Olivia Ward and Michelle Shephard
27 July 2012
It is an Al Qaeda formula that the group uses to exploit the world’s conflicts.
When there’s bloody oppression and fractured opposition groups, Al Qaeda props up a popular domestic cause, while furthering its global ambition, fights in the name of Islam, and then gains strength when a beaten-down populace believes there is no other option.
That has been the fear for Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime began 16 months ago, and that fear has only heightened in recent weeks.
Suicide bombings that U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned earlier this year “had all the earmarks of an Al-Qaeda-like attack,” have increased, while evidence of the influence of Iraq’s Al Qaeda group mounts.
But while there is little doubt Al Qaeda is emerging as one of the players as the Assad regime totters — along with the foundations of the Middle East’s post-Iraq order — how much of a presence it has is not clear.
With so little reliable intelligence, regional analysts caution about lumping together or labelling the dozens of Islamist groups simply as Al Qaeda.
Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the London-based counter-extremism group Quilliam Foundation, said the group he is most concerned about is Jabhat Al Nusra, also known as the Al Nusra Front to Protect the Levant, led by veteran jihadist Abu Muhammad al-Julani.
“If you ask me who they are I’d say Al Qaeda,” Benotman said.
“They’re trying to infiltrate the conflict, the society.”
Benotman is the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that fought against Gaddafi’s regime in the 1990s and was once close to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s elite. He left the organization and has since become a vocal critic of extremism and Islamist violence.
“My main concern is that their tactics are unique and it’s hard to protect against Al Qaeda. Their targets are endless . . . they can attack anything, everything, even Muslims and they can justify that, which is not the case with the other groups.
“I think now (Al Nusra) has established itself, without any doubt. They have their own supporters, their own people but they’re still one of many, many others. It’s not fair to say they are the main player or main driving force of the revolution, even militarily speaking, but if you ask me if they have a chance for more influence in the future, I would say yes.”
Another fear is the number of foreigner fighters with different agendas now in Syria. Two photographers being held captive in Syria, freed on Friday, told the New York Times that foreigner fighters from Bangladesh, Chechnya, Pakistan and Britain were among their captors.
“They were definitely quite extreme in their religious beliefs,” Dutch freelance photographer Jeroen Oerlemans told the paper. “All day we were spoken to about the Koran and how they would bring sharia law to Syria. I don’t think they were Al Qaeda, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, ‘We’re not Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is down the road.’ ”
Oerlemans said his captors spoke incessantly about the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay. “It was constantly on their minds and they were saying ‘this is what you do to our guys,’ ” Oerlemans said. “They would cock their weapons and say, ‘Prepare for the after life,’ or, ‘You better repent and accept Islam.’ It was pretty terrifying, I can assure you.”
The appearance of Al Qaeda cells is fearsome enough for an unstable country. But the prospect of jihadists armed with chemical weapons — or trading them with like-minded groups in North Africa and the Middle East — is the stuff of nightmares.
This week, Syria admitted it had stocks of chemical weapons, and threatened to use them against foreign forces who try to intervene. But the possibility that the troops guarding the deadly weapons would die, desert, or defect to the opposition is a real one.
“It’s a huge concern,” says Bilal Saab, an analyst who specializes in Middle East security and terrorism. “The fact that they have more than 50 (chemical weapons) sites in the country makes it more challenging to secure every single site.”
Even without Al Qaeda, proliferation is still a problem if deadly weapons fall into insecure hands. Saab, who just returned from Turkey, says that the U.S. and countries in the region are already working on a plan.
“A special team is ready, and they just need a political decision from Ankara to order the troops to go in and secure sites,” he said.
“The Turks provide a safe haven along the borders and do some training and intelligence work. The Jordanians have the same role. The Saudis provide weapons and money. The CIA helps with command and control.”
But, he added, it is likely to be a plan of last resort, only to be executed if the country falls into chaos. “President (Barack) Obama has been heavily criticized for his extreme caution on the Syria crisis. But he should be applauded, because Syria is a powder keg and intervention could make things even worse.”
All Syria’s neighbours, however, are well aware of the domino effect on the region if Syria were to become a failed state. And jihadists add to the uncertainty.
“As long as there are militias in Syria, Al Qaeda will be useful,” says Joshua Landis, a Middle Eastern expert at University of Oklahoma who closely monitors Syria. “That would provide fertile ground for destabilizing Iraq as well.”
Since the American invasion of 2003, Iraq has been fighting its way to Shiite majority rule, consolidated under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. But the backlash from formerly elite Sunnis created a market for jihadists who devastated the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Al Qaeda is the most extreme of the Sunni militants, turning a territorial struggle into a religious war that sent shudders through the Middle East. During years of fighting, Syria allowed jihadist recruits to slip seamlessly through its border. Now the tide has turned.
“The most challenging element to deal with is sectarianism,” says Syria expert Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center in Washington. “And this is what the Syrian conflict increasingly embodies.”
Syria’s neighbours are already troubled. Iraq’s violence continues. Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon is uneasily split among several sectarian groups. Secular Jordan’s Islamists are seeking more power, and its population is ethnically divided among Bedouins and Palestinians.
Turkey, a powerhouse in the region, is also concerned. “Reports say that northeastern Syria is in revolt, with Kurds taking full advantage,” says Yacoubian. “Ten per cent of Syria’s population is Kurdish, and Turkey has its own problems with the Kurds.”
The flow of thousands of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries is also a looming threat, in spite of humanitarian efforts to welcome them. More than 100,000 have already arrived in Jordan, and that tiny country is hosting a city-sized UN camp for another 150,000.
Among the refugees are teenage boys who are angry and struggling to come to terms with their terrible experiences, says Simon Ingram of UNICEF’s Jordan office. “We’re very worried as the numbers grow, and we need to be watchful that armed groups don’t use (the camp) as a recruiting ground for impressionable youngsters who can fall for that kind of incitement.”
Some refugees, such as the Christians, and Syria’s now-ruling Alawite minority, may not go home if chaos and sectarian killings overwhelm their country. They may remain in their host countries as disgruntled outsiders, or tip the delicate sectarian balances if they settle in communities.
The Middle East, however, is due for a major power shift if the Shiite-linked Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Shiite Iran gained muscle in the region when Saddam and his Sunni allies fell in Iraq. Iran’s power expanded again when its protégée, Hezbollah, dominated the government in Lebanon. Hard line Sunni Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, muttered about a new “Shiite Crescent.”
For Iran’s foes in Washington, the Syrian uprising was an unexpected bonus. “There was no way to change the regime in Tehran,” says Middle Eastern expert Kamran Bokhari of the U.S.-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. “The only way to weaken Iran’s growing influence was to punch a hole in it — and that hole was Syria.”
But there were unintended consequences, as a peaceful protest turned to a spreading sectarian civil war that “could rage from Lebanon to Iraq, unless there’s a deal to end it.”
As of now, a deal looks increasingly distant. Saudi Arabia is arming the largely-Sunni Syrian opposition in the hope that a new Sunni Syria will counter the influence of Iran. Its ambitions are shared by Turkey and other Gulf States.
Iran is backed by Russia and China, which are in conflict with the U.S. over regime change in Syria, and Russia is determined to maintain its footprint in the region. New fault lines are forming, and Cold War enmities reviving.
“It’s geo-sectarianism,” says Bokhari.
Meanwhile, Syria’s battlefield is expanding daily, and millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire of a conflict over which they have no control. As fighting rages, hopes for a peaceful and democratic transition of power are fading.
In the end, says Landis, “I don’t think there will be any power-sharing. (The opposition) is trying to get rid of an Alawite dictatorship, and give the Sunnis real power. There is no happy formula.”