What Is Al Qaeda Doing in Syria?

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian security forces walk on the wreckage of a damaged Syrian military intelligence building at a security compound which was attacked by an explosion, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday Feb. 10, 2012. Two explosions targeted security compounds in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, state media said, causing an unspecified number of casualties in a major city seen as key to President Bashar Assad's grip on power. (AP Photo/SANA)

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian security forces walk on the wreckage of a damaged Syrian military intelligence building at a security compound which was attackedby an explosion, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday Feb. 10, 2012. Two explosions targeted security compounds in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, state media said, causing an unspecified number of casualties in a major city seen as key to President Bashar Assad's grip on power. (AP Photo/SANA)

February 23, 2012

Yesterday, Iraqi forces arrested the head of Ansar al-Sunna — an Iraqi insurgent group Iraqi leaders say has links with Al Qaeda — as he tried to enter the country through its border with Syria.

The news comes just a week after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is extending its reach into Syria and may have been behind high-profile suicide attacks on state facilities in Damascus in December and in Aleppo earlier this month.

FRONTLINE turned to Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, to understand more about AQI’s ties to Syria and the likelihood that it is behind the recent attacks.

What is Al Qaeda in Iraq and how did the group emerge in 2004?

“In Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, Al Qaeda didn’t have a lot of game on the ground. They didn’t have major networks where they could exploit their own authority and influence in those rebellions. In Syria they do have those networks.”

Al Qaeda in Iraq was created out of the infrastructure developed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian who developed a group called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which means “monotheism in jihad.” In the late 1990s he moved to Afghanistan where he established a jihadi training camp for a large range of [insurgents], including Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians — folks from the Levant. That was a population that Al Qaeda writ large had not had a lot of success recruiting.

Even though Zarqawi went to Afghanistan and had a relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, he didn’t have a very close relationship [with them], and he disagreed with those senior leaders on a variety of different substantive, strategic and ideological issues.

But after 9/11 and the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, all of those groups collaborated and Zarqawi wound up fleeing Afghanistan through Iran and into northern Iraq in 2002. At that time, he linked up with another jihadi organization, Ansar al-Islam, that existed in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq outside of the area that Saddam Hussein controlled. … Zarqawi was able to use his network of mostly Levantine fighters to establish a functional organization in Iraq. …

Ultimately what happened was that in October 2004, Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden after eight to 10 months of negotiating over what exactly that would mean, and that’s when AQI was created.

What was the relationship between Al Qaeda proper and AQI?

That relationship was strained in many ways because of Zarqawi’s incredible brutality. It got to the point where Al Qaeda’s senior leadership felt that publicizing those kinds of beheadings and assassinations of Muslims — whether Shia or Sunni, in very brutal ways — was actually doing harm to the overall organization. So they made a point of trying to convince Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq not to publicize those kinds of activities. …

After Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, a new organization was declared in October 2006 by AQI [known as] the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The ISI was really intended to be something very ambitious. It was going to try to control and govern territory in Western Iraq and Anbar province and surrounding areas. The problem there was that the ISI was an organization and an institution that was foreign-led, that had a vision of Sharia that was extremely brutal and very close-minded in a way, and most of the folks in western Iraq wanted to have nothing to do with it. …

In late 2006, early 2007, there was a real backlash against AQI. We call them the “Awakening Councils” or the “Sons of Iraq” — these Sunni groups in western Iraq that reacted against the violence and brutality of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had provoked a sectarian conflict that it was not prepared to win. Al Qaeda went out and provoked the majority Shia population in Iraq and some very powerful militias that turned on Sunni populations. The Sunnis looked at Al Qaeda and asked, “Why did you do this to us?”

When the Sunni tribes turned on AQI, it really set them back tremendously. AQI withdrew along its logistic lines, which had gone through Syria and crossed into Iraq in the north near the Iraqi city of Mosul … [where] they were able to play on an ethnic conflict there between Arabs and Kurds. They were able to find local factions that found their brand of violence useful. Essentially they found a way to be resilient [by] turning themselves into a more traditional terrorist organization than they had been over the past couple of years. …

They sort of have made a comeback. Starting in late 2009 there was a series of major attacks in Baghdad, and throughout 2010 and 2011 you saw that this was a group, in my mind, that was nowhere near as powerful as it had been, but still had the capabilities to conduct major attacks, some of which were suicide attacks. …

About a year ago, a U.S. official was quoted saying that Al Qaeda in Iraq had 800 to 1,000 members, 200 of which were hardcore. I don’t really have a way to measure the exact numbers, those seem reasonable to me, but it’s hard to know. …

What’s the makeup of AQI’s foreign fighters and what are their connections to Syria?

Many of Zarqawi’s first recruits were Syrian; some were from Saudi Arabia. But as time wore on, there was a lot of attrition. Frankly, a lot of these people got killed. And so Zarqawi and his successor, by the 2006-2008 time period, they were recruiting fighters from all over the world.

[Documents on insurgents in Iraq known as the Sinjar Records listed] very few Syrians, but there were a lot of Libyans, and essentially all of those people were being funneled into Iraq via Syria, which illustrates that AQI had functional logistical networks in Syria during that time period. …

They still have the ability to operate through Syria. That’s important because those logistics lines can be reversed and, if they need to, they will be able to move into Syria just as they have been able to move people from Syria into Iraq.

One thing that’s interesting about this is that AQI and Al Qaeda in general don’t respect the borders of these countries. One of Al Qaeda’s most important talking points is the legacy of the [Sykes-Picot agreement] between the British and the French in 1916 that created this border between what we today call Syria and Iraq. From Al Qaeda’s perspective, that border is a legacy of Western imperialism.

Defining an area of operations that crosses that border is a very natural thing to do and I think that they will do that, especially because they have a pre-existing ideological and communications structure that plays of the sectarian dynamic that they’re going to want to use in Syria. …

In mid-Febuary, Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on people in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to fight the Assad regime. How might assisting with attacks against the Syrian state fit with Al Qaeda or AQI’s goals? What might it get out of this fight?

… The biggest thing to think about any Al Qaeda franchise is that they are opportunistic. Al Qaeda has the ability to serve as a leech, to step into these conflicts in order to advance their own agenda, which is creating what they would call Islamic states in the Middle East that are run according to their understanding of Sharia. They want to use their participation in these violent rebellions to develop propaganda, to demonstrate their strength elsewhere and to create these power vacuums that they can fill later on.

That’s what I think Al Qaeda and AQI want to do in Syria. There is a political contest that has turned violent, and AQI wants to demonstrate that Al Qaeda is part of a resistance movement and a legitimate player in the overthrow of a regime that is rightly understood as tyrannical.

In Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, Al Qaeda didn’t have a lot of game on the ground; they didn’t have major networks where they could exploit their own authority and influence in those rebellions. In Syria they do have those networks. They do have the logistical line they’ve built up over the past eight years, almost nine years now, through Syria and into Iraq. They have the capability to get into a sectarian fight against [someone] they would refer to as one of the apostate leaders in the Middle East, which is the ultimate point of Al Qaeda. …

When you look at the communications from Al Qaeda leaders themselves and also from the community of jihadi commentators, what you see when they talk about Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the North African rebellions online is, “Let’s bide our time. Let’s stockpile weapons, until we’re ready to take advantage of that dynamic in a couple of years.” What that says to me is that they don’t have a real organization on the ground in those places.

But in Syria, the tone is very, very different. It’s very aggressive. It’s very much calling for violence in immediate terms and participating in the wider fight. … Al Qaeda, as an organization and as a movement, are a bunch of media whores. Right now the world is looking at Syria, so that’s where they want to be. …

[The question is] whether they have any luck in a Syrian environment trying to win over a wider constituency than they were able to in Iraq. I don’t think they will.

Is there proof that AQI is behind these attacks in Syria? The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress last week that the attacks had all the “earmarks” of an Al Qaeda attack. What are those?

I don’t have proof, but there’s a lot of smoke. There’s enough smoke that there seems to be fire. Smoke that looks like the attacks themselves — suicide attacks, car bombs — that are reminiscent of the kind of strike that we have seen in Iraq. We know that AQI has the logistics capability to move people and material inside of Syria. We know that al-Zawahiri has given the green light to AQI to participate; he’s done it publicly and may have done it privately beforehand. We know that the global jihadi community is much more forward leaning and aggressive when it comes to Syria as opposed to North Africa.

But we don’t have a claim of responsibility for attacks within Syria from AQI or any other Al Qaeda faction, though we have claims on jihadi websites of the establishment of a suicide brigade in Homs by would-be jihadi organizations inside of Syria. I think that journalists, analysts and activists such as myself are rightfully wary of such claims because anybody can say anything online and there are lots of people, including the Syrian regime, who would have an incentive in suggesting that the Syrian opposition is all Al Qaeda.

That said, I believe the simpler explanation is that Al Qaeda is attempting to play a role in the Syrian rebellion and has and is likely to conduct occasional attacks against the Syrian regime and Alawite targets inside Syria. …

If not Al Qaeda in Iraq, who else could possibly be behind these attacks? Who else has the logistics capability to carry out these suicide attacks?

AQI is the most likely jihadi organization [behind these attacks]. There’s likely defected Syrian army officials that would have this capability. Some of the Lebanese jihadi organizations — which are generally pretty small, Fatah al-Islam which really got torn apart — might have the ability to do something like this.

But suicide attacks are generally the kind of things that get introduced from somebody on the outside. …  It has become very much a hallmark of Al Qaeda, specifically of AQI. That doesn’t mean other groups don’t do it — for example Hezbollah, which is an ally of the Syrian regime. There a variety of groups who could do it, but I think the most logical is AQI or networks related to it. Some of those networks in Syria are not Al Qaeda, but rather partners with AQI.

What kind of role does AQI see itself playing in Syria?

They seem to be cognizant of the mistakes they made in Iraq. One of the mistakes that they made was that they tried to establish themselves as the ruling authority without winning over the population, and that backfired very severely. They’re aware of that mistake when looking in Syria and I think they will be much quieter about their violent participation. I don’t think we’ll see many announcements that this is Al Qaeda operating.

In the short run, I think they will try to create a situation where this is just violent rebellion and brand it as the mujahedeen or Arab volunteers rather than Al Qaeda.  …

This is a depressing thing because it will cloud what’s happening in Syria. The fundamental story is that there are brave people standing up to a tyrannical government. … There are lots of factions in Syria that agree on the need for the Assad regime needs to go. But there’s likely to be extraordinary disagreement among those various factions over what should come next. …

There’s going to be a threat from Al Qaeda in Syria. I do not think Al Qaeda is going to dominate the rebellion there. But I do think they are going to build a base of operations and likely a small fringe constituency that adopts their sectarian outlook and form of violence against the Alawite population at large as well as the regime.

A small group like that can have a very destabilizing effect. If you are an Alawite citizen in Damascus, maybe you’re not tied to the regime but you’ve certainly benefited to an extent based on who you are. You know there’s a rebellion against a repressive government, but you also know there’s an element within that rebellion that wants to kill you based on what you believe, not based on the government that you’ve lived under. That makes you a lot less likely to want to cut a deal. That makes you afraid. That makes you want to sign up and fight.

That’s the kind of dangerous radicalizing impact that even a small group like Al Qaeda can have in a contentious environment such as what we see today in Syria.

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