In the mid-1980s, much media attention was paid to Syria's alleged use of terrorism to achieve diplomatic, military, and strategic objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere. Although the exact Syrian role was murky, in the mid-1980s, Syria's intelligence and security networks were strongly implicated in the support of Middle Eastern and other international terrorist groups in Western Europe. In fact, Syria was one of the countries on the terrorism list issued by the United States government, first compiled in 1979.
Within Syria's intelligence and security services, sponsorship of terrorism reportedly was conducted by Air Force Intelligence, of which Major General Muhammad al Khawli, an air force officer, has served as chief since 1970. Khawli, an Alawi, was considered Assad's most important adviser and his office was adjacent to Assad's in the presidential palace in Damascus, where he was presidential adviser on national security and head of security. Since 1976 Khawli has been the architect of Syria's policy in Lebanon. He also was credited with crushing the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamah in 1982, and, according to the London Times, under his command Air Force Intelligence operatives had directed at least twenty-nine terrorist operations as of late 1986. These intelligence operatives reportedly worked in the offices of the Syrian Arab Airline abroad and also as military attachés in Syrian embassies. Thus, Syria had a formidable intelligence network with which to direct and fund terrorist groups and provide them such assistance as explosives and weapons, false passports and official Syrian service passports, diplomatic pouches, safe houses, and logistical support. Lieutenant Colonel Haitham Sayid, deputy chief of Air Force Intelligence and its operations director, was second in command to Khawli. In Lebanon, Khawli's power was exercised by Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan, head of Syria's military intelligence in Lebanon.
Military Intelligence services (mukhabarat) were headed by General Ali Duba, an Alawi, who was, in effect, the country's chief of internal security. The mukhabarat was headquartered in the Defense Ministry complex in the center of Damascus and reputedly exercised immense authority because it operated from within the military establishment. Reportedly, Military Intelligence services handled radical Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--General Command. General Khawli and Lieutenant Colonel Sayid were allegedly also the "paymasters" of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization, also called the Fatah-- Revolutionary Council. According to the United States Department of State, Syria provided the Abu Nidal organization with logistical support and permission to operate facilities in Damascus (the Syrian government asserts the facilities were limited to cultural and political affairs). It is also claimed that the Syrian government helped the Abu Nidal organization maintain training camps in Lebanon's Biqa Valley, an area controlled by Syrian armed forces, and supplied travel documents permitting Abu Nidal operatives to transit freely through Damascus when departing on missions.
Western government and intelligence sources admit that they cannot pinpoint Assad's complicity in planning terrorist operations but consider it unlikely that he was not informed in advance of major terrorist acts. If these reports are true, it was equally unlikely that Major General Khawli would act without clearing a potentially risky operation with Assad.
Various news organizations have claimed that, as part of its overall support network, in the 1980s Syria provided training camps for Middle Eastern and international terrorists. There were reportedly five training bases near Damascus and some twenty other training facilities elsewhere, including the Syriancontrolled Biqa Valley in eastern Lebanon. In late 1986 U.S. News & World Report stated that since October 1983, when Israel withdrew from Beirut, large numbers of international terrorists known to Western intelligence sources have turned up in Damascus. These include members of radical Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups, which depended on Syria for refuge, logistical, and financial support, as well as other freelance terrorists. Other sources report that a number of West European terrorists, including members of the Red Army Faction (also known as Baader Meinhof), and the Action Directe, as well as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the Japanese Red Army, the Kurdish Labor Party, the Pakistani Az Zulfikar, the Tamil United Liberation Front of Sri Lanka, the Moro National Liberation Front for the Philippines, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia, and the Eritrean Liberation Front, have also received training in Syrian camps or in Syrian-controlled areas in Lebanon. Furthermore, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF) was based in the Lebanese village of Qubayat, within the area of Syrian control. Syria also permitted Iran to operate training camps in eastern Lebanon for the Shia Hizballah (the Party of God) organization.
Syria's goal was to employ as surrogates terrorists whose operations left few traces to Syria. In June 1986 the Washington Post reported that Middle East analysts had noted three distinct types of relationships between Syria's intelligence and security services and terrorist groups. In the first type of relationship, however, there was direct Syrian involvement, because Syrian intelligence created new radical Palestinian factions, such as As Saiqa, which were, in effect, integrated components of the Syrian armed forces and hence direct Syrian agents. The radical Palestinian Abu Musa group, which was almost totally dependent on Syria, was another example of such a relationship. In the other two types of relationships, Syria used terrorists as surrogates to avoid direct blame. In the second relationship, Syria collaborated with and provided logistical and other support to terrorist groups that maintained independent organizational identities, but were directed by Syrian intelligence, which formulated general guidelines as to targets. Reportedly, Abu Nidal's Fatah--Revolutionary Council and the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF) were examples of such collaboration. The third relationship involved selection of freelance or "sleeper" terrorists, mainly Palestinians and Jordanians, to carry out a specific operation. The convicted Lebanese assassin of Bashir Jumayyil and Nizar Hindawi and his half-brother Ahmad Hasi, convicted in 1986 of trying to blow up an Israeli commercial airliner in London and of bombing the German-Arab Friendship Society office in West Berlin, respectively, were listed as examples of this type of relationship.
The firmest proof of Syrian sponsorship of terrorism occurred at the trials of Nizar Hindawi in Britain and his half-brother, Ahmad Hasi, in West Berlin. Evidence introduced in Britain, and other information not made public, linked Hindawi with the Syrian intelligence services. Because of the evidence, the British government severed diplomatic relations with Syria. Hasi's case implicated Haitham Sayid, deputy chief of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, for whom an international arrest warrant was issued by West Berlin authorities. After Hasi's conviction, the West German government downgraded its relations with Syria.
A series of terrorist explosions in Paris in September 1986 were linked to a Marxist Maronite terrorist group, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction (LARF). LARF was implicated in the assassination of a number of American, West European, and Israeli diplomats in Europe, and its operations were reputedly known to Syrian intelligence. In a magazine interview in September 1986, Pierre Marion, former director of the French General Directorate of External Security, charged that in the early 1980s Syrian intelligence agents had helped terrorist groups to operate in France, as part of a Syrian effort to punish France for its involvement in Lebanon.
Although Syrian links to terrorists in Western Europe are relatively recent, observers believe that Assad has long used terrorism to further Syrian policy objectives in the Middle East. Over the years, Jordanian officials have accused Syria of assassinating Jordanian diplomats. PLO leaders have accused Syria of the assassination of Arafat's chief of staff and close aide, Saad Sayil (known as Abu Walid), killed near a Syrian checkpoint in the Biqa Valley in eastern Lebanon in 1982. According to the report by the United States Department of State on "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1983," several attacks by members of the Abu Nidal organization reflected Syrian opposition toward the proArafat Fatah faction of the PLO. In 1983 these attacks included the assassination at the International Conference of Socialists in Portugal of PLO observer Issam Sartawi, who had advocated dialogue with Israel. The same report also charged Syria with encouraging the radical Shia Lebanese group, Islamic Jihad, to carry out the 1983 suicide bombing attacks against the United States Embassy in Beirut and the headquarters of the United States and French contingents of the Multinational Force (MNF) in Beirut, which resulted in 557 casualties.