Al-Qaeda Revives in Syria Violence
Intelligence Analysis Report
Believed by many to have entered a period of decline, al-Qaeda has reemerged with a series of dramatic bombings in Iraq and probably Syria, putting the region on notice that it cannot be ignored. The latest violence, which killed more than 100 Iraqi civilians, is part of a new strategy to link the insurgency in Iraq with the Sunni jihad against the Assad regime in Syria, a plan that is creating a new regional security threat, as intelligence experts explains.
The timing of al-Qaeda’s recent bombings in Iraq takes advantage of existing and deepening vulnerabilities in both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The Iraqis appear powerless to stop al-Qaeda attacks, while in Syria, the toppling of the Assad regime would create a power vacuum, giving al-Qaeda the opportunity to reshape Syria to its liking. Since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the conventional wisdom has been that al-Qaeda is in a period of decline. Broadly speaking, bin Laden’s terrorist organization is not what it once was. But it is hyperbole to say it is impotent, especially vis-à-vis its ability to strike targets in the Middle East. In an online posting in late July, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, announced that his organization was pursuing a new “breaking the walls” strategy, and then backed his words up the next day when al-Qaeda launched a sweeping attack on 40 different targets across Iraq, resulting in the death of more than 100 civilians. After putting Iraq’s feckless government on notice with these bombings that it was still a fighting force that should be taken seriously, al-Qaeda launched a follow-up attack on August 1 in Baghdad, detonating two massive bombs that killed 19 more Iraqi citizens. Al-Qaeda’s new campaign in Iraq is, according to its own public statements, an attempt to stir up the sectarian violence between the country’s majority Shiites (about 60 percent of the population) and minority Sunnis (about 20 percent of the population) that was so common during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2012. Al-Qaeda, which promotes an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam, is targeting what it believes is the illegitimate Shiite government installed by the United States in Baghdad. Elements of its strategy in Iraq include controlling cities and towns lost to U.S. forces in 2003, freeing al-Qaeda prisoners and killing judges. Intimidation is one of its biggest weapons. In the aftermath of the recent bombing attacks, 15 city officials from the town of Baquba, the capital of Dayila province, resigned in protest that Iraq’s government could not protect them from al-Qaeda infiltrators. Since the start of the year, at least eight of their counterparts in the city government have been assassinated as a result of al-Qaeda trying to take control of the city.
Al-Qaeda’s relations with Iran and Syria have been marriages of convenience. Even though Syria is governed by an Alawite Muslim minority that is closely aligned with Shia Islam, al-Qaeda had cordial relations with the Assad regime during the Iraq War, with the Assad government allowing al-Qaeda fighters to transit Syria to join the fight in Iraq. While al-Qaeda has religious differences with the Shiite regime in Iran, there reportedly is collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iran based on their common desire to drive the United States from the region. In August 2011, the United States sanctioned six alleged al-Qaeda operatives with ties to Iran and accused the Iranian government of a secret deal to allow them to operate in Iran to conduct terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite al-Qaeda’s previous good relations with the Assad regime, it appeared to turn on the regime this year. In early 2012, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who assumed the mantle of global al-Qaeda leader after the death of Osama bin Laden, called for Sunni fighters to come to Syria and fight the Assad regime.
The result has been the establishment of a front organization, Jabhat al Nasra (Solidarity Front), the umbrella under which al-Qaeda fighters from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as Iraq, have rallied to fight alongside more secular Syrian opposition forces such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Although radical Islamists are thought to be a minority among Syrian rebel fighters, the Wall Street Journal reports that al-Qaeda elements are fighting side-by-side with Sunni counterparts and the FSA in Aleppo and Damascus, where the bloodiest battles are taking place. Syrian rebel fighters are also reportedly increasingly couching their struggle against the Assad regime in Islamist terms to attract recruits, as well as foreign funding and arms. As it fights the Assad regime, Jabhat al Nasra is also gaining recruits from the FSA ranks engaged in the same struggle. Many of these FSA defectors are discouraged by its lack of organization, discipline and structure, which are seen as standing in stark contrast to al-Qaeda’s discipline, organizational skills and experience in battle.
Syria has long been a conduit for fighters traveling to Iraq during the Iraq War and reportedly is becoming an organizational center for Baghdadi’s al-Qaeda-in-Iraq organization, which in addition to attacking Iraq’s government is funneling small arms and explosives into Syria to fight the Assad regime. The prospect of al-Qaeda creating potent synergy between its forces in Iraq and Syria is a growing threat that has increased the level of violence in both nations. Al-Qaeda’s efforts could lead to significant regional instability as it works to undermine the Iraqi government and exploit the uprising in Syria to remake the country as a new regional safe haven.
Al-Qaeda terrorist activity in Iraq shows the weakness of Iraqi forces after the withdrawal of U.S. troops late last year that had al-Qaeda on the defensive. Knowing that the Iraqi government is fragmented and ineffective, al-Qaeda is staging attacks to sap its remaining popular support and spark sectarian tensions that it hopes will erupt into a religious war. While al-Qaeda would like to see Syria and Iraq become Islamist states, it probably views this as a long-term goal. For now, its intention appears to be promoting instability in hope of creating situations that it can exploit to recruit followers and later try to seize control of areas in both countries.
The recent wave of bombings by al-Qaeda in Iraq is part of a larger strategy to tap into the powerful passions fueling the opposition forces fighting the Assad regime next door in Syria. Fanning the hatred Sunni Muslims feel for Assad and redirecting it at the Shiite government in Baghdad makes sense, but there are important differences between the two regimes which will make the linkage difficult.
In Iraq, Sunnis enjoy a measure of political representation and the Maliki government does not have a long history of authoritarian rule the way the Assad family does in Syria.
Still, when the Assad regime does fall, it could inject new life into al-Qaeda in Iraq, bolstering its efforts to create a broad-based, militant Sunni movement across the region reaching from Damascus to Baghdad to Tehran.