Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, just one year old, is now the fastest-growing al Qaeda front in the world, attracting fighters from across the Islamic world. Jabhat al Nusra, translated variously as the Victory Front or the Support Front for the Syrian People, was founded in January 2012, almost a year after the first demonstrations against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. It was created with the assistance of the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq that was formed nearly a decade ago during the American invasion. The Iraqi base provided a safe haven for setting up the front in Syria and still provides sanctuary for the Syrian group to this day.
The Syrian franchise has also gotten crucial support from the al Qaeda core in Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s Amir Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a public call in February 2012 in which he demanded that “every Muslim and every free and honest person in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to rise and help their brothers in Syria with everything they have and can do.” Zawahiri’s call, just after the announcement of the creation of the al Nusra front and its first major attacks in Aleppo, was clearly coordinated with the fighters on the ground. Since Zawahiri’s call, at least one senior member of the al Qaeda shura council in Pakistan has traveled to Syria to further coordinate plans and operations with the core hiding in Pakistan. Former secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed the exchanges of messages between al Qaeda in Pakistan and al Nusra in Syria as “deeply disturbing” in one of her final interviews in office.
Estimates of the size of the al Nusra organization vary, but they may now account for up to a quarter of the opposition fighters in Syria. The al Qaeda presence is stronger around Aleppo and the north than around Damascus, but it is becoming a national phenomenon. Without doubt, they are among the most effective fighters in the resistance to the Assad regime and the most willing to use multiple simultaneous suicide bombings, an al Qaeda trademark. Al Qaeda in Iraq has a wealth of experience in developing large sophisticated bombs—experience that has been exported into Syria.
And the front is attracting more fighters rapidly, not just among Syrians but from across the Muslim world. A recent review of jihadist websites found more than a 130 martyrdom notices—that is, obituaries posted on extremist websites “celebrating” the martyrdom of fighters in Syria. Most are relatively new—85 of the 130 were posted in the past four months. The majority of these were for fighters in the al Nusra front. They came to Syria from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Australia, Chechnya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, France, Iraq, and Spain.
The Danish press reported this week that a 39-year-old Danish citizen, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, along with another unnamed Danish citizen, were killed fighting in Syria. Abderrahmane, the son of a Danish mother and an Algerian father, had served two years in Guantánamo, Cuba, after being captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2002. Danish reports say at least 30 Danish Muslims have gone to fight with al Nusra in Syria. Senior European intelligence officials have told me that there is a wave of angry young Muslim men from all across Western Europe going to Syria to join al Qaeda and fight Assad.
Assad, of course, from the beginning of the uprising against his tyranny, has blamed it all on terrorists and al Qaeda. But the truth is that by refusing to give up power and by resorting to a brutal war against his own people, he has created a self-fulfilling prophecy and brought al Qaeda to Syria. The longer the war goes on now, the stronger al Qaeda will get in Syria.
The Syrian group has also tried to export its violence to Jordan. Last October the Jordanian intelligence service foiled a plot based in Syria by al Qaeda to stage a mass-casualty terror attack in Amman that was apparently modeled on the 2008 attack by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai, India. The attack would have begun with suicide bombers in two shopping malls in Amman; then, when the security forces rushed to deal with those, other attackers would attack the American embassy and other Western diplomats in the city.
Jordanian authorities believe that the planned attacks were scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the November 9, 2005, terrorist attacks in Amman, in which 60 people were killed and 115 injured in multiple hotel bombings. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing its rejection of Jordan’s alliance with the United States and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jordanian intelligence said that group nicknamed its terror plot “9/11 the second” after the 2005 bombings. Among those arrested were two cousins of the Jordanian founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, who planned the 2005 attack.
For now the jihadists are focused on Syria and winning the war against Assad. But their ambitions are much larger. With a base in Syria they can threaten American interests in the entire Levant region, Europe, and our allies in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. The worst danger is that the al Nusra front will get control of some of Syria’s large chemical weapons arsenal. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, built major chemical-weapon capability in the 1980s, including the deadly nerve agent sarin, which was first developed by the Nazis. Al Qaeda has been trying to get a weapon of mass destruction for years. Now in Syria it may be closer than ever.