Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight

Students in Aleppo walk in a neighborhood where Abu Ibrahim, a Syrian smuggler, recruited dozens of young men to fight in Iraq.
Students in Aleppo walk in a neighborhood where Abu Ibrahim, a Syrian smuggler, recruited dozens of young men to fight in Iraq. (By Ghaith Abdul-ahad For The Washington Post)
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

ALEPPO, Syria -- When the Americans led the invasion of Iraq, the men of Abu Ibrahim's family gathered in the courtyard of their shared home in the far north of Syria. Ten slips of paper were folded into a plastic bag, and they drew lots. The five who opened a paper marked with ink would go to Iraq and fight. The other five would stay behind.

Abu Ibrahim drew a blank. But remaining in Syria did not mean staying clear of the war. For more than two years, by his own detailed account, the slightly built, shabbily dressed 32-year-old father of four has worked diligently to shuttle other young Arab men into Iraq, stocking the insurgency that has killed hundreds of U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis.

The stream of fighters -- most of them Syrians, but lately many of them Saudis, favored for the cash they bring -- has sustained and replenished the hardest core of the Iraq insurgency, and supplied many of its suicide bombers. Drawn from a number of Arab countries and nurtured by a militant interpretation of Islam, they insist they are fighting for their vision of their faith. This may put them beyond the reach of political efforts to make Iraq's Sunni Arabs stakeholders in the country's nascent government.

Abu Ibrahim recalled: "Our brothers in Iraq worked in small groups. In each area, men would come together, organized by religious leaders or tribal sheiks, and would attack the Americans. It was often us who brought them all together, when we met them in Syria or Iraq. We would tell them, 'But there is another brother who is doing the same thing. Why don't you coordinate together?' Syria became the hub."

Syria's role in sustaining and organizing the insurgency has shifted over time. In the first days of the war, fighters swarmed into Iraq aboard buses that Syrian border guards waved through open gates, witnesses recalled. But late in 2004, after intense pressure on Damascus from the Bush administration, Syrian domestic intelligence services swept up scores of insurgent facilitators. Many, including Abu Ibrahim, were quietly released a few days later.

In the months since, the smugglers have worked in the shadows. In a series of interviews carried out in alleyways, a courtyard, a public square and a mosque, Abu Ibrahim was being visibly followed by plainclothes agents of the security service, Amn Dawla. In December, the service confiscated his passport and national identity card. His new ID was a bit of cardboard he presented each month to his minders; the entries for April and May were checked.

Few other details of Abu Ibrahim's account could be verified independently. But the structure of the human smuggling organization he described was consistent with the assessments of U.S. and Iraqi officials who closely study Syria's role in the insurgency. Other specifics jibed with personal histories provided by foreign fighters interviewed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on the eve of a U.S. offensive in November.

Those interviews also echoed earlier accounts of Iraqi insurgents, including descriptions of the role of a Syrian cleric known as Abu Qaqaa in promoting a holy war, or jihad, against the West. Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the notion of jihad has "had a galvanizing impact on the imagination and reflexes" of many young Muslim men, especially those with the means and resources to travel, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels.

"They think jihad will stop if they kill hundreds of us in Iraq," Abu Ibrahim said with a note of defiance. "They don't know what they are facing. Every day, more and more young men from around the Muslim world are awaking and coming to the jihad principle.

"Now the Americans are facing thousands, but one day soon they will have to face whole nations."


His father was a Sufi Muslim, devoted to a tolerant, mystical tradition of Islam. But Abu Ibrahim said he was born a rebel, gravitating early in life to the other end of the spectrum of Islamic belief.

Salafism, or "following the pious forefathers," is a fundamentalist, sometimes militant strain of the faith grounded in turning back the clock to the time of the prophet Muhammad.

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