On Wednesday, July 18, a bomb killed at least three top officials from Bashar al Assad’s crumbling regime. Among them was Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence. Different accounts of how Shawkat and the others were killed have been offered to the media. Either a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated explosive device did them in. In either case, it was a remarkable turn of events—a boomerang of sorts. For years, Shawkat and his fellow Assad family cronies directed this sort of attack at others, particularly American soldiers in Iraq.
Leaked State Department cables show that Shawkat was one of al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) most important patrons. And he played this role on behalf of his brother-in-law, Bashar al Assad. The Assad regime has American blood on its hands.
In late October 2008, the U.S. military launched a daring commando raid inside Syria, just several miles from the Iraqi border. The target was a top al Qaeda facilitator known as Abu Ghadiyah. Earlier that same year, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Ghadiyah, a native Iraqi, and three of his family members as major al Qaeda players. They ran a pipeline in Syria for foreign fighters and suicide bombers traveling to Iraq.
Ghadiyah was appointed as the head of this Syrian-based network in 2004 by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the notorious overall leader of AQI until his demise in 2006. After Zarqawi’s demise, Ghadiyah went to work for the new head of AQI, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who was also subsequently killed in 2010. Both Zarqawi and al Masri set up shop inside Iraq prior to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Abu Ghadiyah network was responsible for much of the carnage that followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster. A July 11, 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad describes the network as the “principal conduit for foreign terrorists heading into Iraq to join AQI.” The cable reads: “This network continues to operate with the knowledge of the Syrian government and sends virtually all of its foreign terrorists into Iraq across the Syrian border.”
It is easy to see why the U.S. military was keen to disrupt Ghadiyah’s network. The number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers who were shuttled into Iraq through this Syrian-based hub is easily in the hundreds.
Before Abu Ghadiyah was killed, General David Petraeus and other U.S. officials visited Syria’s neighbors in an attempt to put pressure on Assad to give up his support for AQI. These efforts were fruitless. Thus, the U.S. military decided to take matters into its own hands and executed the unprecedented raid on al Qaeda inside Syria in October 2008.
But even after the decapitation strike on Abu Ghadiyah’s compound the network remained a problem.
During a December 26, 2008 meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, according to one leaked State Department cable, General Petraeus explained “that the Syrians are playing a dangerous double game” with respect to the Iraqi insurgency. The cable summarizes Petraeus’s comments further: “While professing commitment to security cooperation, [the Syrians] turn a blind eye to AQI terrorist facilitation activity and they aid and abet Iran’s interference in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere.”
Petraeus pointed the finger of blame directly at Assad and Shawqat, who knew full well what al Qaeda was up to on Syrian soil. Foggy Bottom’s cable reads (emphasis added):
Bashar al-Asad was well aware that his brother-in-law 'Asif Shawqat, Director of Syrian Military Intelligence, had detailed knowledge of the activities of AQI facilitator Abu Ghadiya, who was using Syrian territory to bring foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq. Both Lebanese President Michel Sulayman and Jordan’s Director of General Intelligence had warned Al-Asad and his GID Director, respectively, that the U.S. knew about these activities and urged him to take action, but their warnings were unheeded, Gen. Petraeus noted.
Petraeus sounded a similar theme earlier that same month, on December 2, 2008, when he met with Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Jean Kahwagi. “We know for a fact that Syrian Military Intelligence Director Asif Shawka[t] is aware of this issue, as is President Assad,” Petraeus is quoted as saying. Petraeus was referring directly to the issue of “foreign fighters,” -- that is, al Qaeda fighters – entering Iraq from Syria.
Petraeus continued to press the problem of Syria’s sponsorship of AQI with senior Italian leaders, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one week later. A cable summarizing the December 9-10 meeting reads:
Petraeus noted Syrian officials were well aware of the activities of Al Qaeda for [sic] foreign fighter facilitators on their soil and added that the 90 percent drop in the numbers of fighters and suicide bombers entering Iraq was thanks to actions by governments in North Africa and the Region, and was not due primarily to any Syrian efforts.
Months later, in July 2009, Petraeus met with Lebanon’s top officials, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and President Michel Sleiman. Two leaked cables summarize those meetings. In one, Petraeus credits the Syrian regime with being “somewhat more helpful than in the past stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq” and said that “the number of such fighters entering Iraq from Syria had decreased.” The cable adds (emphasis added):
However, the problem continues: not only do foreign fighters and suicide bombers continue to come into Iraq from Syria, but the Syrian regime allows foreign fighter facilitator cadres to base themselves in Syrian territory, Petraeus said. In time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Asad's regime itself, Petraeus predicted.
Another cable from late 2008 relays the same warning from Petraeus:
Ghadiyah’s successors, [Petraeus] noted, were already getting established. He added that the Syrian regime should be very concerned about such deals with extremists, citing the situation the Pakistani government currently faced with extremists they had condoned.
Petraeus’s prediction proved to be prescient. AQI has joined other al Qaeda-affiliated parties in the rebellion and is targeting Assad’s regime. The years-long assistance provided by Assad, Shawqat and other Syrian officials did not earn the terror network’s loyalty.
Some in Washington and in intelligence circles imagine that al Qaeda is incapable of working with other bad actors who do share the terrorist organization’s ideology. Some imagine even further that Shiites and Sunnis can never mix – not even in the terrorist underworld. Shawkat’s dossier proves otherwise, as does much other evidence.
In 2006, the Treasury Department designated Shawkat as a terrorist supporter, noting that he coordinated the activities of several terrorist groups: Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
Hezbollah is, of course, a Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization that has long served as a proxy for both Syria and Iran. Hamas and PIJ are radical Sunni terrorist organizations. Despite their theological differences, Shawkat “discussed coordination and cooperation between the terrorist groups” with leaders from each of them. And each of these groups enjoyed safe haven inside Assad’s Syria.
As the leaked State Department cables demonstrate, Assad also did not object to working with al Qaeda when it suited his interests. The Baathists of Damascus were quite willing to work with AQI. And AQI gladly accepted the Assad family’s help. That relationship did not last forever, but the fact remains that the two sides frequently made common cause in the fight against America and its allies inside Iraq.
The Syrian rebellion is not strictly an al Qaeda affair, of course, as many of the rebels hail from other walks of life. And we do not know who, exactly, was responsible for the killing of Shawqat and Assad’s other close confidants. But Shawkat and Assad played with fire for years. It was only a matter of time until they were burned.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.