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Assad: The mastermind of terror in the Middle East and beyond

Photo credit: SANA via AP

March 2003: The sounds of the Tomahawk missiles hitting Baghdad and the port of Faw resonated louder among the Syrian youth than others. This was not new to some in the Syrian society, which had previously sympathised with the Afghans and the Chechens during the Soviet invasion, just as it sympathised with the Palestinians during the Beirut War.

What was new in that winter was the openness of the Assad regime with the anger and enthusiasm of the Syrian streets for what was happening in Iraq. Friday sermons in the towns of Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib were enthusiastic. As if they were stolen from one of the publications of media outlets affiliated with al-Qaeda.

For the Western reader, it must be clear that the preachers of mosques in most Arab countries are appointed by governments, and in Syria in particular a comprehensive intelligence study should be conducted on the background of the preacher and his close and wider family environment before being given the right to ascend to the pulpit of the mosque. Ready-made sermons are distributed by the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments/Islamic Affairs) to the preachers on every Friday, instructing them on the topic they will speak about. To prevent any deviation from the text by the preachers, security personnel permanently alternate in the mosques in civilian clothes.

Based on the above, it is concluded that this popular mobilisation under the cover of religion and jihad against the coalition led by Washington against the Iraqi regime at that time was a clear decision made by the Assad regime. The subsequent weeks, some of the vanguard camps in northern Syria turned into secret training centres directly run by the military security, commanded by General Asef Shawkat, Assad’s son-in-law. The Syrian-Iraqi border turned into a natural corridor for jihadists from various countries of the world on their way to a war ostensibly resistance to the conqueror but essentially a proxy war.

Among those who crossed the Iraqi bank was an officer in the Syrian military security who had proven his worth to his superiors with his intelligence and activity. His name was Ali Musa al-Shawakh, who would later be known under the name Abu Luqman al-Suri or Abu Ayyub al-Ansari.

Abu Luqman al-Suri will take over in 2014, after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, as governor of Raqqa and his name will be mentioned many times with the confirmation that he is directly responsible for the international operations of ISIS, with the most important ones of Paris and Brussels.

This mysterious figure started in Syria as a lieutenant in military security in 2000. Al-Shawakh, originally from Raqqa province, was not known for religious extremism until 2003, in fact being a member of the security sector in Syria meant he had no religious affiliation or ideology. In order to be accepted in any security branch, everyone is being checked that he is not interested in religion; after all, no religious person would seek to be recruited there as it is known that they are human slaughterhouses and hotbeds of crime. However, this young officer, without any prior warning, crosses the Syrian-Iraqi border to join, under the recommendation of members of his clan, to join al-Tawheed al-Jihad organisation led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who will pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and become al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq.

Over the next three years, Abu Luqman will climb the ladder of the organisation to become one of the security guards on the border with Syria. However, during the period of decline of ISIS in Iraq after the adoption by Washington of another strategy by supporting the creation of Al-Sahwat force and the agreement with the Assad regime to close the supply lines of the organisation on the Iraqi-Syrian border, Abu Luqman disappears to reappear in 2009 in Sednaya Prison, famous as a high-level institute for Syrian and other Arab jihadists. Abu Lukman was finally released in 2011, a few months after the start of the Syrian revolution.

Among the leaked documents as part of the Turkish TRT channel documentary on the case of the French cement company Lafarge are clear documents confirming the company’s communication with ISIS in the vicinity of the Lafarge plant in northern Syria and its financing of the organisation in exchange for protection. The surprise is that Abu Luqman will personally handle the negotiations with representatives of Lafarge and the Assad regime in order to pass raw materials to the factory. Abu Luqman, according to sources within the organisation, will become one of the most important figures in charge of exporting jihadists to Europe, which led to the attacks in Paris and Brussels, from which the first and last beneficiary was the Assad regime.

So why did Abu Lukman, if he were not more than an impulsive young man tempted by the sounds of B-52 planes, turn, without any precedent, into a Salafist-jihadist?

A military security officer in charge of monitoring the jihadists in Iraq is being recruited to join their ranks and transfer information about them and their sources of funding. He then worked to provide sensitive information to the military security for the group’s key figures to be traded with the US in order to close sensitive issues, such as the restoration of democracy in Syria and the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Following the decline of ISIS in Iraq, Abu Luqman is used again in the task of monitoring the jihadists in the Sednaya prison and with the beginning of the revolution he is released in the Syrian arena, where his qualifications will make him an important figure in al-Nusra Front. But he did not like the atmosphere within this group whose operations were studied very carefully. So, he chose to return to his parent organisation in Iraq. The Assad regime’s desire to terrorise the world gave Abu Luqman a new role, forming a cell for international operations. When Paris reiterated its rejection of the Assad regime and demanded its downfall even by military means, Abu Lukman’s orders were to strike France hard.

Ali Musa al-Shawakh was reportedly killed in an Iraqi airstrike in 2018, which has not been confirmed by ISIS. His face is still the subject of controversy with the possibility that he is still alive and surviving the siege of Al-Baghouz in 2019.

It will not be the first time that the Assad regime has infiltrated the jihadist groups. The figure of Abu al-Qaqaa’, who became famous in northern Syria as a jihadist preacher and theorist of fighting the Americans and liberating Jerusalem and played an important role in recruiting hundreds and thousands of young men from Aleppo and its countryside to fight in Iraq, appeared later with a short beard and an openminded vision towards the West under the cloak of Assad’s Mukhabarat (intelligence).

“In principle, we do not attack or kill them immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the right moment we do what we have to and start moving”. This is how Major General Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s advisor for security affairs, explained the way the Syrian regime deals with extremist groups. That’s why when we study and monitor the Assad regime, we must always take into account the malice and madness of this regime that killed under torture the 13-year-old child Hamza al-Khateeb after arresting him during protests in the city of Daraa. It is the same regime that released Abu Muhammad al-Adnani the notorious spokesman of ISIS transformed from a novice jihadist to an extremist jihadist who graduated from the Sednaya Prison “academy.”

First published on Feb. 10, 2022

Eva J. Koulouriotis
Eva J. Koulouriotis
Political analyst specialising in the Middle East with a focus on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Turkey; jihad and jihadist organisations and Greek-Turkish relations; Contributed to Al-Quds Al-Arabi, The New Arab, Al-Jazeera, Al-Sharq Qatar, Annahar, Orient News, Arab News, Huffington Post Greece, the Greek weekly Paraskinio and RT; Held several positions with the European Union of Women (EUW)


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