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The War on Terrorism
A collection of features from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

The Atlantic Monthly | June 1987
 
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
 
by Ehud Ya'ari
 
.....
 
o 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."

Today schools, streets, squares, and public institutions throughout Syria are named after the suicide bombers, and the country's most popular singer, Marcel Khalifa, has recently monopolized the top spot on the hit parade with his anthem to the suicides. Video cassettes of the bombers' "wills" are available at sidewalk kiosks, and sales are consistently brisk.

yrian social nationalism is in its way a religion; it claims to be a comprehensive philosophical doctrine that provides answers to all the questions and quandaries of life and thus supersedes every other faith. It is not by chance that when new recruits are sworn in to the SSNP they are required to renounce all other loyalties in a ceremony they refer to as a baptism—the washing away of the past and divorcement from everything that is not in the service of "the idea." No other terrorist organization requires such total dedication; the members of the SSNP are required to pledge—in advance and without reservation—their souls, not just their time and energies. If the members of the SSNP seek heaven on earth, it is not the anarchist's paradise of absolute freedom but an Elysium of blind obedience and the subordination of the individual to the glory of Greater Syria.

This religion has its own martyred prophet, holy scripture, and, of course, rituals; all it lacks is a deity. The prophet is Antun Sa'adeh. Thirty-eight years after he was executed in the dead of night, the holy scripture he left behind—a confused treatise titled The Growth of Nations—has a whole new following. Sa'adeh called for a completely new reading of history based on a doctrine according to which Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed were instruments of the "Syrian genius" who contributed to the inexorable rise of the ancient Syrian nation as the strongest and most creative force in the annals of mankind. Sa'adeh was not disturbed by the fact that the nation he spoke of a conglomerate of all the peoples and tribes that since t he dawn of history have lived between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea-does not exist and that most scholars shrug disdainfully at the notion that it ever did. His explanation, as expanded upon in current party publications, for the failure of these tribes and peoples to cohere into a unified kingdom is that the enemies of the nation-from King Cyrus to Ronald Reagan-have always conspired against it at just the critical moment,: sabotaging its redemption from disarray.

A teacher of German who had grown up in Egypt and Brazil, Antun Sa'adeh was a short, high-browed, and distinctly unimpressive-looking man who behaved imperiously and demanded blind obedience, banishing even the most loyal of his followers the moment they questioned his will. Sa'adeh was born to Lebanese Greek Orthodox parents, and he spent much of his adult life in Lebanon. There he saw the problem that Christians faced in supporting future regimes: for a Christian to join any sort of pan-Arab movement would imply that he renounced the possibility of political equality. So Sa'adeh created a vision in which neither Islam nor pan-Arabism was important, and therefore religion wasn't either. Much taken with European fascism, he introduced to the Lebanon of the 1930s a simplistic vision of harmony among the country's many ethnic communities through a return to Syrian "racial unity" (actual races were kept vague, since Greater Syria would include the non-Semitic Turks, but Jews were certainly excluded) and a collective dedication to the revival of the Syrian nation. In place of the clashes between the Christian Maronites and the Moslems, the Kurds and the Bedouin, Sa'adeh recommended that all groups view themselves as heirs of the empires of Babylonia and Assyria, the descendants of the Hittites and the kings of Aram. Sa'adeh kept his party in Lebanon, where the large Greek Orthodox population ensured that he would attract his natural constituency. Underground cells formed in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, among other neighboring countries.

Sa'adeh's followers today are aware of not only who is in the nation but also who its enemies are—meaning who are its targets for terrorist actions. This is a highly varied list, including the governments of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran (despite the number of enemies that Iran and the SSNP share, any independent rule of Iran threatens Greater Syria), as well as Israel—or, to be more precise, Jews everywhere. While the rest of Israel's enemies, including the PLO. dispute the right of the Jews to return to their ancestral homeland after 2,000 years of life in dispersion but ostensibly have no complaint against those Jews who have remained in the Diaspora, the SSNP's account with the Jews goes back to the war of the Canaanite and Emorite tribes (thought but not known to have been Semitic) against the ancient Israelite invaders. According to this reading, the ancient Hebrews were also cultural usurpers, who, in Sa'adeh's words, "arrogated all the Bible stories from the legacy of Babylonia, embraced Canaanite ritual ceremonies, and joined them all together into the Torah." It is indicative that most of Sa'adeh's followers came and continue to come from the Greek Orthodox community, which, following the model of the Slavic church, has always been zealously and explicitly anti-Hebrew in a way that the far larger Catholic and Islamic communities have not. Only during the past decade have a modest number of Shiites, many of whom oppose the Khomeini leadership, and Druze been drawn to the movement.

The SSNP has displayed astonishing staying power, considering its tribulations and the shattering blow it sustained when Sa'adeh was executed, in 1949, after a fruitless attempt to take over Lebanon which was doomed by delusion from the start. Syria put a stop to SSNP activity by 1956, and the leaders who failed to flee in time were sent to prison. In Jordan, in 1966, King Hussein sent his security services into action to eradicate the party's cells and halt its activities among the Palestinian population. In Lebanon the party received a serious blow in 1961, when in a fit of despair two of its members, company commanders in the Lebanese army, tried to carry off a lightning coup—with the aid of ten tanks—and failed. Almost all the party's known activists remained in prison or exile until a general amnesty in 1969, and there are few among its present leaders who have not known torture and long imprisonment.

Archival documents published in recent years reveal that Sa'adeh and his immediate successors received aid from Western intelligence services. French intelligence in the Levant utilized the SSNP almost from its inception, to undermine the pan-Arab movement in Syria and keep Christian youngsters out of its ranks. The SSNP secretly received money and, occasionally, small arms from the Deuxième Bureau, which also persuaded the French authorities to turn a blind eye to the party's violent actions. In the 1950s the CIA adopted this approach, viewing the SSNP as dubious but nonetheless deserving of support, because it adamantly opposed the vision of Arab unity being promoted by Nasser and it fought leftist movements. Moreover, the SSNP supported the programs then being promoted by the West to forge the unity of the Fertile Crescent as a barrier against Soviet penetration. Thus the SSNP in Lebanon was accorded generous aid in maintaining an armed Militia, and this fought alongside the other pro-Western groups in the 1958 Lebanese civil war, which climaxed with the landing of the Marines on the shores of Beirut. In effect, this militia—sporting uniforms similar to those of Nazi storm troopers—prospered with the help of covert American encouragement. It is the forebear of the terrorist cells operating today.

arely a decade ago the SSNP appeared to be heading swiftly toward demise as a relic of the days when the Arab world was captivated by the figures of Hitler and Mussolini. It is clear today, however, that the third generation of SSNP activists—some of them grandchildren of its founding members—have brought the party back to life. Men who had been forgotten since the 1940s or 1950s have recently reappeared in the role of mentors, political mummies come back to life. Slogans that had long faded or peeled off walls have been restored with fresh paint, and the aura of action that surrounds the SSNP is once again attracting young people to the symbol of the red hurricane.

The road back from oblivion began in 1969, with the release of many SSNP members from Lebanese prisons. At first they were unable-to reorganize the party. Without a leader whose authority was accepted by all, Sa'adeh's disciples took to quarreling and often ended up settling their accounts with revolvers. Before long the principle of unconditional obedience had given way to anarchy, and the party underwent three or four schisms from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

After years of struggle, however, Sa'adeh's heirs essentially agreed to pour their energies into saving the dying party. This is what first prompted an "openness toward the left." In time Marxist jargon began to creep into the movement's publications, and the attitude toward Syria changed appreciably. Hafez al-Assad underwent a dramatic metamorphosis from enemy to ally, because by keeping Syria firmly on its feet he has improved the prospects of establishing Greater Syria at some time in the future. By considering Assad a tool for extending Syria's control over Lebanon and the Palestinians, and removing other impediments to Greater Syria, the SSNP is able to overlook the "scientific socialism" and pan-Arabism at the heart of his political philosophy.

At the same time, rather than try to restore its ties with the United States, the SSNP has turned to the Soviet bloc, primarily Romania but also the USSR directly. Since 1970 it has maintained ties with the radical factions of the PLO and has instructed its members to take part in Palestinian terrorism "on a personal basis." Only recently, however, has the impact of this involvement been fully appreciated. What has mistakenly been regarded as pure Palestinian terrorism has in fact frequently been spiked with a strong dose of SSNP venom. Until his death of cancer in exile in Geneva, Sa'adeh's son-in-law, Dr. Fuad Shemali, was one of the moving spirits behind Black September, the PLO group responsible for the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and for the 1972 attack on the American Embassy in Khartoum. Members of another wing of the SSNP, led by Bashir Ubeid (who was murdered by a rival Moslem faction in Beirut in 1979), were active partners with the notorious Carlos and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in bringing about spectacular hijackings.

In this way the SSNP gradually joined the camps of its erstwhile adversaries. By 1975 the party had been accepted into the coalition of Lebanese left-wing parties that formed around Yasser Arafat. After Arafat's ouster from Beirut in 1982, the SSNP became a senior partner in the pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon. Radio Damascus even allowed one of the party's more prominent figures to broadcast a regular spot about the path to reaching Greater Syria. Three main factions of the party emerged in the late 1970s, and they are still active today. One, headed by Ina'am Ra'ad, enjoys financial support from Colonel Muammar el-Qaddaffi, of Libya. Another, headed by Jubran Juraysh, is closely associated with Syria's air-force intelligence—the main coordinating agency of Assad's intelligence community. A third, smaller wing of the SSNP, headed by a man known as "the Archbishop," still maintains ties with Arafat.

When the Israel Defence Forces captured much of Beirut, in 1982, Ariel Sharon neglected to order a search for SSNP activists, and in recent years the party's militia has gotten back on its feet. Armed with Soviet weapons (courtesy of the Syrians), its members underwent their baptism by fire in the battles waged by Syria against Arafat's forces in Tripoli, in 1983, and against the Phalangist troops in the Shouf Mountains, in 1984. The SSNP also played a role in instigating terrorist actions against the Marines in Beirut, though the actual bombing was perpetrated by Shiites from the Hizballah. The SSNP militia is not a very large one. According to Israeli intelligence, it boasts a total of a few thousand fighters, some of whom are reservists called up only in emergencies. But it has one great advantage over rivals and allies alike: as Christians, its members enjoy greater freedom of movement both in Lebanon and beyond than Moslems do. Moreover, in contrast to other terrorist forces, it is structured on a rigid hierarchy and exercises iron discipline.

ecause of its unparalleled control over its members, the SSNP has become Syria's most reliable instrument of terror, and it is employed for particularly sensitive and dangerous operations that are beyond the capabilities of the Palestinian terror groups headquartered in Damascus. This was already true five years ago, when President Assad let it be known that he wanted Bashir Gemayel killed before his inauguration as President of Lebanon. A covert SSNP agent, Habib Shartuni, planted a bomb in his sister's apartment; Gemayel was scheduled to speak before a seminar on Phalangist ideology in the basement of the same building. Shartuni is still in custody in Beirut: Gemayel's heirs seem afraid to press for the carrying out of the death sentence passed against him. In mid-1986, when it was in Assad's interest to restrain the members of the Hizballah concentrated in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, he used a company of SSNP fighters to keep them in line. At about the same time, Georges Ibrahim Abdallah and the members of his family were sent to Western Europe to assassinate diplomats and lay the groundwork for future acts of terrorism there. Abdallah was caught entirely by chance, and his identity as the head of the group that murdered the American military attaché Colonel Charles Robert Ray, in Paris in 1982, came out only during his detention. He and his four brothers deny that they operated in allegiance to the SSNP, claiming that they left the party a number of years ago. But intelligence experts are skeptical of this explanation. Even research by the BBC has found that Abdallah retains his ties with the party, though ostensibly he acted as the head of an independent body.

Through the SSNP, Syrian intelligence is also penetrating the large concentrations of Lebanese emigrés in locations from West Africa to Detroit, exploiting the party's fund-raising and propaganda activities to scout out new recruits. In this way the Syrians are hoping to break free of their dependence on the Palestinian terrorist organizations, which have declined into a state of incessant squabbling and in any case have yet to recover from the disaster following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Arafat's expulsion from Jordan and Tunis, and the split within the PLO.

In an era when the pan-Arab vision has fallen into eclipse and the doctrine of Arab socialism seems bankrupt, the SSNP offers a formula that sounds both fresh and promising: We are all Syrians, and the remedy for our ills lies not in pan-Arabism or social revolution but in strengthening Syria and extending its borders. In the past few years the SSNP's call has been attended by Lebanese resigned to the loss of their national independence, Palestinians who have despaired of realizing Arafat's slogans, and people from an assortment of sects and minorities in the Middle East. Even some Shiites are turning away from Khomeini's preachings, about an Islamic revolution to seek refuge in the SSNP, as the Israeli army discovered while contending with the guerrillas in South Lebanon.

This present cooperation with other sects and causes notwithstanding, the heads of the SSNP do not wholly trust Hafez al-Assad (and Assad does not wholly trust them). But they welcome the alliance as an opportunity to work up momentum and gain freedom of action. It matters little that their efforts may not bear fruit for many years to come. Theirs is a movement distinguished by inordinate patience, and they measure its success in historical terms, not by today's headlines.

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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1987; Behind the Terror; Volume 259, No. 6; page 18.