Background Report following the September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States

Mordechai Nisan


Syria, though not coming under communist rule as America feared in the mid-1950s, yet established close ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Its Alawite minority leadership under Salah al-Jadid in 1966 and then following the coup by Hafez al-Asad in 1970 consolidated a Soviet-style regime, based on totalitarian single-party Baathist rule, the militarization of society, the repression of individual liberties, and a radical revisionist foreign policy orientation. Over the decades, Syria acquired non-conventional weaponry, engaged in the narcotics trade,1 networked with communist and anti-Western countries from Cuba to North Korea, and became a key actor in the proliferation of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. This rogue state, though on America's terror list since it was first compiled in 1979, has yet been spared the military wrath of the United States, unlike other Arab states like Libya and Iraq.

By contrast, Egypt was in the Soviet camp from 1955, but in 1972 began to extricate itself and turn to the United States. Syria has maintained a consistent and traditional anti-American disposition ideologically and politically for about four decades. In 1980 it signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the USSR, and over many years thousands of Soviet military advisors served in Syria while Moscow provided its most sophisticated weaponry to Damascus. As recent as 1999, Asad concluded a $2 billion arms deal with Russia. While the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought to an end the global communist-led Moscow terrorist network, Syria continued its manifold terrorist proxy system with great determination. The pupil outdid the teacher: Damascus' Soviet-programmed regime proved stronger than the Soviet regime itself.

As a savage police state, the Alawites used terrorism as a policy against religious and political opponents of the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood was hounded and approximately 20,000 Sunni activists and sympathizers were massacred in Hama in 1982. Salah al-Din Bitar, one of the founders of the Baath Party in the early 1940s, was assassinated in Paris in 1980, and hundreds of political dissidents were arrested and tortured in the Mezza prison of Damascus and at Palmyra in the desert. The one-man rule of Hafez al-Asad suffocated freedom as the condition for his personal and political survival.

Three stages mark the evolution of Syria as the heart of terrorism in the Middle East and the world. First, the Damascus-Palestinian axis arose in 1964 with Syria providing training and arms to the FATAH movement and in conjunction with ABU-NIDAL, while also hosting a battalion from the PALESTINE LIBERATION ARMY beginning a year later. Second, Syria established Lebanon in 1976 as its base of terrorist operations with Damascus' military intervention in the war that it itself had helped ignite a year earlier. And third, Damascus forged its strategic axis with Teheran in 1982 with HIZBULLAH as the Lebanese link in this pseudo-Shiite alignment stretching from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean basin.

Syria adopted the role of providing sanctuary and sponsorship for Palestinian and Islamic terrorism. Among the Palestinian groups were FATAH, SAIQA, the PALESTINIAN FRONT FOR THE LIBERATION OF PALESTINE (PFLP), the PFLP-GENERAL COMMAND, the DEMOCRATIC FRONT FOR THE LIBERATION OF PALESTINE (DFLP), the ABU-NIDAL group, the ABU-MUSA faction, the POPULAR STRUGGLE FRONT, and the PALESTINE LIBERATION FRONT. Islamic terrorism functioning under Syrian patronage focused both on HIZBULLAH, which appeared under a variety of names like the ISLAMIC JIHAD REVOLUTIONARY JUSTICE ORGANIZATION and the ORGANIZATION OF THE OPPRESSED, and on AMAL. A mixture of Palestinian and Islamic themes characterized the PALESTINIAN ISLAMIC JIHAD and HAMAS, both of which established headquarters in Damascus in the 1990s.

Terrorist training took place at five bases in the vicinity of Damascus and, at least in earlier years, near Lattakia. But a far larger number of training camps existed since the 1970s in the Bekka area in eastern Lebanon. Under the military umbrella of the Syrian occupation army, there were camps south of Baalbek at Ham and Mahraboun, the latter very proximate to the Syrian border, and at Janta and Tfail. To the south, camps were located at Yanta and Deir Aachayar northeast of Rashayya. The Syrians placed the camps within Lebanese territory in a way to deflect the charge of directly supporting terrorism, but close enough to Syria so that easy access was available from the terrorist-host country.

The Syrians, who hosted a large number of terrorist movements beyond Palestinian and Islamic ones, cultivated their international role with relish, and impunity. The worldwide beneficiaries of Syrian terrorist patronage included the Japanese Red Army, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), various Tamil, Omani, Thai, and Philippino groups, North African Polisarios, and the Kurdish PKK Turkish Workers Party. Any and every terrorist operation by these forces, as by the Palestinian factions and Islamic groups, represents a clear indictment of Syria as a direct accessory to the violent crimes committed.

Two Lebanese parties were also snugly meshed within the Syrian terrorist web. One was the COMMUNIST PARTY and the other, far more notorious, was the SYRIAN SOCIAL NATIONAL PARTY (also known as the PPS). The latter offers Syrian ambitions in Lebanon with a native ideological foothold. This party adopted suicide bombings as a method of warfare against Israeli, American, and domestic Lebanese Christian targets. Every such act should be registered as a Syrian directed- or inspired-operation.

Terrorism Against the United States

We shall concisely identify the modes of terrorism with a list of violent actions executed. This is no claim that the list is exhaustive.

Hijackings, Airplane Bombings, and Airport Assaults

In 1970, PFLP terrorists hijacked three planes of which one was a TWA jet and another a PAN-AM aircraft that were subsequently blown up in Jordan. In 1973 the FATAH BLACK SEPTEMBER faction killed 29 passengers on a PAN-AM plane at Rome airport. In June 1985, an Islamic group hijacked a TWA flight in Europe and forced the plane to land in Beirut. U.S. navy diver Robert Stetham who was aboard the aircraft was murdered. Later 45 passengers were released in Damascus, illustrating Syria's close political involvement with the terrorists who were members of the Lebanese AMAL movement patronized by Syria.2 The airport in Rome was again the site of terrorism in the same year when the ABU-NIDAL group killed 14 people, of whom five were Americans. In the December 1988 PAN-AM flight 103 LOCKERBIE explosion, 270 passengers were killed of whom 175 were Americans. Although the United States blamed the Libyans, evidence existed that the PFLP-GC and Syria itself were behind this heinous terrorist act. Earlier in the same year, an American passenger was killed on a Kuwaiti plane hijacked by HIZBULLAH or an affiliated group. The hijacking of U.S. planes reached home on September 11, 2001, when four domestic flights in the country were taken over by terrorists. This led to the death of thousands of Americans and constituted a direct assault on the national security of the world's single remaining superpower.


In 1973, the PLO murdered U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel in KHARTOUM, Sudan. Subsequently, following the major Syrian military intervention in Lebanon on June 1, 1976, U.S. Ambassador Francis E. Meloy, Jr. was murdered on the sixteenth of the month along with his Economics Assistant Robert O. Warring and Lebanese driver Zuhair Moughrabi. The ARAB SOCIALIST ACTION PARTY, which was linked to the PFLP, expressed its approval for this action; alluding to Syria's connection with the murder of the American ambassador is a feasible explanation. In March 1984, U.S. diplomatic official William Buckley, the political attaché in the Beirut embassy, was abducted and murdered. In February 1988, HIZBULLAH terrorists murdered U.S. officer William Higgins who commanded UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon.3 In addition to official government personnel, individual Americans living in Lebanon for personal or professional reasons met their death at the hands of terrorists. Malcolm Kerr who served as president of the American University of Beirut was murdered in 1984 as was Peter Kilburn, a librarian at AUB, killed in 1986.


Under Syria's occupation, American lives in Lebanon suffered from a permanent state of vulnerability. All the kidnappings took place in West Beirut that was controlled by Syria. A number of AUB personnel were abducted during the 1980s including university president David Dodge, Thomas Sutherland the Dean of Agriculture, Frank Reiger of the Engineering Department, and Joseph James Cicippio, comptroller at the university. David Jacobsen, who directed the American University Hospital, was abducted in 1985. Terry Anderson on the Associated Press staff in Beirut and Jeremy Levin of American Cable News were also abducted. Many American journalists fled in fear from Lebanon. Presbyterian Minister Benjamin Weir of New York disappeared. With Syria's permission and more likely sponsorship, the HIZBULLAH jihadists terrorized with impunity Americans in Beirut. In more than one case the Syrians arranged, as for David Dodge, the release of the kidnapped. Indeed, Dodge had spent part of his captivity in the Syrian village of Zabedani. It is astounding that Damascus could deceive America by its cosmetic gesture of helping to have hostages released after the Syrians themselves had masterminded these kidnapping operations in Beirut.


The United States Embassy in West Beirut was the target of a truck-bomb attack on April 18, 1983 which left 63 people dead, of whom 17 were Americans that included CIA operatives. AL-JIHAD AL-ISLAMI, a name HIZBULLAH employed, claimed responsibility but the operation was planned and effectively executed by the Syrian Intelligence Services. On October 23, 1983, a truckload of explosives was driven into the U.S. Marine Compound of Beirut and set off an explosion that killed 241 American marines. The organization responsible for this assault was HIZBULLAH or an affiliated group. The Shiites were willing servants of Syria and Iran in these operations which then led President Reagan to withdraw American forces from Lebanon. In September 1984, the U.S. Embassy Annex situated in East Beirut was attacked killing 20 people. Earlier in December 1983, a truck-bomb had also been the mode of attack against the American Embassy in Kuwait City. Shiite terrorism whose base was in Lebanon was the responsible party. In 1991, U.S. troop trains in Germany were bombed by the PFLP-GC of AHMED JIBRIL. A year later the DFLP of NAIF HAWATMEH fired rockets at the American Consulate in Istanbul. Relying on their operations base in Syria and the Bekka, the 'SAUDI HIZBULLAH' terrorist cell successfully ignited a car-bomb at the U.S. Office of Project Director of the Saudi National Guard in 1995; and a year later, a truck-bomb explosion at the Khobar Towers U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran left 19 dead. One of the HIZBULLAH operatives fled Saudi Arabia via Syria to Canada.

Syrian Terrorism Against American Middle East Allies

Israel, America's effective strategic ally, has born the brunt of Syrian-sponsored Palestinian and Islamic terrorism from the mid-1960s until the era of the Intifada al-Aqsa begun in 2000.4 Without the logistical, military, and ideological support that Damascus provided from within Syria and Lebanon in particular, the war against Israel could not have maintained its longevity and intensity for so long. Groups like the PFLP and HIZBULLAH could not have pursued their struggle without the Syrian patron. HIZBULLAH succeeded to chase Israel from south Lebanon and Palestinian organizations, like the ISLAMIC JIHAD whose leader RAMADAN ABDULLAH SHALLAH has his headquarters in Damascus, hope to push Israel out of Palestine by an uninterrupted campaign of urban and rural terrorism against Israeli civilians. Syria's international support for terrorism against Israel included the attempt by NIZAR HINDAWI to blow up an EL AL airliner in London in April 1986; but when the operation foundered, HINDAWI hid in the home of the Syrian embassy's attaché. In the same month, Hindawi's brother bombed a disco club in West Berlin frequented by U.S. servicemen. Two Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured. The explosives for this operation came from the Syrian Embassy in East Berlin. The Lebanese HIZBULLAH orchestrated the bombing in 1992 of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish Community Center in 1994. Syrian intelligence and logistical assistance were undoubtedly critical to these terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. It was known that Syria directed its international terrorist operations, with the provision of passports and explosives, through its Air Force Intelligence. In September 2001, Israeli security services uncovered a HAMAS cell in Samaria, whose Palestinian members were formerly students in Damascus, but recruited by Syria for terrorist activities against Israel.

Turkey, a NATO member and close ally of the United States, was embroiled in a long war with Kurdish insurgents that operated under the shield of Syrian sanctuary provided in the Lebanese Bekka valley. The PKK fighters trained in Syrian-directed camps and the party leader Abdullah Ocalan resided in Damascus. Syria's antagonism to Turkey, in supporting terrorism against Ankara, was based on a variety of strategic, economic, territorial, and ideological issues. Yet, an agreement in 1993 brought an end to Syrian involvement in the aftermath of a wave of PKK attacks against Turkish targets in Western Europe. However, this agreement collapsed and Syria broke its commitment to respect Turkey's national integrity. In 1998, Turkey mobilized for war and demanded that Syria cease assisting its PKK proxy. Syria succumbed and ended its support for the Kurdish insurgents.

Lebanon, historically a Western-oriented Mideast country, lost its stability and prosperity, its uniqueness and sovereignty under the combined weight of Palestinian terrorism and thuggery from the 1970s and Shiite-Islamic violence and extremism from the 1980s. But neither force could have emerged and flourished without Syria's presence and support from within Lebanon. In 1982, Syria orchestrated with the SSNP the murder of the Maronite President-elect Bashir Jemayel, and helped in the same time launch the new Shiite HIZBULLAH movement. The Syrians allowed the Palestinians to kill thousands of Christians in Chekka, Ayshiyah, and Damur. In East Beirut (Ashrafiyya) and Zahle, the Syrian army operated directly to murder many hundreds of civilians from various Christian denominations. But the physical elimination of Lebanese swept across religious lines, with Druze leader KAMAL JUNBLATT, Shiite journalist RYAD TAHA, and Sunni religious dignitary SHEIKH HASSAN KHALED murdered by Syrian operatives. Broadly speaking, Osama Bin Laden's Islamic network was known to have supported Sunni militants in Lebanon, and this with Syria's tacit or active cooperation, in order to alter the political and religious order in this troubled land.

Syria's Anti-American Diplomacy and the Necessary Solution

At every major diplomatic turn, Syria stood in the way of America's efforts on behalf of security, peace, and prosperity in the Middle East. In 1978, Damascus was a key actor in the Arab regional alignment against the Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt that President Carter mediated. In 1983, Syria opposed the May 17 Agreement negotiated during the Reagan presidency between Israel and Lebanon, and Asad subsequently forced Beirut to nullify the accord in 1984. In 1991, following Syria's direct military and political occupation of Beirut, HIZBULLAH organized mass demonstrations in opposition to the Madrid Peace Conference that was convened by President George Bush. "Death to America" read the banners in Beirut. In 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accord in Washington, SHEIKH NASRALLAH of HIZBULLAH traveled to Damascus to meet with GEORGE HABASH of the PFLP. Peace in the Middle East was not on their agenda. Retrospectively, the PALESTINIAN REJECTIONIST FRONT was organized in Damascus back in 1974; and fittingly enough, NASRALLAH addressed its member-groups in 1998, calling for the liberation of Lebanon and all of Palestine from the Israelis. In the same year, inflamed Syrian protesters attacked the United States Embassy in Damascus and nearly caused direct bodily harm to the ambassador and his wife.

The strategic shuttle linking Teheran with Lebanon via Syria has been a formidable axis of Middle Eastern and global terrorism since the 1980s. Component staging grounds are the Iranian embassy in Damascus and the Syrian military foothold in the Bekka valley. This nexus of contacts and cooperation extends to Gaza and other Palestinian Authority sites.

The political and strategic imperative of the United States is to break this Syrian-managed network which conducts its covert and overt destructive activities far and wide, all the way to America. Critical to understand in this regard, is that when Syria destroyed Lebanon as a free and sovereign state, and foisted upon it a slavish puppet-government in Beirut, it also transformed 'the Switzerland of the Middle East' into a terrorist state assaulting the Western World as a whole. Syria is the beating heart of terrorism, but Lebanon supplies the life-systems for its bloody mission. A free Lebanon will signal freedom for the world.



1 In 1989, the production of hashish in the Bekka Valley was valued at $100 million annually (and this may be a low estimate); heroin-refining laboratories to process opium from Afghanistan and Iran were additional sources of enormous income for Syria.

2 Mustafa Dirani, one of the Muslim terrorists involved in the hijacking, later left Amal to join Hizbullah. Subsequently he was abducted from Lebanon by Israeli security forces.

3 Sheikh Abdul Karim Ubeid, considered a primary agent of the Higgins operation, was abducted by Israel from Lebanon in 1989.

4 Damascus was active in promoting cross-border terrorist incursions emanating from Syrian and Lebanese territory against the Jewish National Home soon after the end of World War One, and later in the 1930s.


*Dr. Mordechai Nisan teaches Middle East History and Politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Rothberg International School. His most recent book is Identity and Civilization: Essays on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, London & Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1999.