Behind the Terror

A little-publicized group led by Christians eager for Syria to dominate the Middle East is reponsible for many highly publicized terrorist acts  
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To inspire his troops to seek martyrdom, the Ayatollah Khomeini promises them a room next to his in paradise. The suicide bombers of the Hizballah (Party of God), whose terrorist arm is better known as the Islamic Jihad, look forward to everlasting life in the bosom of the merciful Allah. But there is a more bizarre growth spreading in the landscape of international terrorism: a party whose members go knowingly and willingly to their deaths without the comfort of a hereafter, out of pure conviction, in the service of an idea. It is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, "Greetings to You, Syria," to the strains of "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles"; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.

These are the hallmarks of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the oldest terrorist organization in existence today and one of the most secret and deadly. Despite its long history of violence, Western security organs were recently taken by surprise when they learned that a well-camouflaged arm of the SSNP had succeeded in setting up a large terror network in Western Europe—complete with safe houses, weapons caches, and forged passports—and that it was the SSNP that had set off a series of deadly explosions in the heart of Paris, to gain the release of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah. The United States, too, has felt the effects of the SSNP. The explosion aboard a TWA flight nearing Athens in April of 1986, which cost the lives of four passengers—one of them an infant—has been traced to May Mansur, of Tripoli, a veteran member of the SSNP, who debarked at a previous stopover after placing a bomb under her seat.

Dedicated to the principle of establishing Greater Syria—which extends from the Euphrates to the Nile, an area that today includes Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey—the SSNP has little in common with the Shiite religious zealots of the Hizballah, who, operating from Iran to Lebanon, are trying to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth, or with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who seek the redemption of their lost homeland at the end of a trail of blood. Although the SSNP may align itself with these groups for the sake of expediency, it regards them all as fighting for the sectarian interests of pseudo-national communities that are misguided in their failure to identify with the broader "Syrian nation." If the Islamic Jihad or the PLO indirectly or even inadvertently advances the "Syrian cause," the SSNP is glad to collaborate. But it will not support the Hizballah in its aim of founding an Islamic republic in Lebanon or help the PLO work toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, for these goals clash head-on with the SSNP's goal of a secular Syrian state. And while it supports the present Syrian government of President Hafez al-Assad as the fulcrum of power in Syria, the SSNP is wary of the regime's sectarian (Alawi) and socialist leanings and its support of pan-Arabism, which calls for an Arab state (as opposed to the Syrian state called for by the SSNP) spanning the area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, pan-Arabism has become more a sentiment than a political movement.

The SSNP has an independent tradition of more than fifty years of violence, and some of the decisive events in the modern history of the Middle East have been triggered by its expertise in political assassination. For example, the murder of Colonel Adnan Maliki, the Syrian deputy chief of staff, in 1955, which led almost directly to Soviet influence over Syria, and the murder of Lebanon's President-elect Bashir Gemayel, in September of 1982, which sparked the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and prompted the collapse of Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to change the face of the Middle East, can both be traced directly to the SSNP.

Since March of 1985 the SSNP has sent about half a dozen suicide drivers in booby-trapped vehicles, or "torches," toward Israel from Lebanon, killing about thirty civilians in the explosions. This style of terrorism was inspired by the success of the Shiite fanatics who blew themselves up in the camps of the American Marines and the French troops in Beirut. The man currently responsible for training these suicide bombers, a stocky, bearded fellow in his mid-thirties named Assad Khardan, has created something of a cult around the suicide attacks. Khardan, who earned himself the position of SSNP commissioner of security in part by forcing his predecessor to jump to his death from a third story balcony, has been known to spend months preparing candidates for suicide missions. He is especially fond of using attractive young women from indigent families, and has already sent four such martyrs to their deaths. The feminine gender is not a sine qua non, however; four men have blown themselves up inside vehicles packed with half a ton of explosives each. All successfully negotiated their way up to one of the roadblocks just outside the Israeli security zone (which extends about seven and a half miles into Lebanon) and activated the detonator when they were stopped for the standard search and check of documents. Unlike the Shiites of the Islamic Jihad, the SSNP does not have to send out a backup team with a remote-control detonator in case its emissaries get cold feet at the last minute.

One surviving girl, who was nineteen years old at the time of what was to be her martyrdom, was recruited after running away from home and stumbling into a Lebanese town where the Syrians and their sympathizers maintain a large base. She was arrested on suspicion of having been sent to gather intelligence for the Israelis. After several weeks of interrogation, her captors—a mixture of Syrian soldiers and SSNP militiamen—began to visit her cell at night, and she soon discovered that she was pregnant. She was cleared of all suspicion and released, and found a haven in the local branch of the Leftist Front (a coalition of about a dozen parties that lean toward Marxist ideology), where her guardians began to drum the SSNP's principles into her. Over and over again she was shown videotapes of the "last will and testaments" recorded by other young women before they set out on their suicide missions. No one forced her to take on her own mission, and no one assured her a place in paradise; there were neither threats nor inducements. "They just explained to me how important the mission was," she later said, "how much they would respect me if I stood up to the test. "

All the other suicide bombers dispatched by the SSNP likewise carried heavy emotional baggage. One had failed his examinations at a technical institute and feared the reaction of his family and friends. Another felt crushed by the burden of supporting a large family after his father died. None of them, incidentally, managed to keep his plans secret; without exception they alluded to their intentions weeks and even months in advance. One young woman told her fiancé that she would not be able to marry him on the date set for their wedding, because all that would remain of her would be a "dark red lump."

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