Car Bomb in Damascus and Rise of Salafi Groups in Region

The car bomb that exploded this morning in Syria is the first successful “al-Qaida” type terrorist attack in Syria in the last 10 years. Two theories are developing on little evidence so far. One is that the bombers were targeting a state security center. The other theory is that they were targetting Shiites. So far we don’t know what the truth is.

Photo: The only site to show photos of the actual explosion is here at Syria-News (Thanks Idaf)

In general, Syria has been one of the safest major Middle Eastern capitals. The US State Department has maintained a travel advisory against Syria, but that is largely for political reasons. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, etc. are much more dangerous than Syria and have suffered more al-Qaida attacks and dead Americans than Syria. It should be said that no American has been killed by terrorists in Syria throughout the entire history of the country. At least I don’t know of one. Perhaps a Syria Comment reader will correct me?

The fear sparked by this attack is that terrorism has returned to Syria. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Syria experienced a steady and violent period of terrorist strikes, carried out by the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been a number of political assassinations and several failed terrorist attacks in the last decade, but extremist Sunni groups have not been successful in Syria. Some of the assassinations and explosions are commonly attributed to Israel. See al-Jazeera’s Timeline: Syria attacks. In this group we can place the most recent  Mughniya assassination, the authorship of which is disputed, the “nuclear” facility bombing in Sept 2007, the September 2004 car bombing in southern Damascus that killed an official of the Palestinian Hamas movement and three passers-by.

The al-Qaida type explosions or attacks are:

  • April 2004:Three assailants and empty UN building in Mezzeh. Apoliceman and a woman passer-by die in the gun battle. The government blames al-Qaeda, but the attack is claimed by a group which says it wants to avenge the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.
  • September 2006: The US embassy was attacked by three armed men, which was botched. All three were killed and a member of the Syrian security forces was killed and 14 people wounded in a failed attempt to set off a car bomb.
  • There have also been a number of round-ups and gun battles between security forces and “al-Qaida” types, but not successful extremist opperations that have done much damage.

According to the official SANA news agency, the blast occurred on the Mahlaq road in southern Damascus in an area crowded with civilian passers-by. The site was near the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, which is popular with Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. No group has yet taken responsibility for the bombing. It may have been an Iraqi Sunni group targetting Shiites or a home-grown Syrian group. We don’t know.

The following excellent story by Nir Rosen explaining how the May 2008 Shiite takeover of Sunni West Beirut has boosted recruiting for extremist Sunni groups in Lebanon who are dreaming of revenge.

The Salafi movement in Lebanon is explored by Nir Rosen in the National, here

…..“I never carried a rifle before,” Walid went on, “but since the Shiites attacked I started carrying one.” He wore an vest laden with extra ammunition and several American hand grenades that he said cost $50 a piece. Walid claimed he had forced Shiite officials at the Masnaa border crossing to stop working there. This was why security officers were paying a visit to the town. His thuggish friend put it succinctly: “We and the state are opposed.”

“Before May 8 I used to love life,” Walidsaid, “I would never sleep, I was into women, drugs, alcohol, I was living life to the fullest. Something happened in my heart I cant explain to anybody. Since May 8 I am a different person. I started praying five times a day, feeling more confident when I’m fighting.” Now he fantasised about becoming a suicide bomber. “I should be doing martyrdom operations too,” he told me, his eyes darting to Omar, looking for approval. “I would like to blow myself up during Nasrallah’s speech when there is a large group of people.”

He got so much pleasure from shooting, he said, and he surmised that if he went on a martyrdom operation his soul would feel even better. Omar, for his part, said he expected suicide operations to begin against Shiites in Lebanon. “I wont be surprised if it happened, and we are waiting for it to happen,” he said.

Omar didn’t seem to have a job, but I soon realised he had a lucrative underground business selling weapons….

Opponents of Hizbollah like to describe it as a state within a state. But outside of Beirut there are few signs of any state in Lebanon, or any authority willing to assert itself – and for Sunnis, in Majd al Anjar and elsewhere, there is no Hizbollah to step into the vacuum…..

….Like many salafis I have met, Saadiwas openly envious of Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel but contemptuous of its failure to fight beyond Lebanon’s borders. “Hizbollah protects the Jewish border with orders from the Syrian regime,” he said. The goal of Hizbollah’s “takeover” of Beirut was to weaken Sunnis in the Arab world, he argued.

“Sunnis have woken up,” Saadi continued. “Sunnis around the world are mad after what happened in Beirut. The result will be a thousand Zarqawis going after Hizbollah.”

Jim Lobe, here

“McCain’s surrogates, Max Boot and Richard Williamson, told a gathering of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) in Virgina last weekend that the Republican candidate, if elected, would not become actively engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and discourage Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, according to an important article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s excellent Ron Kampeas. Consistent with my last post, Abrams’ influence on both McCain positions is apparent.

As noted by Kampeas, Williamson’s endorsement of those positions “signified how closely the McCain campaign has allied itself with neo-conservatives.” Frankly, the position of those foreign-policy realists who have endorsed McCain and who, according to the mainstream media, are supposed to be advising him — I’m thinking of James Baker or Richard Armitage as examples — is becoming increasingly untenable in this campaign.”

Illawarra Merc: Slow road for Damascus
2008-09-26

…..  Adam Sandler’s recent comedy You Don’t Mess With The Zohan , a farce glorifying the manoeuvres of a virile Israeli Mossad agent turned hairdresser who ends up falling for a Palestinian beauty.

“For me, this was the best film of the year,” says Ali Safar, a Damascus resident and mobile-phone dealer.

“Yes, I know it was about an Israeli, and I think maybe this was a film about good Israelis, but I thought it was funny.”

Given that there remains an officialstate of war between Syria and Israel, and that Israel is the target of almost daily vilification in the Syrian media, Safar’s attitudes, and that of his friends who enjoyed the movie, seem surprisingly open…..

….”My only thing with Israel is they have some land that I think belongs to us – the Golan Heights,” says Safar, the mobile-phone dealer. “I think we can work that one out. Then, we have peace and who knows, maybe I go there and they come here.”

Rice and Mualem Meet in New York

DAMASCUS (AFP) — Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has met his US counterpart Condoleezza Rice at the United Nations for talks on Iraq, Lebanon, and the Middle East peace process, the official SANA news agency reported on Saturday.

It said the meeting was held “following a request by the US secretary of state and on the sidelines of a meeting by the international Quartet for the Middle East.”

SANA said Turkish-mediated indirect talks launched in May between Syria and Israel were also discussed.

State Dept:  Interview With Raghida Dergham of Al Hayat;
2008-09-26

QUESTION: Why did you subcontract the relationship to – with Syria to President Sarkozy of France?

SECRETARY RICE: We haven’t subcontracted anything. We’ve been in very close contact with the French. And look, the Syrians – we and the Syrians do have contact. We have a Chargé in Damascus who continues the contacts. We have diplomatic relations with Syria. I’ve met with Foreign Minister Mualem before.

QUESTION: About this –

SECRETARY RICE: No, no, no, during the neighbors conference when we were in Sharm el-Sheikh. Look, the relationship with Syria very much turns on how things are going. We’re not –

QUESTION: Where?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it is true that foreign fighters are down. The number of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq is down. Now, I think that is really because it’s not really all that fruitful to be a foreign fighter in Iraq any longer, because through coalition efforts and the efforts of the Iraqis themselves, the security situation in Iraq has stabilized. It’s fragile, but it’s stabilized. It is true that Syria and Israel are in – in direct discussions, something that we’ve supported. We were the ones who invited Syria to the Annapolis conference. So France should have discussions with Syria. We have them when they are appropriate.

QUESTION: When is that? When –

MR. MCCORMACK: Raghida, this is going to have to be the last question.

Comments (15)


1. BN: Explosion in Damascus Near the Airport Road- Updates Only - Page 3 - The Orange Room - forum.tayyar.org said:

[...] may have been an Iraqi Sunni group targetting Shiites or a home-grown Syrian group. We dont know. More Here. Note: Joshua Landis teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its [...]

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September 27th, 2008, 3:26 pm

 

2. Thomas said:

Mostly certainly had to be planned by neocon al qaida. Probably someone that Cheney hand picked.

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September 28th, 2008, 2:49 am

 

3. Abe Bird said:

Most probably is that Bashir el-Assad murdered yesterday one of his top Muhabarat (intelligence units) officers in order to protect himself and his regime.
He murdered Razi Cana’an his long-commander in Lebanon who threatened to testimony on the Rafik Hariri’s murder, and his top security commander Suleiman, two months ago in Tartus whom his testimony before the UN commission on the Syrian nuke revealed Assad nuclear policy.

Assad is protecting himself from his closer commanders who risk his regime.

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September 28th, 2008, 4:57 am

 

4. Averroes said:

I have been traveling the last two days. This news is most disturbing. I’m wondering on what grounds the Saudi and Egyptian regimes base their failure to even condemn this terrorist attack?

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September 28th, 2008, 10:53 pm

 

5. norman said:

Averroes,

It is simple , they are happy.it is ashamed ,

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September 28th, 2008, 11:15 pm

 

6. Alex said:

AVERROES

President Mubarak sent a message of condolences to President Assad.

http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-09/28/content_10126499.htm

But the Saudis did not feel comfortable sending a letter to President Assad.

That was almost predictable … but … They did not even express their sympathy with the families of the victims.

I would imagine that some advisers are now putting pressure on the Saudi King to convince him to say something.

We’ll see by tomorrow.

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September 28th, 2008, 11:18 pm

 

7. norman said:

There is nothing in the Saudi press of sympathy from the Saudi family.

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September 28th, 2008, 11:27 pm

 

8. Averroes said:

Alex,

Thanks for the news link on the Egyptians. I’m relieved to see it, although they were late in speaking out.

Norman, it is truly a shame on the part of the Saudis not to even express sympathy for the families of the victims. It tells you how much they have personalized their conflict with Bashar.

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September 28th, 2008, 11:52 pm

 

9. norman said:

To all ,

Look at this ,

Signs of trouble seen before Syria bombing
Syria has strained ties to some Sunni Arab countries because of its support for Shiite groups. Troops along Lebanese border may be intended to stop an attack from militants, analysts say.
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 29, 2008
BEIRUT — When Syria deployed thousands of soldiers along its frontier with northern Lebanon this month, some here feared that the Syrians were preparing to retake a country their military had dominated until it was pushed out in 2005.

But now, after a bombing Saturday that was the deadliest in Syria since 1986, analysts are wondering whether the troops were defensive, meant to stop an imminent attack from Lebanon-based Sunni Muslim militants inspired by Al Qaeda and sometimes trained in Iraq.

“The handwriting has been on the wall for a while,” Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said Sunday. “There have been signs of trouble coming in from Iraq or Lebanon.”

The car bombing killed 17 people and injured 14 in a crowded residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. The area is near an intelligence office and along the route to an important Shiite Muslim shrine.

It came as Syria performs delicate balancing acts in navigating the region’s sectarian and political fault lines.

The Syrians have held peace talks with Israel while strengthening ties to Iran, the Jewish state’s greatest enemy. They are trying to improve relations with the West and maintain what some describe as heavy influence in Lebanon, contrary to the demands of the United States and France.

Recently, Syria’s Shiite-dominated allies in Lebanon won several political victories, angering Sunni militants who consider the secular government of Syrian President Bashar Assad an enemy.

Northern Lebanon has long been a bastion for Sunni radicals, some of them veterans of the Iraq insurgency. Fatah al Islam, a group with Al Qaeda ties, fought the Lebanese army last year in a months-long battle that left hundreds dead.

On Aug. 12, just hours before newly selected Lebanese President Michel Suleiman paid a landmark visit to Damascus, a roadside bomb struck a bus in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 12 people, 10 of them soldiers of the Lebanese army, which is widely perceived as sympathetic to Syria. Dozens have died in clashes between Sunnis and Lebanon’s Alawite sect, which also has strong ties to Syria.

Lebanese scholar Ahmad Moussalli said he told several Syrian officials over lunch in Damascus three weeks ago to expect an attack on their soil. Saturday’s bombing, he said, was unsurprising.

“This constitutes payback against Syria because it is anti-Islamist and is against the spread of such Islamism in the north of Lebanon,” said Moussalli, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut.

Syria suffers strained ties to some Sunni Arab countries over its support for the Shiite political and military organizations Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as well as its strategic alliance with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Although diplomats all over the world, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. State Department, condemned the bombing, Saudi Arabia, Damascus’ biggest Arab rival, remained silent. The Saudi government strongly supports Lebanon’s Sunni community and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which is violently opposed to Hamas.

Syrian officials and pundits throughout the Middle East have publicly suggested that groups in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or Israel could have been behind the blast. But authorities investigating the explosion have been mum.

“You can always round up the usual suspects,” Moubayed said. “It’s too early to blame any particular group or organization.”

In a report cited by Israeli media, London’s pro-Saudi newspaper Asharq al Awsat said the bombing took place near a building identified as the Palestine branch of Syria’s military intelligence. It cited unnamed sources saying that one victim, perhaps the target, was a high-ranking intelligence officer.

But a Syrian opposition group, the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria, discounted that possibility, saying that no high-ranking officials ever spent time at that intelligence office.

The privately owned Syrian newspaper Al Watan cited witnesses at the site, including a traffic policeman injured in the blast, who said they saw two charred bodies in the black sedan that held the car bomb minutes after the explosion. Imad Habib, the policeman, said he found the car “totally burnt and in it were two burnt persons and another two outside it. They were all dead.”

Another witness said the car blew up after crashing into a truck parked along a sidewalk.

The official Syrian government-run Al Thawra newspaper published an editorial calling for tighter restrictions on foreign visitors entering the country. Syria now lets citizens of other Arab countries enter without visas.

“We need to be very careful in whom we let in,” the piece said. “We should ask, ‘Why is he here and what does he want?’ ”

daragahi@latimes.com

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September 28th, 2008, 11:53 pm

 

10. norman said:

To all,

Signs of trouble seen before Syria bombing
Syria has strained ties to some Sunni Arab countries because of its support for Shiite groups. Troops along Lebanese border may be intended to stop an attack from militants, analysts say.
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 29, 2008
BEIRUT — When Syria deployed thousands of soldiers along its frontier with northern Lebanon this month, some here feared that the Syrians were preparing to retake a country their military had dominated until it was pushed out in 2005.

But now, after a bombing Saturday that was the deadliest in Syria since 1986, analysts are wondering whether the troops were defensive, meant to stop an imminent attack from Lebanon-based Sunni Muslim militants inspired by Al Qaeda and sometimes trained in Iraq.

“The handwriting has been on the wall for a while,” Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said Sunday. “There have been signs of trouble coming in from Iraq or Lebanon.”

The car bombing killed 17 people and injured 14 in a crowded residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. The area is near an intelligence office and along the route to an important Shiite Muslim shrine.

It came as Syria performs delicate balancing acts in navigating the region’s sectarian and political fault lines.

The Syrians have held peace talks with Israel while strengthening ties to Iran, the Jewish state’s greatest enemy. They are trying to improve relations with the West and maintain what some describe as heavy influence in Lebanon, contrary to the demands of the United States and France.

Recently, Syria’s Shiite-dominated allies in Lebanon won several political victories, angering Sunni militants who consider the secular government of Syrian President Bashar Assad an enemy.

Northern Lebanon has long been a bastion for Sunni radicals, some of them veterans of the Iraq insurgency. Fatah al Islam, a group with Al Qaeda ties, fought the Lebanese army last year in a months-long battle that left hundreds dead.

On Aug. 12, just hours before newly selected Lebanese President Michel Suleiman paid a landmark visit to Damascus, a roadside bomb struck a bus in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 12 people, 10 of them soldiers of the Lebanese army, which is widely perceived as sympathetic to Syria. Dozens have died in clashes between Sunnis and Lebanon’s Alawite sect, which also has strong ties to Syria.

Lebanese scholar Ahmad Moussalli said he told several Syrian officials over lunch in Damascus three weeks ago to expect an attack on their soil. Saturday’s bombing, he said, was unsurprising.

“This constitutes payback against Syria because it is anti-Islamist and is against the spread of such Islamism in the north of Lebanon,” said Moussalli, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut.

Syria suffers strained ties to some Sunni Arab countries over its support for the Shiite political and military organizations Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as well as its strategic alliance with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Although diplomats all over the world, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. State Department, condemned the bombing, Saudi Arabia, Damascus’ biggest Arab rival, remained silent. The Saudi government strongly supports Lebanon’s Sunni community and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which is violently opposed to Hamas.

Syrian officials and pundits throughout the Middle East have publicly suggested that groups in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or Israel could have been behind the blast. But authorities investigating the explosion have been mum.

“You can always round up the usual suspects,” Moubayed said. “It’s too early to blame any particular group or organization.”

In a report cited by Israeli media, London’s pro-Saudi newspaper Asharq al Awsat said the bombing took place near a building identified as the Palestine branch of Syria’s military intelligence. It cited unnamed sources saying that one victim, perhaps the target, was a high-ranking intelligence officer.

But a Syrian opposition group, the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria, discounted that possibility, saying that no high-ranking officials ever spent time at that intelligence office.

The privately owned Syrian newspaper Al Watan cited witnesses at the site, including a traffic policeman injured in the blast, who said they saw two charred bodies in the black sedan that held the car bomb minutes after the explosion. Imad Habib, the policeman, said he found the car “totally burnt and in it were two burnt persons and another two outside it. They were all dead.”

Another witness said the car blew up after crashing into a truck parked along a sidewalk.

The official Syrian government-run Al Thawra newspaper published an editorial calling for tighter restrictions on foreign visitors entering the country. Syria now lets citizens of other Arab countries enter without visas.

“We need to be very careful in whom we let in,” the piece said. “We should ask, ‘Why is he here and what does he want?’ “

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September 28th, 2008, 11:55 pm

 

11. nafdik said:

I just read a comment by Zenobia that I can not leave unanswered:

“A small point first: I don’t believe in the original sin kind of reasoning , and that you can blame the son for the sins of the father. Therefore, until the son orchestrates the murder of thousands of people, we cannot hold him responsible for the sin of brutality of the elder father Assad.”

I think we can. Here are a few questions for you:

1) Do you not agree that Hama was a major turning point in Syria’s history?

2) Do you agree that any Syrian president should make sure we do not suffer the same incident again?

3) Did Bashar condemn what happened in Hama?

4) Did he persecute those responsible?

5) Did he offer compensation for the families?

6) Did we create a system of checks and balances that will prevent such a massacre in the future?

7) Did anything change in the structure of the regime that will prevent this event? Apart from the fear that is now in the heart of every Syrian and will take another generation to be erased?

8 ) Did Bashar return any of the wealth that was harvested from the Syrian people by force?

9) Can Bashar himself prevent such an event in case the regime decides to defend itself against Syrians seeking freedom?

10) Do you not see that some otherwise moral and smart people, including commentators in this blog, consider Hama a good thing (lesser of 2 evils). And that such logic is obviously more widespread withing regime operators. So it could happen again.

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September 29th, 2008, 11:16 am

 

12. Zenobia said:

Nafdik, thanks for your thoughts.

well, what I said is a very narrow statement about assigning blame really, not a judgement about all the other issues you raise, that I agree are important.

number 1, I don’t know enough to know how this event should be perceived or judged relative to Syrian History, which is very long indeed. I don’t know if that was a turning point. Maybe in the twentieth century. Hardly in the larger scope of history. In the larger scope, it is blip.

number 2: yes, the president should make sure this is not repeated , of course.

I think the answers to three through eight are probably all NO. And whether it would be ideal that the current president did do all these things, I think it is not realistic to think that he will. The Syrian way is to avoid bringing up a nasty subject, and to sweep it under the collective rug. Also, there would be a cultural barrier to his condemning the actions of his own father, this is the problem with family succession, it makes it hard to be critical of the past leader and the past policies and mistakes or crimes.

Number 9: I would say he does now have the power to prevent such an event from repeating itself. I think this president has continuously accumulated more political capital and respect such that he could (assuming that we judge him to be someone who would not support such actions) stop it from happening outside of his control.

number 10: I don’t know what is in the hearts of all the commentators on this blog, but I give them the benefit of the doubt that in general they are not in favor of violence and brutality and suppression by the government. I do think they rationalize , perhaps too much, that there is a large swath of gray between the black and white, and that the MB was guilty of significant violence as well, to the point that it brought this event upon itself. I don’t personally think there is a justification for violence and killing. But as usual, the story is more complex than simply good guys – bad guys, guilty and not guilty. Maybe everybody is guilty as usual.

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September 29th, 2008, 6:16 pm

 

13. nafdik said:

Zenobia,

I am really surprised by your statement:

“The MB brought this event upon itself”, as if it was an organization who suffered and not humans who could have been our friends, brothers and children.

Of the 10000-30000 dead:

How many were MB?

How many were MB who supported the terrorist acts?

How many were MB who participated in the terrorist acts?

How many were MB sympathizers (do they deserve to die)?

How many were innocent bystanders?

How many were children?

How can we relativise such an event?

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September 29th, 2008, 7:29 pm

 

14. Zenobia said:

Nafdik, I am not saying that. I am repeating what I have heard others say. I really didn’t say anything of this, as I am not qualified to offer an opinion. I am repeating what some have said. And I usually find that there IS more gray in most situations than simply a black and white story.
However, you have your opinion that fits one side. Ok, I see that.
My original comment had nothing to do with figuring out this historical truth or my own opinion at this point about it. Regardless, Bashar Assad was about 15 years old or something at that time of this tragedy, so he can’t realistically be blamed for it, or for any brutality of his father’s. Thats all I said. And you can’t attach to a son, the father’s sins. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to associate me with my father’s sins.
Because he is now president, it is a more pertinent issue, as Bashar has to speak to the historical issues to some degree, but there is a point where history recedes, and the mentality of an earlier era recedes, and the question is: is he allowing a new mentality and a new expectation for society to emerge. And does he himself, assure his people that he is delivering the opportunity for a better system and a different kind of rule eventually. People are of course, still disagreeing about what is happening, i believe.

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September 30th, 2008, 2:08 am

 

15. The Jihadists Are Coming « said:

[...] such as the September 26thexplosion in central Damascus which killed 17.  SyriaComment had a poston possible motives for the attack.  Yesterday, Jordan’s Mohamed Abu Rumman, whose articles [...]

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October 12th, 2008, 10:01 am

 

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