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Afghan Militants Join Syria's Civil War, As If It Wasn't Awful Enough

BEIRUT - As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gained the upper hand over an internal uprising in the past year, he received a major boost from his allies across the Middle East. The Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian military advisors, have all been key in turning the tide of the battle. Now, it appears a new group has entered the fray on the side of the Assad regime: Shiite fighters from Afghanistan.

After a dozen years in Afghanistan and thousands of Americans lives lost, the United States also finds itself in an awkward position by the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While the U.S. occupation of the country was intended to pave the way for the eradication of lawless militias, fighters from Afghanistan are now engaged on both sides of the Syrian conflict. In addition to the Afghan Shiite fighters, a small number of Afghan jihadists have also joined the rebel cause. This dynamic is even clearer in Iraq, where Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists have also joined the Syrian battle - reopening old sectarian wounds and threatening the fragile stability back home.

Now, the Syrian war may be helping to bring these same Sunni-Shiite animosities to Southeast Asia. At the behest of Saudi Arabia, Pakistani military trainers have already been employed to train Syrian rebels - even as Pakistan struggles with sectarian violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Shiites over the past year. One Pakistani source cited this violence as one of the most important reasons that Islamabad could not intervene more aggressively in Syria, saying simply, "They have their hands full."

Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian news site close to the country's hardliners, reported recently that 10 Afghan fighters were "martyred" in Syria defending the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine, a Shiite holy site south of Damascus. The bodies of the fighters, according to the article, were then sent to Iran where they were buried in the cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, Tehran, and Qom. The funeral for two of the fighters in Qom, Ibrahim Rezai and Najibullah Mirzai, was reportedly attended by a large number of Afghan refugees.

There have long been scattered claims from partisans on both sides that Afghan Shiites were fighting alongside Assad's forces. As researcher Phillip Smyth wrote over the summer, Syrian rebel supporters were the first to make the claim, passing around a video allegedly showing an Afghan Shiite fighter firing a machine gun. Facebook posts from Assad supporters, meanwhile, also claimed that Afghan fighters had joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a Shiite militant group fighting in Syria that includes many foreign fighters.

But beyond these claims in social media, there was scant evidence that Afghan Shiites were actually present in Syria - until now.

"Seeing as Tasnim has been out there with this, [Afghan Shiite fighters] are finally getting more official credit" for fighting in Syria, said Smyth. "It's important to note that all of the ‘Afghan martyrs' were never named before this point."

Tasnim News Agency was launched last year with the explicit purpose of "defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda." Its launch was attended by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who ran for president in 2013 with the support of some elements of Iran's conservative establishment. It is considered by some analysts to be close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and indeed has been the first news agency to publish some IRGC statements and interviews with top IRGC commanders.

While the Assad regime has played down the importance of foreign fighters in its recent gains, Iranian media may have an incentive to publicize the exploits of its allies in Syria. By publicizing the presence of Lebanese, Iraqi, and now Afghan fighters, outlets like Tasnim News Agency may be seeking to craft an image of "a global, mainly Shia jihad in Syria," said Smyth.

Afghanistan's Shiite community comprises roughly 20 percent of the country's population, according to a CIA estimate. The community was brutally persecuted by the Taliban during the 1990s, though has seen their lot improve somewhat under the new government. Even as some Afghan Shiite fighters appear to be supporting Assad, the Taliban has publicly supported the rebellion, releasing a statement in August that "the oppressed Syrian nation has been burning in a raging fire."

Some analysts, however, believe that Iranian officials may be employing their Afghan allies in Syria with the express purpose of preparing them for future battles in their own country.

"Facilitating Afghans volunteers for the Shia cause in Syria not only means a response to Saudi mobilization of transnational Sunni radicals to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime," said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow focused on the IRGC at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish American think tank. "[I]t also provides combat experience to Afghan Shia whose country most likely will descend into another dark war by proxy when the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan."    

SALAH AL-ASHKAR/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

This Is America's Most Top Secret Volleyball Court

No facility is more important at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons research facility, than the so-called "Superblock." Situated at the heart of the 820-acre complex, the Superblock handles the facility's plutonium, a key component in nuclear weapons. The facility is protected by a mesh fence to guard against airplanes, ultra-thick walls, and Gatling guns.

But one recently spotted feature at the Superblock probably isn't part of those security arrangements. Someone -- it's unclear who -- has added a beach volleyball court inside its premises.

That volleyball court is clearly visible in satellite footage of the facility. Note the patch of sand in the lower right-hand corner:


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Here's a closer a view of that satellite footage. It's unmistakably a volleyball court:

It's a Strangelovian addition to the facility responsible for America's deadliest nuclear materials. Unless the volleyball court is someone's strange idea of a decorative feature, the plant's scientists could be handling materials used in weapons capable of annihilating millions of people one hour, only to be playing beach volleyball the next.

The facility has been the center of some controversy in the past. In 2008, a commando team posing as terrorists breached the Superblock and were able to reach a mock payload of fissile material. The exercise highlighted what the facility's critics describe as the massive danger of storing nuclear materials at a base with some 7 million people within a 50-mile radius of it.

Those critics probably aren't going to be comforted by the addition of that volleyball court.

Update, 4 p.m. 12/4/13:

Lynda Seaver, a spokesperson for Lawrence Livermore, emails with an update about the court:

Yes it is a volleyball court. In fact, the Lab has several sport courts throughout the facility, as do many labs and R&D institutions, for recreational use during lunchtime. Employees enjoy these facilities and consider them a nice work/life balance. In the case of the Superblock, security is quite rigorous getting in and out and as a result many employees assigned there would rather stay inside the area during lunch.

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