ASALA revival suspected in Nagorno-Karabakh warfront

One photograph of insurgents suggested fighters from Lebanon, Syria, and other areas of the former ASALA MENA network region.

By | Rachel Brooks

November 2, 2020 

Above image retrieved from social media, fair use.

This post is a developing story. For more in this series, see “Velvet Noose” Pashinyan’s Armenian Supermacism.

Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia activity, in the form of a rebrand from the old agency, has been traced in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict theater, citing a review by the Jewish Press. These reports appeared in the Russian-language version of Trend News Agency on November 2. The reports cite the presence of former ASALA leadership at the Nagorno-Karabakh front line. The presence of ASALA insurgents would work to confirm cross-reference reports of Syrian-Armenian mercenaries fighting on the Armenian side. ASALA and Syrian insurgencies have confirmed historical ties. 

The reports of a potential rebranding of the ASALA comes after weeks of photographic evidence highlighting the presence of Syrian insurgents fighting alongside Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Some photos included evidence of insurgents from Libya. This was inferred by the fatigues uniforms the insurgents were photographed wearing. 

While reports from the Jewish Press of the potential of ASALA copycat resurgence reaffirm reports, they are not the first emerging reports of ASALA activity. AzerNews reports a resurgence of ASALA as recently as October 13. As the presence of ASALA groups, former leaders, and similar tactics reemerge, the concern for the possibility of a spiked entrenched warfare is growing. 

Republic Underground works to confirm this presence. Based on historical activity reviewed by the CIA,  a merging of forces between the ASALA and insurgencies in Lebanon and Syria, as well as potentially Libya, is consistent with the pattern of the Armenian-terror organizations original composition. It would imply the potential for old leadership at the head of new ASALA to have ties to former contact zones.  

Sanitized for release to the public, the CIA released a memorandum from the Deputy Director of Intelligence published in 1983 to one of his agents, which traced the activity of Libyan, Iranian, and ASALA terror in the United States as of that era. The memorandum requested further report inquiry into the insurgencies of this era. This memorandum implied that fledgling terrorist cells of these regions were active and budding at the same time in 1983. This is also consistent with the pattern that, the organizations, present in the same regions and forming in contemporary eras, would have the capacity to intermingle at some point.

Reports of a renewed ASALA presence were confirmed by the Azerbaijani press, who stated that recently a soldier captured from the conflict theater cites affiliation with the Kurdish PKK organization. Reports confirm the correspondence between the PKK/YPG organizations of Iraq, as well as insurgent movements of Iranian groups. A copycat creation of the former ASALA would be a logical progression of recent activity along the Nagorno-Karabakh front. 

Within the last few hours, the Jewish Press published an article that read “Has Armenia resurrected a terrorist group? Jewish Press cited a report from the Azerbaijani media that a former ASALA head Giber Minasyan had joined the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Likewise, the Azerbaijani envoy to Turkey, Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, has confirmed a renewed presence of ASALA in the conflict theater. 

Cause for concern in the reforming of ASALA

Jewish Press noted with concern the expected reestablishment of the ASALA organization. This was due to the fact that ASALA was originally formed to assist the Palestine Liberation Organization that was headed up by Yasser Arafat in the 1970s-1980s era. The ASALA was trained alongside PLO insurgents in Lebanon, as was noted by Turkish journalist Rafael Sadi. 

The BESA Center likewise confirmed this in a report that noted the presence of Hagop Hagopian, the eventual chairman of ASALA, who worked closely with Abu Iyad of the PLO. Hagopian was considered a “mujahid” of the group. 

It was not completely set in stone based on November 2 reports if ASALA was resurrected or not. As of July 2020, an expected resurgence of ASALA sentiment has appeared on the Armenian front, with supporters wearing pro-ASALA T-shirts in anticipation of the army’s resurrection. The Jewish Press also cited the rhetoric of rage against the French TFI journalist as proof of the legacy of ASALA still continuing in Europe. France came under the direct threat of the ASALA in the mid-1980s, see below. 

The potential strategy of the ASALA copycat 

Local correspondents citing experts of ASALA tactics have outlined a potential strategy for the ASALA copycat to take. ASALA, if it were to behave as it did in the 1980s era, will use propaganda to deceive the international community and hide its true intentions. The saboteurs and terrorists who were deployed from cells across the Middle East, will then enter Armenia and join the ranks of self-defense units and militias. This places the core of a terrorist organization’s formation among the common people. While a simple scheme, it has proven effective. The experts cited the tactics and behavior of Monte Melkonian, the hero of the Armenian national movement during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict era 1988-1993. Melkonian was killed in the battle of Aghdam in 1993. 

CIA documents ties between ASALA and the Armenian diaspora

Should the ASALA reform, it would likely work to establish ties with the Armenian diaspora, in both the theater of insurgent recruitment, and the Armenian political lobby across the western world. To see evidence of this tactic, one may observe the pre-Soviet decomposition patterns of the former ASALA.

In September 1983, the CIA published a report noting the relationship between the ASALA and the Democratic Front of the Armenian diaspora. The CIA records that the Democratic Front was created in 1983 from “radical support groups previously aligned with ASALA_largely because some Armenians perceived that the traditional Armenian political parties had failed to advance their cause.” The CIA stated that there was a rivalry at this time between the traditional groups such as the Dashnaks and the ASALA sympathizers. The Dashnaks and similar parties saw themselves as “the government in exile.”

During the era of 1983, the CIA traced the Armenian diaspora’s formation of radical movements to the Armenian Congress in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1983, their lobby created the Armenian Liberation Organization or the ALO. 

If the same pattern of strategy exists in the ASALA copycat as the original ASALA, then it is a possibility the formation of a revived ASALA would be in the direct challenge of the Armenian establishment, which is losing control of the public. Pashinyan’s Velvet Revolution spurred confidence in his rise to power, but the loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh has greatly denigrated his administration. 

A history of ASALA in Soviet-era disruption 

The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, abbreviated ASALA, began operations in 1975. It was founded by Hagopian, a Syrian-Armenian with “Marxist inclinations” as he was described by the Washington Post in 1986, see below sections. It was confirmed as a terrorist organization for frequent attacks on Turkish diplomats and for its co-conspiracy with the Palestine Liberation Organization. When Israel invaded Beirut, the earlier base of ASALA, in 1982, Hagopian transferred his organization bases to Damascus and Athens. 

The CIA has released a series of preserved documents regarding ASALA’s background. In 1983, Washington Post’s column “Around the World” published an article headlined “Armenian Group Reports Slayings” which details crimes against Turkish diplomats in Athens, Greece. The column was published in August 1983, following another report in July 1983 that had described the “baffling” organization of the Summer 1983 era ASALA formation. 

ASALA had reported that two of its 1983 era group members had been assassinated by U.S. and Turkish agents. In turn, the ASALA assassinated the U.S. and Turkish agents responsible. 

The threat of the ASALA has reemerged throughout the years since its most active campaigns in the 1980s. In 1984, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency published a report regarding the ASALA terror threat as still heavily present. A sanitized copy of the 1984 report was released via the CIA Freedom of Information Act library in 2010. The ASALA terrorist movement was at the backdrop of the fall of the Soviet Union. 

In 1986, a report that noted the French sabotage of Turkish counterterrorism efforts against the ASALA appeared in the Washington Post. Turkish intelligence had reportedly been pleading with the French for photographic evidence they had of Hagop Hagopian, who was considered the cardinal Armenian terrorist of the 1986 era. As of 1986, ASALA was likewise, citing the Washington Post, considered the “deadliest” of the Armenian terror outfits. France withheld the photographs in an effort to force the Turkish government to acknowledge the genocidal massacres of Armenian civilians in the ethnopolitical clashes of 1915 between Armenian liberation movements and the Ottoman Turks. 

The Washington Post also reported that prior to the Turkish plea to receive the Hagopian photos, France had cut a deal with the ASALA leader. In 1982, France released Armenian nationals in exchange for an end to bombing events. At that time, there was also a theory that Hagopian and the Garbidijian terrorists were one and the same. In 1986, France had Garbidijian in custody. Washington Post theorized that a string of Paris bombings in 1986 was connected to the demand for Hagopian’s release through aggression against the civilian French. The ASALA had then been theorized to have co-conspired with Abu Nidal. A complete background of the Abu Nidal organization is available via CIA FOIA release. 

The Paris bombings in 1986 were also reported on by the Washington Post. The bombings killed 10 people and wounded 162. At that time, the Committee for Solidarity with Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners claimed that the group responsible was unknown. The bombings were traced to ASALA due to the demand to release terrorists of Armenian nationalist affiliation, which included Georges Abdallah, Anis Naccache, and Varadjian Garbidijan. Garbidijian was an Armenian Christian born in Syria showing a solidified tie between the MENA terrorist cells of 1986 and the ASALA-styled Armenian insurgencies. The officials in France at that date convinced then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac that Georges Abdallah was the key. Abdallah was a Maronite Lebanese who led the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions. He was held only on minor charges in France, with little evidence to connect him to certain events. The interest of bombers in his release and the traced potential connection between the Paris Bombings and the ASALA would likewise infer some connection between ASALA and smaller terrorist factions of 1986 such as the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions. Washington Post’s inquiry into the bombings believed that the Chirac administration in France was pressured into pinning the Paris bombings on Abdullah, as a sort of distraction from Armenian culpability. They stated that the Washington Post inquiry into the bombing events made 1986-era French leadership nervous. 

Likewise, in Paris, in 1981, ASALA was confirmed to have launched 15 bombings Paris to demand the release of the celebrated Monte Melkonian. France set Melkonian free in an attempt to ward off future bombings. Melkonian then went on to be a hero of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the 1988-1993 era, dying before the end of the war. 

The potential for a resurgence of ASALA copycat activity, or the rebranding of ASALA under former surviving leaders of the organization, bodes badly for a France already undergoing an extremism crisis.