Fundamentalist Violence is Spreading

The following article is from Inter Press Service looking at the increase in fundmentalist violence in the Middle East. You can see the original article at

Fundamentalist Violence is Spreading

By Ferry Biedermann

Inter Press Service

May 3, 2004

AMMAN, May 3 (IPS) - The violence that has thus far mainly hit Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians is spreading now to other countries in the Middle East.

In Syria attackers were engaged in a rare confrontation with security forces in the centre of capital Damascus. And in Jordan the authorities aired video- taped confessions by presumed members of al-Qaeda saying they were planning a large-scale chemicals attack in the kingdom.

Syria and Jordan have been among the most stable of Middle East countries, with security forces keeping a tight lid on unrest, or even peaceful expressions of dissent.

They seem both to have been targeted now, even though they occupy opposite places in the regional alignment of political forces. Syria, a former Soviet client, is often stridently anti-American. Jordan is a long-standing ally of the West and the United States.

What they seem to have in common is a secular outlook that puts them into conflict with Islamic fundamentalists of different stripes.

Most Syrian officials blamed last week's violence on Osama bin Laden's al- Qaeda, which they say Syria has been combating vigorously since 9-11. Other commentators blamed less specific 'Islamic fundamentalists', pointing to past confrontations with the extremist Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1982 Syrian security forces under the command of late president Hafez Assad put down a fundamentalist uprising in Hama town in central Syria in which some reports say up to 20,000 people were killed.

Violence is flaring up again. In recent weeks Syria experienced rare ethnic and political violence when Kurds in the north of the country clashed with security forces, leaving an unknown number of people dead. The unrest briefly spread to Damascus where Kurdish sympathisers held solidarity demonstrations.

But the supposed targets of new attacks in Damascus last week, an abandoned UN building and the Canadian embassy, seem to preclude Kurdish involvement.

"There is no doubt that this was done by Muslim fundamentalists," says Thabet Salem, a political analyst in Damascus. "After 25 years of quiet in Syria, the aim was to send a message to the authorities to tell them, watch out, we're still here."

The authorities are in a way eager to pin the blame on al-Qaeda. The government can do with some proof that it is on the same side as the United States in the global fight against terror.

"I think al-Qaeda wanted a media explosion to send a message to the Americans that it can reach any target, even highly secure countries like Syria," tourism minister Saadallah Agha al-Kalaa told reporters. "This also aims to make Syria pay for its role in the campaign against terror."

Syria has long been on the U.S. State Department list of countries supporting terrorism. During the war in Iraq tension between Damascus and Washington shot up because of Bashar Assad's outspoken opposition to the U.S. invasion of the neighbouring country.

More serious allegations followed that Syria intentionally allowed military supplies and fighters for the forces battling the United States to cross its border with Iraq. After the war complaints continued that Syria was not doing enough to seal its borders.

Late last year the U.S. Congress passed the 'Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act'. The act allows the U.S. President to slap sanctions on Syria, which he reportedly is in the process of drawing up.

Syria has tried to counter the pressure by emphasising its record on cooperation with the United States in the global fight against al-Qaeda.

But recent attacks in the Middle East in which al-Qaeda has been blamed, ominously seem to suggest a Syrian connection. Some of the plotters in the bomb attacks in Turkey towards the end of last year may have attended Islamic studies in Syria, according to investigations.

At the same time Jordanian authorities say that at least three cars filled with explosives that were to be used in al-Qaeda attacks entered the country from Syria -- an allegation Damascus denies. Indisputably, though, three of the four suspected plotters who were killed in a shoot-out with the police in Amman a week back were Syrians.

Jordanian authorities too, like their Syrian counterparts, have seemed keen to link the attackers to al-Qaeda. Unusually this week they aired the confessions of four men accused of plotting to carry out attacks on Jordanian and U.S. targets in the country.

The plotters said in their broadcast confessions that they were acting on the orders of al-Qaeda's senior commander Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian, who has been linked by the United States to attacks in Iraq.

One of the suspects said they had intended to carry out al-Qaeda's "first chemical attack" in Jordan. A commentary accompanying the confessions said the attacks could have killed up to 80,000 people.

Jordan TV showed blue containers said to contain chemicals that were allegedly intended for use in the attacks. The extensive coverage also included animation of the way the plotters are said to have planned the attack.

Some commentators suggest that televising the confessions was meant to dispel doubts among Jordanians about the authenticity of the claims. But many feel the authorities have clamped down on freedom under the guise of security.

In Syria this prompted human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to voice rare criticism of the regime. "This extremism occurred because freedom was strangled, as was the means of peaceful expression," Al-Bunni says. "No one is against providing security for people, but using security as a way to suppress people leads to more extremism."

Also, al-Qaeda is gaining popularity both in Syria and Jordan because of the group's alleged involvement in fighting the U.S. forces in Iraq.

The authorities in both countries may have had an interest in showing the population that at least domestically, al-Qaeda would only bring mayhem and destruction. (END/2004)

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