An alleged senior operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was the target of the U.S. cross-border commando raid into Syria over the weekend, U.S. counterterrorism sources have told NEWSWEEK. The sources said that there are indications that the alleged target, an Iraqi-born militant known as Abu Ghadiyah, was killed during the operation.
According to news reports from the region, including this report from The Associated Press, the Syrian government says that four U.S. helicopters flew into Syria from Iraq on Sunday in a U.S. special-forces operation targeted at an Al Qaeda encampment. The target was believed by the United States to be a transit point for Islamic militants seeking to enter Iraq to join with Al Qaeda forces there.
The Syrian government claimed that the American raiders had attacked a civilian building that was still under construction—and that eight people were killed during the raid. Syrian officials described the attack an "act of aggression." Some news accounts reported that there were U.S. forces on the ground in the area as part of the raid. A villager told the AP that two men were taken into custody by the Americans and were airlifted out by helicopter.
The U.S. government sources, who asked for anonymity discussing sensitive information, said that the alleged target of the raid, Abu Ghadiyah, had been known to American forces in Iraq for some time. They viewed him as an important terrorist "facilitator" whose role in the Iraqi insurgency was to arrange for "foreign fighters"—Islamic militants from a swath of countries ranging from the Middle East to North Africa to Europe—to travel via Syria into Iraq so they could fight there with Al Qaeda in Iraq. The sources declined to elaborate on why they believe Abu Ghadiyah is dead.
According to a press release issued by the Treasury Department earlier this year, Abu Ghadiyah, born Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazdih, is about 30 years old. In 2004, he became AQI's "Syrian commander for logistics," controlling a pipeline moving "money, weapons, terrorists and other resources" through Syria into Iraq, according to the Treasury statement. Abu Ghadiyah was appointed as the Syrian logistics chief for AQI by the terror group's founder, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a notoriously violent Jordanian who was killed in June 2006 in a U.S. airstrike on a house north of Baghdad where he was reportedly meeting with fellow militants.
According to the Treasury, after Zarqawi's death, Abu Ghadiyah began working for AQI's leader, an Egyptian known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Treasury claimed that as of two years ago, Abu Ghadiyah reported either directly to the AQI leader or through a deputy. Abu Ghadiyah's activities included obtaining cash, false passports and guides for foreign fighters and arranging for weapons and safe houses for them as they prepare to cross into Iraq from Syria.
The Treasury report claimed that as of the spring of last year, Abu Ghadiyah was still moving foreign fighters into Iraq and that he was in charge of another AQI facilitator in Syria who helped to move militants from Persian Gulf states over the border into Iraq. The Treasury report claimed that Abu Ghadiyah received hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing from a cousin; the two of them, along with two other associates, had their U.S. assets frozen last February after the Bush administration formally designated them as financiers of terrorism. The Treasury statement also accused Abu Ghadiyah of using Al Qaeda funds "for his personal use," though it did not elaborate.
White House and other official Bush administration spokesmen declined to discuss the alleged commando raid into Syria or to comment on the possible death of Abu Ghadiyah. A Treasury official said, however, that Abu Ghadiyah was still on their list of alleged terror moneymen subjected to U.S. financial sanctions. Even after accused terrorist financiers die, their names stay on Treasury lists to ensure that any bank accounts they might have maintained remain frozen.
The alleged U.S. commando raid in Syria marks the latest twist in a tangled history between the U.S. and Syria over terrorism. After 9/11, the two countries reportedly engaged in information exchanges about Al Qaeda and other terror suspects that were quite productive. The U.S. and some of its allies were accused of collaborating in the transfer of terrorist suspects to Syria for interrogation and, allegedly, torture—even in the cases of some suspects later found not to have been involved in violence. Since the Iraq War began, however, the Bush administration has periodically accused the Syrian government of at the very least turning a blind eye when it comes to the movement of foreign fighters via its territory into Iraq.
News of the alleged U.S. commando raid in Syria surfaced amid a regular flow of reports of alleged U.S. missile attacks on purported Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan. U.S. sources have said that those attacks also are directed at encampments of suspected "foreign fighters" believed to be using Pakistan as a base to stage attacks on American fighters and their allies as they conducted military operations across the border inside Afghanistan.