A very welcome, but also very intriguing story out of Syria today. The BBC reports that a Syrian cleric suspected of recruiting foreign militants to fight in Iraq has been shot dead.
Sheikh Mahmoud Abu al-Qaqaa was shot several times as he left a mosque in the northern city of Aleppo after Friday prayers. The gunman tried to flee the scene, but was chased by a crowd and arrested.
The report describes al-Qaqaa as a “charismatic Sunni cleric with thousands of radical Islamist followers in Syria”. It says there are several conflicting theories as to why he was killed, but adds that he does appear to have been instrumental in sending jihadis to Iraq:
In June 2006, a group of militants killed while attempting to carry out an attack in the capital, Damascus, were found to be carrying CDs of sermons by Abu al-Qaqaa in which he called for US forces in the Middle East to be slaughtered "like cattle".
An aide to al-Qaqaa, Sheikh Samir Abu Khashbeh, said the gunman had told him that he had killed the cleric "because he was an agent of the Americans", but the aide also made this interesting claim:
"The one who carried out the assassination was a prisoner of the American forces in Iraq and had been released some time ago," Abu Khashbeh said. "He is known to us."
It’s impossible to know who to believe here – as in other Middle Eastern countries, the relationship between Syria's government and its Islamic extremists is convoluted, with Assad and his cronies by turns cracking down on the clerics and engaging with them. And the government isn't saying anything yet about al-Qaqaa's death.
However, if the gunman had indeed been a detainee in Iraq, and assuming that al-Qaqaa was smuggling terrorists, and the whole ‘slaughtered like cattle’ routine wasn’t just an elaborate front, it raises some intriguing possibilities. Could it be that US forces found some way of ‘turning’ their captive, whether through the use of ‘psy-ops’, or simply by offering him a big bundle of dollars?
And if that theory's not wild enough for you, what if the US has finally developed the sort of technology which hitherto has existed only in the imaginations of Hollywood film-makers, and has unleashed a squad of remote-controlled assassins to roam the Middle East taking out hard-to-get-at enemies?
My money's on either a government hit or some esoteric inter-jihadi dispute – Joshua Landis at Syria Comment links to a report that claims al-Qaqaa was killed by al-Qaeda for not being extreme enough – and if that is the case then the outcome suits us just fine.
But if this was some kind of ‘black op’ by the US then even better. We are up against an enemy that doesn't play by the rules, and which is very hard to defeat by conventional means, especially when they’re hiding in countries hostile to the US.
One way or another, we need many more terror leaders to meet with violent and mysterious ends in the back alleys of Damascus, Amman, Tunis and elsewhere.