Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 12:52 GMT

Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 - Syria

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Publication Date 30 April 2009
Cite as United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 - Syria, 30 April 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49fac6bac.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Syria was first designated in 1979 as a state sponsor of terrorism. Syria provided political and material support to Hizballah and allowed Iran to use Syrian territory as a transit point for assistance to Hizballah. HAMAS, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), among others, based their external leadership within Syria's borders. The Syrian government insisted these groups were confined to political and informational activities, but groups with leaders in Syria have claimed responsibility for deadly anti-Israeli terrorist attacks.

Over the course of the year, Syria's public support for the Palestinian groups varied, depending on Syrian national interest and international pressure. President Bashar al-Asad continued to express public support for Palestinian terrorist groups. HAMAS Politburo head and defacto leader Khalid Meshal and his deputies continued to reside in Syria. Syria provided a safe haven for Meshal and security escorts for his motorcades. Meshal's use of the Syrian Ministry of Information as the venue for press conferences this year could be taken as an endorsement of HAMAS's message. Media reports indicated HAMAS used Syrian soil to train its militant fighters. Though the Syrian government claimed periodically that it used its influence to restrain the rhetoric and activities of Palestinian groups, the Syrian government allowed a Palestinian conference organized by HAMAS, PFLP-GC, and PIJ to occur in January, and another HAMAS organized conference, reportedly funded by Iran, to take place in November.

Highlighting Syria's ties to the world's most notorious terrorists, Hizballah Operations Chief Imad Mugniyah, perished in a February 12 car bombing near Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) headquarters in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Sousa. Among other atrocities, Mugniyah was wanted in connection with the 1983 bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed over 350. Despite initial attempts to cover up the incident, the Syrian government reluctantly acknowledged some days later that one of the world's most wanted terrorists had been present and died on Syrian soil.

Syrian officials publicly condemned some acts of terrorism, while continuing to defend what they considered to be legitimate armed resistance by Palestinians and Hizballah against Israeli occupation of Arab territory, and by the Iraqi opposition against the "occupation of Iraq." Syria has not been directly implicated in an act of terrorism since 1986, although an ongoing UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri continued to investigate Syrian involvement.

Syria itself was the location of at least one major attack. On September 27, the car-bombing of a Syrian government facility reportedly injured 14 and killed at least 17 individuals, marking the first significant attack against regime institutions in nearly 20 years. Not since the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s had Syrian institutions been targeted by terrorists. Regional media reports indicated this bombing was directed at the Palestinian Branch of the Syrian Military Intelligence; the perpetrators remained unknown at year's end.

Throughout the year, Syria continued to strengthen ties with fellow state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. Syria's Minister of Defense visited Tehran in May and initiated a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation. Syria also allowed leaders of HAMAS and other Palestinian groups to visit Tehran. President Asad repaid a 2007 visit to Damascus by Iranian President Ahmadinejad with a visit of his own to Tehran in early August, his third visit since 2005. Asad continued to be a staunch defender of Iran's policies, including Iran's "civil" nuclear ambitions.

Syria increased border monitoring activities, instituted tighter screening practices on military-age Arab males entering its borders, hosted two Border Security Working Group meetings with technical experts from the Iraqi Neighbors group, and expressed a desire to increase security cooperation with Iraq. At the same time, Syria remained a key hub for foreign fighters en route to Iraq.

The USG designated several Iraqis residing in Syria and Iraqi-owned entities, including Mishan Al-Jaburi and his satellite television channel Al-Ra'y, under Executive Order 1348 for providing financial, material, and technical support for acts of violence that threatened the peace and stability of Iraq. The United States also designated known foreign fighter facilitators based in Syria, including members of the Abu Ghadiyah network, that orchestrated the flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from Syria to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, under Executive Order 13224.

Despite acknowledged reductions in foreign fighter flows, the scope and impact of the problem remained significant. Syria continued to allow former Iraqi regime elements to operate in the country. Attacks against Coalition Forces and Iraqi citizens continued to have a destabilizing effect on Iraq's internal security. Though Syrian and Iraqi leaders met throughout the year both publicly and privately to discuss border enhancements and other measures needed to combat foreign fighter flows, there were few tangible results. While Syria has taken some positive steps, the Syrian government could do more to interdict known terrorist networks and foreign fighter facilitators operating within its borders.

Syria remained a source of concern regarding terrorist financing. The Commercial Bank of Syria remained subject to U.S. sanctions. Industry experts reported that 70 percent of all business transactions were conducted in cash and that nearly 90 percent of all Syrians did not use formal banking services. Despite Syrian governmental legislation requiring money-changers to be licensed by the end of 2007, many money-changers continued to operate illegally in Syria's vast black market, estimated to be as large as Syria's formal economy. Regional "hawala" networks remained intertwined with smuggling and trade-based money laundering, facilitated by notoriously corrupt customs and immigration officials, raising significant concerns that Syrian government and business elites are, at the very least, complicit in illicit financing schemes.

Syria's government-controlled press continued to tout Syrian regime efforts to combat terrorism. The Syrian government, using tightly-controlled press outlets, was quick to blame a Lebanon-based, al-Qa'ida-affiliated group, Fatah al-Islam, for the September 27 attack against a prominent military intelligence installation. Syrian TV broadcasted a November 7 program featuring the confessions of some 20 Fatah al-Islam members, including the daughter and son-in-law of Fatah al-Islam leader Shakr al-Absy, of their involvement.

It remained unclear why Fatah al-Islam would have launched an attack against Syrian security elements, but media reports suggested Absy's disappearance inside of Syria as a possible motive. In response to the September 27 bombing, the Syrian security services conducted at least one reported raid on an alleged terrorist cell residing in the Damascus area, killing and arresting several suspected militants and confiscating a cache of weapons and explosives.

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