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Outside Iraq but Deep in the Fight
A Smuggler of Insurgents Reveals Syria's Influential, Changing Role

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."

Roots

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.

In the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo where Abu Ibrahim grew up and married, his fundamentalist impulses took their present shape when he met "a group of young men through my wife's family who spoke to me the true words of Islam. They told me Sufism was forbidden and the Shiites are infidels."

A year later, he went to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom founded on Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam in the Salafi wing.

For seven years he worked in Riyadh, the capital, trading textiles. In his spare time, he studied the Koran and gathered at people's homes with young men so militant in their beliefs they were barred from preaching in public.

At a private Saudi production company that specialized in radical Islamic propaganda, he said, he learned video editing and digital photography. The work channeled the rage of young Arab men incensed by the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, angered by U.S. foreign policy and chafing under the repression of secular Arab rulers.

Their goal, he said, is restoration of the Islamic caliphate, the system that governed Muslims before the rise of nation states. Abu Ibrahim said he regarded Afghanistan during the Taliban rule as one of the few true Islamic governments since the time of Muhammad.

"The Koran is a constitution, a law to govern the world," he said.

Such views were unwelcome back in Syria, governed by the Baathist Party as a secular nation. But in 1999, after Abu Ibrahim returned to Aleppo, he heard a sermon delivered by a Syrian cleric who was widely known in the region. Abu Qaqaa, a lanky, charismatic sheik born Mahmoud Quul Aghassi, preached the same radical message that Abu Ibrahim had taken to heart in Riyadh.

"Abu Qaqaa was preaching what we believed in. He was saying these things: 'People with beards come together.' I was so impressed."

Abu Ibrahim said he became Abu Qaqaa's right-hand man. He helped tape his sermons, transfer them to CDs and distribute them clandestinely. They traveled together to Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Saudi Arabia. By 2001, Abu Qaqaa had attracted a determined following of about 1,000 young men.

"No one knew about us," Abu Ibrahim said. "But September 11 gave us the media coverage. It was a great day. America was defeated. We knew they would target either Syria or Iraq, and we took a vow that if something happened to either country, we would fight."

Impetus

Two weeks after the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, the group felt bold enough to celebrate in public in Aleppo with a "festival," as it was called, featuring video of hand-to-hand combat and training montages of guerrillas leaping from high walls.

Afterward, Abu Qaqaa was arrested by the Syrian authorities, but he was released within hours. By 2002 the anti-American festivals were running twice weekly, often wrapped around weddings or other social gatherings. Organizers called themselves The Strangers of Sham, using the ancient name for the eastern Mediterranean region known as the Levant, and began freely distributing the CDs of the cleric's sermons.

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."

In a dictatorship infamous for its intolerance of political Islam, such freedom made some of the cleric's lieutenants suspicious.

"We asked the sheik why we weren't being arrested," said Abu Ibrahim. "He would tell us it was because we weren't saying anything against the government, that we were focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel, that beards and epaulets were in one trench together."

The answer seemed inadequate, Abu Ibrahim said. But then the United States led troops into Iraq, and everything went up a notch.

War

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.

At the request of his Iraqi counterparts, Abu Ibrahim stopped ferrying fighters for a time. "They said there were Shiites everywhere, Americans, and they couldn't do anything."

By the summer of 2003, however, the insurgency began to organize itself, and the call went out for volunteers.

Safe houses were established. Weapons were positioned. In the vast desert that forms the border with Iraq, passages through the dunes long used to smuggle goods now were employed to funnel fighters.

"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."

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.

"Young men are fighting with zeal and passion," Abu Ibrahim said. "There are Saudi officers, Syrians, Iraqis. But not those who fought for Saddam. The man who is leading it for the most part is Zarqawi."

Abu Ibrahim was interviewed before reports surfaced that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads an organization called al Qaeda in Iraq, had been seriously wounded -- a report later disputed in an Internet message purportedly recorded by Zarqawi. Abu Ibrahim credited Zarqawi with revitalizing the insurgency, especially since October, when he pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader. Abu Ibrahim said that union helped cement an alliance among several resistance groups in Iraq that formed a joint treasury.

"Six months ago, Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were different," he said. "Osama did not consider the killing of Shiites as legitimate. Zarqawi did that. Anyone -- Christian, Jew, Sunni, Shiites -- whoever cooperates with the Americans can be killed. It's a holy war."

Change

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!"

At the same time, Abu Qaqaa reemerged as the public face of jihad. Abu Ibrahim said he now views the cleric with suspicion, suggesting that he is helping Syrian authorities track jihadi "rat lines," as U.S. commanders refer to the smuggling chains. The same suspicion was voiced last autumn by a Yemeni fighter interviewed in Fallujah.

"The Syrians are in an awkward position," Abu Ibrahim said. "On one side they want to do whatever the Americans want them to. And on the other side they want to fight the Americans."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company