Partners in Terror: The Assad Regime and the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 9, 2016

Article published at NOW Lebanon


Last week, a judgment in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., awarded nearly $350 million to the families of two Americans killed in Jordan in 2005 by the predecessor organization to the Islamic State (ISIS). The important point of the case was who the court found liable: the regime of Bashar al-Assad, currently presenting itself to the world as the last line of defense to a terrorist takeover of Syria. This case highlights a neglected history, which began in 2002, where the Assad regime underwrote ISIS and fostered its growth, first to destabilize post-Saddam Iraq and later Lebanon, and since 2011 to discredit and destroy the uprising against Assad in Syria.

The group now known as ISIS was founded in early 2000 with Al-Qaeda seed money at a camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. ISIS’ founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did not formally swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden until 2004, but the two pooled resources, notably on the Millennium Plot, which was meant to target Zarqawi’s Jordanian homeland and Los Angeles International Airport.

After the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, Bin Laden went to Pakistan and Zarqawi went to Iran. Zarqawi then moved into Iraqi Kurdistan in April 2002, joining Ansar al-Islam, a group he and Al-Qaeda had co-sponsored, which was waging war against the elected Kurdish government that was protected by the Anglo-American no-fly zone. Ansar was penetrated at senior levels by agents of the Saddam Hussein regime, according to Kurdish intelligence, which also caught Saddam providing “logistical support, money, weapons, transportation [and] safe houses” to Ansar. Any enemy of the Kurds was a friend of Saddam’s—even before the reorientation of Saddam’s foreign policy in the mid-1980s toward instrumentalizing Islamist groups for the Baathist government’s own ends (which was later extended to internal policy).

By May 2002, Zarqawi was in Baghdad with a group of more than a dozen Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, including: Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, a long-time Qaeda-affiliated Egyptian who was arrested in 2014 while training jihadists in Libya, Thirwat Shehata, and Abu Humam al-Suri, who went on to become the military chief of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria). Zarqawi, who had “relatively free” movement within Iraq, departed Iraq in the early summer of 2002 to go on a recruitment-drive in the Levant.

First, Zarqawi went to Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian camp in southern Lebanon known for its Islamist militancy, and then to Syria. Zarqawi recruited numerous Syrians, notably ISIS’ current spokesman, Taha Falaha, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. From Syria, Zarqawi organized—with the complicity of Assad—the assassination of a U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley, in Jordan. More importantly, Zarqawi set up, in collaboration with the Syrian secret police, the networks that would bring the foreign jihadists into Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

During the invasion of Iraq, Mahmoud al-Aghasi (pseudonym: Abu al-Qaqa), a Salafi agitator in Aleppo, had gone door-to-door rounding up young men to go and wage jihad in Iraq, who were then allowed to pass into Iraq unhindered by Syrian border guards. Al-Aghasi was an asset of Assad’s intelligence. Throughout the entire U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Syria was the main conduit for ISIS’ foreign volunteers who formed the overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers.

With the foreign fighter flow into Iraq reaching 100 per month by late 2007, almost solely from Syria, U.S. commandos crossed into eastern Syria on October 26, 2008, and killed the man chiefly responsible for the pipeline, Badran al-Mazidi (Abu Ghadiya), a facilitator who answered directly to ISIS’ leadership. The raid was made possible when the U.S. turned a member of Al-Mazidi’s inner circle—who had, incidentally, been working for Assad. But the Assad regime’s oversight of Al-Mazidi was more direct than penetrating his network with secret agents—that was merely an additional layer of surveillance from a totalitarian regime that uses terrorism as an instrument of statecraft.

The U.S. was well aware that Al-Mazidi operated “with the knowledge of the Syrian government,” specifically the dictator’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the head of Military Intelligence, from information gathered during five years of grinding war in Iraq. The jihadists were landing at Damascus International Airport and being shipped into eastern Syria, where they lived in safe-houses run by Military Intelligence and had access to a “network of training camps” where senior ISIS members “met regularly with Syrian Military Intelligence officials,” including Shawkat. These jihadists were then set loose in Iraq, but were able to return to Syria to receive medical treatment if they were injured.

It was Syria’s Military Intelligence that U.S. attorney F.R. Jenkins sued on behalf of Lina Mansoor Thuneibat, 9, and Mousab Ahmad Khorma, 39, who were killed in ISIS’ hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005. The families will be paid from the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. This is the second U.S. ruling to find Assad liable in an act of murder by ISIS.

In 2008, a U.S. court found that Assad “provided substantial assistance to Zarqawi and [ISIS’ predecessor organization] Al-Qaeda in Iraq and that this led to the deaths by beheading of Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley,” both American citizens. The court ruling awarded more than $400 million to the families.

The collaboration did not cease after Al-Mazidi was killed, however. In 2009, emissaries of the Assad regime, ISIS and the fallen Iraqi Baathist regime met directly in Syria and plotted attacks in Iraq. The resultant bombing in Baghdad in August 2009 was the second deadliest of the Iraq War* and did not target U.S. forces but rather Iraqi government institutions. Iraq expelled the Syrian ambassador in response to the attack.

Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, these old networks have “flipped,” flowing from Iraq into Syria. While this might seem like a near-template case of blowback, there is a difference: this is willed blowback, and the Assad regime’s assistance to ISIS did not cease even after the group began to bite the hand that fed it. Assad understood early that having ISIS as an enemy might save him. Assad said from the start of the protests against him that Syria faced a sectarian, jihadist rebellion that had been stirred up from the outside, and he did everything he could to make that come true.

In March 2011, eleven days after the uprising broke out—at that stage a peaceful protest movement—Assad released 246 violent Islamists. There were subsequent releases of Islamists in May, and June 2011, as the regime intensified its crackdown on the protesters and widened its targeted assassinations against secular activists. As defectors have explained: “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their … creation of armed brigades.” One of those released was killed last Thursday: Amr al-Absi, one of ISIS’ most senior leaders, who was crucial in the formation of the ISIS caliphate.

ISIS emerged publicly in 2013 and began seizing territory. Assad had built his counter-insurgency strategy on displacement: by launching air attacks on liberated areas, he could prevent any attractive alternative government taking shape and could simply empty the country of those who opposed him or sympathized with the opposition—hence the refugee crisis in Europe. It is notable, then, that between November 2013 and November 2014, Assad attacked ISIS just six percent of the time. This was after ISIS stormed into Iraq, alerting the world to its existence, that Assad began tokenistic strikes on ISIS-held areas to try to insinuate himself into the global anti-terrorist coalition. Those numbers remain largely unchanged and Russia continues the same policy.

Since its military intervention in Syria, Russia has systematically targeted the moderate opposition with upwards of eighty percent of its airstrikes. In October, Russia enabled ISIS to make its largest territorial gains in six months in Aleppo when it bombed hundreds of rebels who had been holding the line against ISIS. The regime had previously played this role of ISIS’ air force before, so blatantly that even the U.S. State Department called them out on it. Meanwhile, Syria’s energy sector is a joint criminal enterprise of the Assad regime and ISIS, with Russia as the intermediary, providing millions of dollars in cash, via Kremlin-affiliated oligarchs, which Assad hands over to ISIS, and technicians who keep these facilities running.

Assad has had one overarching strategic aim since the rebellion erupted in Syria: present the population and the world with a binary choice between the dictator and the terrorists. ISIS shares that goal, and has worked in tandem with the regime, directly and indirectly, to eliminate all non-ISIS alternatives to the regime. Last week’s ruling in Washington and the much-neglected 2008 court judgment are reminders that this collaboration did not begin yesterday. It was Assad’s past cooperation with ISIS against America that provided the foundations for ISIS’ caliphate to take root so quickly, and Assad’s cynical wish to make extremists the face of the opposition that allowed ISIS to expand virtually unhindered.

Assad—with Russia and Iran behind him—might undertake symbolic attacks against ISIS to counter rising international accusations of collaboration, and Assad will fight ISIS eventually—when the regime and ISIS are the only combatants left in Syria. But until then, Assad has every interest in making the ISIS problem worse to help facilitate the complete defeat of the rebellion, politically and physically. This is not the conventional definition of a counter-terrorism partner.



[*] Correction: The deadliest since the attack on the Yazidis in August 2007, the August 2009 Baghdad bombings were among the top dozen or so most lethal attacks in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, but was not the second-most.