, such as 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Yahya Abu Talha, who was a Saudi, and some other Saudis whose names I do not know..."

Wafa Al-'Absi, daughter of Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-'Absi,[6] said that "some prominent Saudis who were members of the organization and were very well off helped [fund] the organization. The most important of them were Abu Ritaj Al-Saudi and Abu Yousef Al-Saudi..."

She said further: "The organization was also supported by the Al-Mustaqbal faction, and received regular checks from the Al-Mutawasit Bank, owned by this faction... I [once] asked my father if the organization had ties with the Al-Mustaqbal faction, and he said yes, there were mutual contacts [between them], conducted through various channels, such as the Salafi movements." She stated that according to her father, the contacts with the Al-Mustaqbal faction had been ongoing. Furthermore, the organization also had excellent relations with the Salafi movements in Lebanon (which are affiliated with the Al-Mustaqbal faction), and these movements likewise supported it financially.

A key witness whose testimony was included in the broadcast was 'Abd Al-Baqi Mahmoud Al-Hussein, aka Abu Al-Walid, who was introduced as Fath Al-Islam's security chief. He stated: "Yasser Al-'Unad told me that the organization was operating on orders from the Al-Mustaqbal faction... In areas where there were Al-Mustaqbal activists, members of Fath Al-Islam could travel freely and without concern." Abu Al-Walid testified that the driver of the truck bomb detonated in Damascus was a Saudi named Abu 'Aisha Al-Saudi, aka Abu Bandar Al-Jazrawi."[7]

Syrian Government, Non-Government Media Accuse Saudi Arabia, March 14 Forces of Funding Terror

Even before the testimonies were aired on television, the Syrian media accused the March 14 Forces of funding terrorists in northern Lebanon. The Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th stated in an editorial: "Everyone knows how [the Al-Mustaqbal faction] and its allies... conspired to prepare [Tripoli] and fill it with supplies so that it could serve as a safe haven for armed fighters from inside and outside the [Middle East] – all in order to settle accounts with the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah]. Everyone knows that the extremist beast they created soon grew to enormous proportions and is now threatening to destroy them... [Today,] they are in dire straits, since they had long counted on turning the northern capital [of Tripoli] into a safe haven for extremists, but now find themselves in a tight corner with nowhere to turn... If they hastily sever their contacts with the terrorists, they will lose the logistic, financial and security aid [they have received] from across the border, and will [also] place their supporter in the region [i.e. Saudi Arabia] in an embarrassing position..."[8]

After the testimonies were aired, Syrian media outlets that are non-governmental but affiliated with the regime also launched an unprecedented campaign against Saudi Arabia.[9] On the day following the broadcast, the Syrian TV channel Al-Dunya reported, citing prominent Lebanese sources, that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chairman of the Saudi National Security Council, was "still funding Sa'd Al-Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal faction, and even supplying its militias in northern [Lebanon] with funds to arm themselves – [all] in order to fan [the flames of] sectarian strife in Tripoli.[10]

The Champress website, which is affiliated with Syrian government circles, published a series of articles accusing Saudi Arabia of funding terrorism. Website's editor 'Ali Jamalo wrote in a scathing anti-Saudi article: "Why should we keep silent as His Majesty [the Saudi king] funds the Salafi terrorist gangs in northern Lebanon and exports death into Syria?..."[11] Journalist Khader Al-'Awarka wrote, also on Champress: "Saudi Arabia armed, funded and incited Al-Zarqawi's [Al-Qaeda] in Iraq under the pretext of defending the Sunnis against the Shi'ites, [while in reality] it only wanted a toehold in that country... In Lebanon, it is funding the terrorists who engage in takfir [i.e. accusing others of heresy], and at the same time funding the Israeli espionage networks... Look at the role played by the villainous Saudis in spreading takfir in Egypt, Morocco and [other] foreign countries..."[12]

Similar allegations against Saudi Arabia, and specifically against Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had appeared even before that in the Syrian media. Two days after the Damascus bombing, the Syrian daily Al-Watan wrote that Saudi Arabia was the only country that had not condemned the bombing. The daily also quoted sources in Beirut who assessed that "the perpetrators of the bombing... belonged to Salafi circles that are directly aided by Prince Bandar Al-Sultan. [The prince's goal] is to undermine Syria's security and destabilize it from within, after all attempts to isolate it in the international and Arab arena have failed..." According to the same sources, the perpetrators "entered Syria from Lebanon or Iraq with funding and support from groups loyal to Prince Bandar [bin Sultan]."[13]

In a Champress article published right after the Damascus bombing, 'Ali Jamalo accused Saudi Arabia of feeling glad about the innocent blood spilled in Damascus, called the Saudi king "cruel" and "inhuman" for failing to send condolences to the families of the victims, and promised that history would curse the leaders who had not condemned the bombing.[14]

Saudi Arabia, March 14 Forces Respond: "Testimonies" Aired By Syrian TV – Fabricated and Produced by Syrian Intelligence

Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese March 14 Forces responded with contempt to the testimonies presented on Syrian TV, calling them "a movie produced by the Syrian intelligence."

Saudi Al-Watan Daily: Fatah Al-Islam Was Actually Spawned by Syria

An article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan stated: "Syrian intelligence does not hesitate to fabricate stories and produce fictional films about Lebanon, especially against the parties and factions hostile to the Syrian regime... Fath Al-Islam, which Syria names [as responsible for the Damascus bombings], was actually founded in Lebanon by Syria itself, and is an offshoot of the [Damascus-based] Fath Al-Intifada [organization]...

"The [testimonies] film aired by Syrian TV... is just another means of direct Syrian interference in Lebanon. This is an old method of Syrian intelligence, which has now begun to be used openly. [Those who follow the events in Lebanon have not forgotten] the video of the Palestinian, Abu 'Adas, who [falsely claimed] responsibility for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.[15] At the time, certain forces in Lebanon said that the film had been produced by Syrian intelligence... which uses extremist and religious Palestinian organizations [to promote] Syrian interests and undermine the security and stability of Lebanon."[16]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: Terrorists, Weapons, and Goods are Smuggled from Syria into Lebanon with the Knowledge of the Syrian Regime

In response to the accusations about terrorists infiltrating into Syria via Lebanon, the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a series of articles about the Syrian-Lebanese border. A team from the newspaper that toured along the border reported that infiltration and smuggling in both directions were common , and that all this took place with the full knowledge of the Syrians. Civilians living near the border stated that "the Syrians patrolled their territories well" and that "nothing crossed the border without their knowledge."

A Lebanese citizen described how weapons were smuggled from Syria to Hizbullah in the Al-Harmel region in Lebanon. Syrian intelligence officers, he said, cross the border into Lebanon and order everyone to leave the area. Then trucks loaded with weapons cross over to the Hizbullah bases in the region. He added that dairy factories in the area actually served as depots for goods smuggled from Syria into Lebanon.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat also stated that Syria was trying to annex Lebanese territories before the demarcation of the permanent border between the two countries.[17]

Al-Mustaqbal Daily: Evidence of Ties Between Fath Al-Islam and Syrian Intelligence

The daily Al-Mustaqbal, owned by the Al-Hariri family, published testimonies by Fath Al-Islam activists currently detained in Lebanon, stating that it had "obtained documents which proved [the existence of] ties between Fath Al-Islam and the Syrian regime... and completely refuted Syria's false claims... An examination of these documents, which contain testimonies given over a long period of time by [Fath Al-Islam] detainees [arrested following the battles in Nahr Al-Bared], reveals that Fath Al-Islam... is a mechanism created by Syrian intelligence in a bid to destabilize Lebanon and destroy it. [Another goal of the Syrians was] to show that Lebanon – which had [regained] its independence after 30 years of [Syrian] occupation and control – is incapable of managing its own affairs and therefore requires Syrian control... The documents show that shortly after the Syrian military's withdrawal from Lebanon, Syrian intelligence devised a plan to destabilize Lebanon by sending in a terrorist group under its control, which would operate in the guise of Al-Qaeda or a revolutionary Palestinian [organization]...

"[Fath Al-Islam detainee] Ahmad Suleiman Mar'i gave a detailed testimony about the role that Syria played in [aiding] Fath Al-Islam by smuggling its members [into Lebanon], by supplying it with 100 tons of explosives, and through the Syrian intelligence ties of Shaker Al-'Absi and his deputy Abu Mudin. The documents also reveal that Al-'Absi traveled in cars with Syrian license plates..."

Fares Al-Ghanem and Hani Al-Sankari testified that on May 1, 2005, a week after Syria withdrew from Lebanon, Shaker Al-'Absi was transferred from Sidnaya prison to... a facility of the Syrian military intelligence. According to Al-Ghanem, Al-'Absi was released on June 20, 2005. That same month, Syrian authorities also released some Palestinians who had been in jail with Al-'Absi, after they received a Syrian presidential pardon. At the same time, Al-'Absi began traveling between Syria and Lebanon, and asked former prisoners who had been in jail with him to introduce him to activists who could smuggle them into Lebanon.

Ahmad Mar'i also stated that Brig.-Gen. Jawdat Al-Hassan, the officer in charge of counterterrorism and fundamentalist groups in Syrian military intelligence, knew all about the activity of Al-'Absi and his group in Lebanon. He testified: "In early 2007 I went back to Syria and met with Brig.-Gen. [Jawdat Al-Hassan]. I told him about the [unusual] activity in Lebanon and about Al-'Absi's presence there, and he hinted that he knew all about it and was acquainted with Al-'Absi... He also intimated that there was coordination between Shaker Al-'Absi and Syrian intelligence..." Mar'i added that Al-Hassan had asked him to help Al-'Absi, and that Al-'Absi himself told him that his deputy Abu Mudin was a Syrian intelligence officer.

Muhammad Mar'i, brother of Ahmad Mar'i, testified: "Abu Ritaj the Saudi told me that the Syrians had ordered Al-'Absi to carry out the attack in 'Ain 'Alaq.[18] I asked him what the objective [of the attack] was, and he replied that it was meant to dissuade people from taking part in the rally marking the second anniversary of Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination... My brother [Ahmad Mar'i]... confirmed that the bombing had been carried out by Fath Al-Islam on orders from Syria..."[19]

Sa'd Al-Hariri: Syria Is Exporting Terror to Lebanon

Al-Mustaqbal chairman Sa'd Al-Hariri responded to the Syrian accusations: "The series [of testimonies aired on Syrian TV] was a complete fabrication... Whoever lies about Fath Al-Islam is as much a criminal as [Fath Al-Islam itself]. These people [i.e. the Syrians] exported the terrorists to our [country] and then accused us of being behind them, saying that Al-Mustaqbal was responsible for creating [Fath Al-Islam]... Everyone knows that it is the Syrian regime that is attacking Lebanon and trying to undermine its stability."[20]

A communiqué issued by Sa'd Al-Hariri's public relations office said: "We find nothing new in the false allegations aired on Syrian TV. They are nothing but another variation on the [false] film by Abu 'Adas [who claimed to have assassinated Al-Hariri]... The Syrian regime has made great efforts recently to wash its hands of the Fath Al-Islam gang and Shaker Al-'Absi, and to associate it [instead] with the Al-Mustaqbal [faction] and its leader [Sa'd Al-Hariri]. [This began] even before the bombings in Damascus... [But] the facts will not exonerate the Syrian regime of its involvement in this gang, of the [protection it has extended] to its members, and of [its help] in facilitating their entry into Lebanon...

"Since it is the facts that will eventually expose the lies of the [Syrian] regime, we call upon the Arab League to... form an Arab committee to investigate the Fath Al-Islam gang and the crimes it has committed..."[21]

Al-Hariri made similar statements in an interview on the Russia Today TV channel, which was broadcast a few days before the testimonies aired on Syrian TV. He said: "We in the Al-Mustaqbal faction know that the terror that exists in Lebanon today is a [Syrian] export, just like the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and of other shahids of the March 14 Forces... Usually, when Al-Qaeda carries out murders and bombings around the world, it soon claims responsibility for them. [But] in the case of the assassinations carried out in Lebanon, there were no claims of responsibility.

"That is why I say that these assassinations were carried out by a state... and this state will not succeed in convincing the world that it is Al-Qaeda that murdered these people. Al-Qaeda is not present in Lebanon, but is exported [to Lebanon]... The Syrian regime granted easy passage [across the border] to Fatah Al-Islam operatives and to other [terror] cells that have been caught..."[22]

Al-Mustaqbal Daily: Testimonies Aired on Syrian TV Were Meant to Exonerate Syria of Al-Hariri Assassination

A November 8, 2008 editorial in the daily Al-Mustaqbal claimed that Syria had aired the televised testimonies in a bid to dissociate itself from the Al-Hariri assassination: "The Syrian regime is completely convinced that the international investigative committee [for the Al-Hariri assassination] has reached many insightful [conclusions about the identity of those responsible for the murder]. Naturally, this regime knows who the suicide bomber was, and where he was brought from... so it [found itself] facing a very urgent task: to completely disassociate itself from the group... called Fath Al-Islam.

"The film of the testimonies, and perhaps even the Damascus bombing itself, were meant to create the illusion that the Syrian regime is, just like Rafiq Al-Hariri, a victim of the group that spawned the suicide bomber who [blew himself up] on March 14, 2005... The [TV] film was called 'testimonies by the perpetrators of the Damascus bombing,' but its [goal] was to exonerate Syrian intelligence of [any connection to] Fath Al-Islam, and foist the blame on Al-Mustaqbal...

"A careful examination of the speech patterns of [Fath Al-Islam security chief] Abu Al-Walid [a key figure in the film]... indicates that he is a dyed-in-the-wool Ba'th member, an experienced intelligence [officer] steeped in the slogans of the Syrian regime. There are many indications of this. First, he talks and talks without augmenting his words with a single Koranic verse or hadith, while [real] Islamists cannot utter a single sentence of their own [without doing so]... Second, Abu Al-Walid calls his fellow operatives 'youths' rather than 'brothers' or 'mujahideen'; and refers to those killed on the Syrian-Iraqi border, or in clashes with the Syrian security [forces], as 'fatalities' rather than 'martyrs'... He also uses the term 'extremists' for [members of] Islamist organizations..."[23]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] For more on Fath Al-Islam, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 362, "Who Is Behind Fath Al-Islam?," June 8, 2008, Who Is Behind Fath Al-Islam?; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 365, "Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence," June 20, 2008, Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1880, "Lebanon Publishes New Evidence of Ties Between Syria and Fath Al-Islam," March 27, 2008, Lebanon Publishes New Evidence of Ties Between Syria and Fath Al-Islam.

[2] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 5, 2008.

[3] Al-Bayrak (Lebanon), October 3, 2008.

[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 2, 2008; October 3, 2008.

[5] Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 17, 2008.

[6] In September 2007, following the battle of Nahr Al-Bared, the Lebanese armed forces reported that Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-'Absi had been killed, and that his wife had identified his body. However, DNA tests later revealed that the body had been misidentified. Subsequently, all traces of Al-'Absi disappeared, but in the last few months, there have been reports that he is in Syria. On September 4, 2008, reported that Syrian authorities had informed French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then visiting Syria, that they had Al-'Absi in custody. On October 2, 2008, reported that Syrian Air Force intelligence services had apprehended Al-'Absi two months before in the Al-Maliha region south of Damascus, and a similar report appeared on October 4, 2008 in the Lebanese daily Al-Liwa. In his televised testimony, Fath Al-Islam member Abu Al-Walid gave the following details: He had met Al'-Absi in the Al-Badawi refugee camp in Lebanon two months after the end of the Nahr Al-Bared battles. Later, Al-'Absi and some of his aides fled to Syria after the Lebanese authorities apprehended two senior Fath Al-Islam operatives who knew the location of Al-'Absi's hideout. But then, in July 2008, Al-'Absi disappeared. The aides who had fled with him to Syria speculated that he had gone to Iraq, or returned to Lebanon, or been arrested by Syrian security. Fath Al-Islam then appointed Abu Muhammad 'Awdh as its new leader, and he currently resides at the 'Ain Al-Hilwa refugee camp in Lebanon.

[7] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 7, 2008. It should be mentioned tha, on November 10, 2008, the Fath Al-Islam information bureau published a communiqué denying any connection to the Damascus bombing, to the testimonies aired on Syrian TV, and to the countries and forces mentioned by the detainees in their testimonies. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 11, 2008.

[8] Al-Ba'th (Syria), October 2, 2008.

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 2128, "Website Affiliated with Syrian Government Lambastes Saudi Arabia," November 25, 2008, Website Affiliated with Syrian Government Lambastes Saudi Arabia;

MEMRI I&A No. 487, "Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran, Part I – Deepening Crisis in Saudi-Syrian Relations," December 22, 2008, .

[10], November 8, 2008.

[11], November 20, 2008.

[12], November 17, 2008.

[13] Al-Watan (Syria), September 29, 2008.

[14], September 29, 2008.

[15] After Al-Hariri's assassination, Al-Jazeera TV aired a video by an organization calling itself Support and Jihad – Greater Syria. In the video, Ahmad Abu 'Adas, who said he was an organization member, claimed responsibility for the assassination. The first commissioner of the U.N. International Investigation Commission into the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, Detlev Mehlis, wrote in his October 2005 report that the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawkat, had forced 'Adas to make the tape two weeks before the assassination. Mehlis' successor, Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz, wrote in December 2006 that 'Adas had not been involved in the assassination and that no traces of his body had been found at the scene.

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 8, 2008.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 11-17, 2008.

[18] On February 14, 2007, the second anniversary of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, two buses were attacked in the Christian town of 'Ain 'Alaq in Lebanon; three Lebanese citizens were killed and 23 were wounded. A month later, on March 14, 2007, Lebanese security apparatuses announced that they had apprehended four Syrians belonging to Fath Al-Islam who acknowledged carrying out the attack. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal reported that the suspects had confessed under interrogation that they had connections to Syrian intelligence, that they had directly received orders and funds from it, and that they had even been trained by it.

[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 15, 2008.

[20] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 13, 2008.

[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 11, 2008.

[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 1, 2008.

[23] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 8, 2008.

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