Al Qaeda’s Syria Play
Jamie Dettmer on the merger of Al Qaeda in Iraq with Al Nusra in Syria.
Syrians battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad shouldn’t settle for democracy as the reward for their sacrifices but should embrace strict Islamic sharia law when the Syrian regime has been finally defeated, says the emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
In a recorded audio message lasting 20 minutes and released yesterday to jihadi websites, Al-Baghdadi acknowledged that Al Qaeda has been involved in the fighting in Syria, confirming that the Jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has become one of the most effective and disciplined rebel formations in the civil war, is an extension of Al Qaeda in Iraq, otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq.
Al-Nusra, which has launched more than 40 successful bombing attacks against mainly government military targets, often using suicide bombers, has been tagged a terrorist organization by the Obama administration because of its links with al-Qaeda. It has been enjoying growing cachet among Syrian rebels from recent operational accomplishments on the battlefield and has been in the vanguard of many successful full-scale rebel clashes with Assad forces.
Al-Baghdadi says that al-Nusra’s ties with Al Qaeda were kept obscure for security reasons and to provide Syrians the opportunity to judge the jihadist fighters through their own eyes as opposed through the filter of a biased international media that would immediately have dismissed them.
According to the Al Qaeda leader, there were already jihadist cells in Syria before the conflict erupted. These cells were “awaiting the chance” to expand their operations and when the civil war started Abu Muhammad Al-Julani was dispatched along with other Iraqi jihadists to establish al-Nusra and to set strategy. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been splitting its funds with al-Nusra, he says.
His boast will be seized on by the Assad regime, which has consistently spun the propaganda line that the rebellion is a foreign conspiracy relying on terrorists and foreign Jihadist fighters.
The evidence on the ground is that al-Nusra has been able to swell its ranks with homegrown fighters as well foreigners drawn from elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia and with a sprinkling from Europe.
The Obama administration, which took major criticism from Syrian rebels for tagging al-Nusra a terrorist organization, will likely highlight al-Baghdadi’s remarks as final justification for its desgination.
Al-Baghdadi is a highly effective if brutal leader. He has been responsible for directing large-scale operations in Iraq such as the August 28, 2011 attack on the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad that killed prominent Sunni lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi. He has had deep experience in setting up jihadist groups and organized the flow of fighters from Syria and elsewhere into Iraq, a recruitment process that strengthened Al Qaeda in Iraq, say U.S. intelligence sources. He became the emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2010.
On December 2, 2012 Iraqi officials claimed that they had captured him in Baghdad following a two-month-long investigation but later admitted they had lifted a less important jihadist leader. Al Baghdadi became notorious before taking over the Al Qaeda leadership for running Islamic courts to try locals for working with the Iraqi government and coalition forces and would sometimes abduct whole families. Those he found guilty were publicly executed.
Al-Baghdadi’s remarks are likely to complicate the arming of Syrian rebels by Gulf powers. Since January, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have increased significantly weapon supplies to brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army in the hope that the weapons would shift the balance of the war decisively and quickly in favor of the rebels. But videos posted by al-Nusra last month show their fighters using Croatian anti-tank weapons the Gulf powers are thought to have earmarked for the FSA.
The British and French governments have been pushing to increase the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels and for a European Union arms embargo to be lifted, but other European nations have resisted, arguing the equipment would fall into the hands of jihadist groups such as al-Nusra. European critics of the Anglo-French position say the intended recipients of the weapons, the FSA rebel units, work too closely with al-Nusra to keep the weapons to themselves, say German diplomats involved in EU negotiations.
“We are concerned that the FSA isn’t really a cohesive force with a single command-and-control structure,” says a German diplomat based in Brussels. “The FSA can’t stop weaponry from being shared with al-Nusra and other jihadists,” he says.
According to al-Baghdadi al-Nusra will now be officially merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq and the two groups will operate under the name Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham. The name change is significant and highlights Al Qaeda’s ambitions to use the Syrian conflict for greater regional goals. Al-Sham refers to Greater Syria, a pan-Arab geographical definition of a hypothetical united Arab state that corresponds to a medieval Arab province encompassing the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Levant as well as Western Mesopotamia.
In recent weeks al-Nusra fighters have come closer to Lebanon and the likelihood has increased of a confrontation along the border between Lebanon’s Shiite armed movement Hezbollah and Sunni jihadists with al-Nusra, who have been moving into Shiite villages on the Syrian side of the border along a 30-mile stretch in the mountainous al-Nabk area about 50 miles north of Damascus, say Lebanese intelligence sources.
In his audio message al-Baghdadi says the new merged group will not abide by geographical borders or be constrained by ethnic affiliations. That echoes what al-Nusra has said in recent months to other smaller Jihadist groups fighting in Syria.
In January al-Nusra issued a call to arms after a meeting in the Syrian province of Deir al-Zour with nine other jihadist groups. Al-Nusra urged all jihadist brigades to “unite in the cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood.” The statement continued: “We call upon our sincere mujahedin brothers all over the strong Levant to unite their ranks in groups, pure of the filth of suspicious groups and the infiltration of people who have no qualities or faith, in order to clarify their banner and purify their path.”
As well as being at the forefront of major battles with Syrian government forces, al-Nusra has unleashed a bombing campaign. Its first suicide bombing came nine months after the uprising against Assad began with a two-car bomb attack on December 23, 2011—targeting the regime’s intelligence offices, killing at least 44 people, and wounding more than 160. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, it is likely that two female suicide bombers from Iraq carried out that attack. Since then the pace of al-Nusra bombings has increased from one a month in the first three months of 2012 to four to six a month now.
The group has been careful in the past to limit its jihadi messages when interacting with locals in rebel-held territory and has talked more in terms of assisting the poor. It has basked in growing popularity in the rebel areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces tucked under the border with Turkey. Civilians contrast the discipline and honesty of al-Nusra fighters with some FSA fighters and argue the jihadists share war spoils with civilians unlike FSA units.
In the city of Aleppo, German filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen, who spent several weeks in the city, told The Daily Beast last month that “you see streets being cleaned by al-Nusra and schools organized by al-Nusra…radical Islamists are doing well; they are very efficient and have more funds … Most civilians are saying they may be quite radical, but at least they are helping and doing things, and the strategy is working.”