The presence of foreign fighters in Syria continues to be reported from a variety of sources. Tunisian radio ran a piece in Arabic. A French resume is available on this blog. The situation in Syria clearly is subject to competing narratives, most obvious in the case of the Syrian authorities who sought to portray the recent bombings as the work of terrorists, including foreign nationals. An example is the statement of the Syrian representative to the United Nations Security council on 10 May 2012. The representative alluded to a list of 26 terrorists and another list of 12 foreign nationals either killed or captured. This second list is alleged to have the names of Belgian, French and United Kingdom citizens. Reports have also mentioned Libyan and Tunisian nationals.
The Syrian narrative runs that terrorists are responsible for the recent bombings, that these bombings are the work of ‘al-Qaeda’ like entities, and that foreign nationals are also involved. Syrian television has made available a series of video confessions of ‘terrorists’.
The Syrian opposition counters that the recent bombings are the work of Syrian intelligence to discredit the opposition. The Atlantic Monthly has a short profile of the group which claimed responsibility for the Damascus bombing.
The current situation is a puzzle familiar to many analysts, one where ‘denial and deception’ are being deployed? How do we know that what we know is not what our enemy wants us to know? Or how do we know that what we know is what we need to know and that we have not been influenced? How does one determine what are the facts and what are the interpretations or competing hypotheses that can be seen in relation to the facts. In Syria, there are a number of possibilities
- Foreign fighters are not present;
- Foreign fighters are present, fighting and executing suicide bombings with fellow jihadists;
- Foreign fighters are present fighting, executing suicide bombings for entities they believe to be fellow jihadists but who are in fact Syrian intelligence operatives;
- Foreign fighters are present and are doing both 2 and 3.
It is not only a state entity that may engage in denial and deception but also non-state entities like al-Qaeda. This paper gives a useful overview. The seminal CIA study, ‘The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis’ addresses how analysts deal with complexity and bias. A tool developed by Heuer to overcome bias was the ‘Analysis of Competing Hypotheses’. This tool has since been extended to try and address denial and deception.
Reality is messy and if foreign fighter involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia have demonstrated anything, it is that these types of confrontations involve multiple actors with competing agendas, where manipulation and subterfuge are common.