Kyle Orton writes: 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. [Continue reading…]