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Terrorist Activity in Syria

Terrorism: An overview

The world has not remained the same since 9/11. It has captured the layman’s attention to the religious-political phenomena of violence that are terrorism. In the past decade, places like London, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, America, and the West Bank have been targeted by different terrorist groups, for several political or administrative reasons. Terrorism may be defined as “the systematic use of terror” (Byman, 2010) for violence and coercion, usually having an ulterior ideological motive. It is an illegal show of armed force against the authorities of a country or a state and is meant to achieve certain strategic necessities or objectives. The history of terrorism can loosely be traced back to the fundamentalist religious Crusades in the middle ages but the attack on the World Trade Center defined modern terrorism, under Al-Qaeda. This led to George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ strategy which was considered useless and unfair in Afghanistan. The truth is that Osama bin Laden is still at large and the might and the nerve of the terrorists are increasing day by day (Rubin, 2007).

Syria and Terrorism

Syria lies in the strategic position of the West Bank strip where Palestinians and Muslims have been baying for each other’s blood for decades, sometimes secretly being funded by the U.S. and where the U.N.’s strategies have turned to be diplomatic but not peace-making. Syria came into focus as a country encouraging terrorism in the mid-1980s where Syrian intelligence networks were supporting international terrorist groups to achieve strategic information about the Middle East and since then, Syria has been on the list of the U.S. Intelligence as a hotbed of terrorist and fundamentalist activity. It has become clear that the fundamentalist group ‘Hamas’ which increases violence in the West Bank has been actively supported with armaments and documentation by the Syrian government and intelligence agencies (Byman, 2010).


According to the U.S. State Department’s report on Syria, its government allegedly supports the other U.S.-listed terrorist groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad whose headquarters are in the capital of Syria, Damascus. Further information has been gained from the 2006 State Department Report which clearly maintains that the Syrian government supports the fundamentalist cleric group ‘Hezbollah’ and it has had a spy and terrorist network to interfere in Lebanese politics, ever since the Lebanon War. In fact, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri in the year 2005 was said to have been ‘arranged’ by Syria. Although the Syrian Government denies all links to terrorist groups or the assassination of Hariri, it sides with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, maintains that they are legitimate resistance groups that will help liberate Arab territory that is being held by Israel.

Syria is politically a secular dictatorship that has violently broken human rights protocol over the years by being active in sponsoring terrorism since the 1980’s. Although the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had openly criticized the 9/11 attacks and subsequently passed on vital classified information to the U.S. about Osama bin Laden’s network of Al-Qaeda, there was always a covert terrorist movement being supported by the country since the former President, Hafiz al-Assad’s rule. President Bush had announced an ultimatum to Syria in 2002, asking it to clarify whether it was against the ‘War on Terror’ or with it. In 2006, there was an attack on the U.S. embassy in Syria, which frosted relations between the U.S. and Syria further (Sharma, 2008).

It is usually speculated whether the Syrian government has actual links with Al-Qaeda, the largest and deadliest fundamentalist and militant group. Apparently, the answer is negative as Syria has labeled Al-Qaeda a terrorist group but it makes the mistake of ‘innocently’ supporting political resistance groups like Hezbollah or Hamas who are increasing tension and bloodshed in Palestine. Syria had a cosmopolitan culture and a secular, liberal and westernized atmosphere. But it is increasingly becoming a conservative, Muslim, extremist country, which is supposedly ruled by the Alawites, a Shiite sect.

Syria is also said to collaborate with Iran over matters related to Hezbollah, according to the 2007 report of the U.S. Congressional Research Service. The “marriage of convenience” is said to have arisen due to their geopolitical similarities and similar strategies. In July 2006, the strikes on Israel organized by Hezbollah were said to have been conducted under the joint protection of Iran and Syria so that the U.N.’s attention would be deflected from contentious issues like Iran’s nuclear development programs (Byman, 2010).

A further fact in support of Syria’s terrorist links is the known presence of weapons of mass destruction like ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons that Syria has actively developed, according to the reports of the U.S. Defense and Intelligence reports. What has stopped Syria from becoming a threat is its lack of foreign aid in developing deadly biological weapons. There are also allegations that Syria accepts nuclear aid from North Korea to launch missiles on Israel.

The Media Gaze on Syria

Steve McCarthy went seeking for the trials of terrorist groups and fundamentalist culture as part of NBC’s documentary by Lisa Myers, called Trail of Terror: Jihad in Iraq. A part of the documentary was based on Steve’s reports and interviews from Syria. It was called Inside Syria. Steve narrates how he met a resident of the cosmopolitan Damascus, a Dr. Taki, whose sons were in the army. When interviewed, Mr.Taki commented on the incessant flow of Syrian fighters to Iraq, encouraging the militant activities there. He is quoted as resentfully saying that Syria is an open bordered country and every Arab can enter the state without much trouble (Byman, 2010). He also claimed that there is a huge amount of discontent and a sense of humiliation among the population of Syria at the activities of the American army in the region. These words show clearly that the democratic, secular times of Syria are over, replaced by Islamic fundamentalism, active-state sponsored terrorism (Byman, 2010).

Dr. Taki went on to say how 20 or 30 years back, Damascus was so secular and liberal that Christians and Jews lived together and women were respected and liberated, a tolerant form of Islam. However, he ruled that the flow of the petrol dollar, the spread of the jihadist version of Islam, and Saudi Arabia’s need to fight communism with the help of the Americans have changed the face of Syria. According to further details provided by the scholar, about 72,000 families in Syria were supported by charities in Saudi Arabia, thus automatically winning over allegiance for Arabian Islamic groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, choosing to overlook their violent motives (Sabasteanski, 2005).

The Assassination of Rafiq Hariri

What established the role of Syria as an active supporter of terrorism was the planned attack on former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri which was caused by a rigged car crash on March 14, 2005. When the assassination happened, Syria was politically a strong presence in Lebanon. Syria had undertaken the job of deploying peacekeeping troops to help create a stable atmosphere in the post-civil war conditions of Lebanon since 1976. Hariri was anti-Syrian and so was removed from the political sphere. However, after the assassination, the U.S. withdrew its ambassadors from Syria and has actively been behind the U.N. security council to take up a resolution that would encourage an investigation into the incident, under an international tribunal. Syria, to date, remains opposed to the idea of such a tribunal. The Syrian terrorist influence was felt again when in November 2006, the Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was also murdered (Andriolo, 2009).

Syria and Hezbollah’s link

Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic fundamentalist and militant group that has been on the classified list of terrorist groups on the U.S. State Department‘s report. Syria is said to have founded the group and encouraged its inception, training Hezbollah members and fighters since the early 1980’s so that they could specifically invade Israel and Lebanon so that the Israeli political presence should be wiped out from Lebanon and its grip on Arabian lands should be loosened. Hezbollah has become infamous for its suicide bomber attack on a U.S. marine barracks in 1883, which is said to have taken a toll on 250 persons, all servicemen on the barracks (Kemp, 2008).

Apart from Hezbollah, Syria has provided a secure place to hide for all Palestinian militant groups from as far back as the 1960s, even when these groups were considered secular and guerrilla groups that would carry out armed attacks on Israeli land which was created after the division of Israel/Palestine. However, the group named Palestinian Islamic Jihad has grown to be an Islamic militant organization, losing its secular nature completely. The U.S. has accused Syria of giving them safe access to their borders, illegal deportation, and immigration, providing them with ammunition and funding from within Damascus.

The Syrian border has been described as dangerously “porous”. From the beginning of the U.S. war on Iraq, there have been militants who have been pouring into Iraq to fight against the Americans and join an Islamic jihadist enterprise. These people have mostly been making their way to the Arab countries and the Middle East through Syria. Many times, it has been reported that fighters from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have made their way through Syria (Moore, 2009).

Also, since the war with the U.S, there has been a development in the expatriate community of Iraqis in Syria, which has made Syria incur the U.S.’s diplomatic displeasure. Many fundamentalist channels like Al Zawraa TV are operated from Damascus. This channel is infamous for spreading anti-American and pro-Iraq propaganda.

Syrian Intelligence and Terrorism

The sponsorship of terrorism by Syrian Intelligence agencies has been spearheaded by Air Force Intelligence, under Major general Muhammad al Khawli who had been air force chief for Syria since 1970. Khawli is an Alawi sect member and has been considered as the Assad intelligence’s most crucial adviser and the most influential presidential adviser in Damascus, providing his advice on national security issues. In 1976, khawli was the architect for Syria’s defense policy on Lebanon.

He is also said to have crushed the Muslim brotherhood of Hamah’s uprising in 1982 and if the London Times is to be believed, an astonishing total of twenty-nine terrorist operations have been conducted under his wing in Air Force Intelligence operations, since 1986. The operations were actively working in the Syrian Arab airline and even had contacts in Syrian embassies. Thus, it can easily be concluded that Syria has a penetrating and threatening intelligence and terrorist network that directs most terrorist activities. The Syrian government provided explosives, deadly weapons, false identification, and passports as well as official, authentic Syrian passports, diplomatic pouches, safe harbors, and logistics support for these groups (Andriolo, 2009).

Reportedly, Military Intelligence Services, known as ‘mukhabarat’ was spearheaded by General Ali Duba who was an Alawi and Syria’s chief of internal security, headquartered in the Defense Ministry in Damascus. This group has handled many fundamentalist Islamic groups like the radical Palestinian terrorist groups like Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and they paid for the Abu Nidal terrorist organization which was also called the Fateh Revolutionary Council.

The United States Department of State report, Syria had actually given logistical support to the Abu Nidal network and it also gave them permission to operate in political affairs in Damascus. The Syrian government allegedly maintained training camps for militants in Lebanon’s Biqa valley which was controlled by Syrian forces. Also, the members of the Abu Nidal group were given documents for freely travelling around Syria when they were preparing for missions. The Syrian involvement in terrorism has been so covert at times that western government and intelligence sources could not pinpoint Assad’s involvement in planning terrorist operations (Norton, 2007).

According to media reports from various news organizations, in the 1980s, Syria provided different training camps for terrorists in the Middle East, reportedly five training bases in Damascus and about twenty camps elsewhere in Lebanon. After 1986, many international terrorist groups withdrew from Lebanon and joined bases in Syria. There were radical Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist groups that got refuge, money, and freelance terrorists from Syria, including the West European terrorists like the Red Army Fraction, the Action Directe, and the Armenian Secret Army for the liberation of Armenia as well as the Japanese Red Army, the Tamil United Liberation Front of Sri Lanka, the Kurdish Labor Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia (Kemp, 2008).


In encouraging terrorist activities, Syria’s goal was to employ surrogate terrorists in the Middle East and against the U.S. without obvious link-backs to Syria. Sometimes, Syria was directly involved as with radical Palestinian factions like As Saiqa and the Abu Musa group. Syria used surrogate terrorists in other cases and provided logistical and financial support to Abu Nidal’s group and the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary faction. Sometimes, Syria also sponsored ‘freelance’ or sleeper terrorist units among the Palestinian and Jordanian terrorist groups. The Assad has been rumored to have been sponsoring terrorism from long back to consolidate Syria’s position in the Middle East and it has even taken the radical steps of killing Jordanian diplomats who did not support their anti-Israel policies. Syria thus has become the hot spot for refuge for Islamic terrorist groups (Norton, 2007).

The root cause of terrorism in this region is simple. Syria is not a lone case in encouraging covert terrorist activity. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and India also have widespread terrorist networks operating within it, though not always with the government’s encouragement. The main cause of Terror attacks remains the ire of the radical believers of Islam against the materialistic culture of the West, especially the U.S.A. and at times, they are just political ploys to shift the base of world power from the U.S.A. to the Islamic nations. Religion, ‘Jihad’—all these remain the mask for these criminals and politically charged terror outfits. Another reason for the spread of Non-Islamic terrorist groups is the widespread injustice and the lack of socio-political and economic cover for the lower rungs of society in every nation. The greed of developed nations, the exploitation in the name of globalization or liberalization, the growing threat of nuclear and biological weapons, racism, communalism, and sectarianism encouraged on the basis of nationality or language is making the world violent—many terrorist groups believe that their governments will provide for them only if it is scared. However, if the military units of a country take to spying and training terrorists for ulterior motives, it might go unnoticed till the damage is done.

Options for Peace

The U.S. should be subtler when it comes to foreign policies and not try to remote-control democracies half the world over in the form of neo-colonialism. A possible reason for the 9/11 attack was the brutal treatment of the Muslim prisoners of war in the Guantanamo base camp and the U.S.’s interest in the oil wells of the Middle East. Noam Chomsky writes in his book, 9/11, about the failure of the U.N. as a peace-making body that deals with transgressions of human rights in different nations. The U.N. should come out of the shadows of the U.S. cabinet and become more active in forging alliances for peace and nuclear disarmament. The West Bank crisis between the Israelites and the Palestinians is a bone of contention that has led to several refugee camps with pathetic and un-humanitarian lifestyles for the displaced, which is leading to more violence. The U.N. needs to settle the matter in the near future or else it shall lead to more terrorist groups and attacks. Each nation troubled with terrorist outfits should seek to address the lack of basic rights that leads to dissent and violence. Racism and discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, language or nationality should be controlled, if they cannot be eradicated completely. Lastly, terrorism can only be fought with an honest defense system, responsible media, and alert intelligence units in every country. Terrorism is a mindset that can be defeated primarily by providing economic and social justice.


Andriolo, K. (2009). Murder by Suicide: Episodes from Muslim History. American Anthropologist 104(3), 736-742.

Byman, D. (2010). Agents of Destruction? Applying Principal-Agent Analysis to State-Sponsored Terrorism. International Studies Perspectives, 11(1), 1-18.

Kemp, C. (2008). Bioterrorism: Introduction and Major Agents. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners 13(11), 483-491.

Moore, P. (2009). Commerce and Conflict: U.S. Effort to Counter Terrorism with Trade May Backfire. Middle East Policy 10(3), 112-120.

Norton, A.R. (2007). Drawing the Line on Opprobrious Violence. Ethics & International Affairs 4(1), 123-133.

Rubin, B.R. (2007). The truth about Syria. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sabasteanski, A. Patterns of global terrorism 1985-2005: U.S. Department of State reports with supplementary documents and statistics, Volume 1. London: Berkshire Pub.

Sharma, D.P. (2008). The new terrorism: islamist international. New Delhi: APH Publishing.

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