New expert study concludes that al-Qaida-type groups are a small but growing presence in fight against Assad

The role of of jihadist groups is attracting increasing scrutiny in media coverage and analysis of the Syrian uprising — giving the experts who thrived in the years after 9/11 a new lease of life. Most prominent amongst these outfits is the mysterious Jabhat al-Nusra (The front for the protection of the people of the Levant), which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. It appears sympathetic to, if not formally affilated with, al-Qaida, though Ayman al-Zawahiri, the AQ leader, issued a rallying cry to jihadists in Syria in February this year. It publishes regular statements describiing its operations and mourning its martyrs. Its language is unashamedly sectarian. Organisational affiliations are often unclear, but veteran fighters have brought deadly operational experience from Iraq, as Ghaith Abdul Ahad reported vividly here. Western intelligence officials admit that they are concerned but still know little about al-Nusra and like-minded Sunni groups.

Now a new study by an unusually well-placed expert predicts that their role will become more important. Noman Benotman is at the Quilliam Foundation in London, where he is a sort of poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Benotman was a founder member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was formed in the mid-1990’s to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Benotman knew Osama bin Laden but he other LIFG members such as Abdel-Hakim Belhadj denied being part of al-Qaida and its global struggle. Many also fought in Iraq. Under the auspices of the reformist Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, LIFG members participated in official de-radicalisation programmes, renounced violence and were freed from prison. Belhadj’s former deputy in Tripoli, the Libyan-Irish Mahdi al-Harati, is now in Syria leading the Liwa al-Ummah brigade.

“The increasing evidence of jihadist activism in Syria in recent months indicates that the uprising is moving towards a new and more radical phase,” Benotman writes. Proportion and precision are important in the light of Syrian government propganda, which emphasises the jihadi character of the “armed terrorist groups” — language it started using in the first months of the uprising when the protests were still largely peaceful. Assad supporters at home and abroad tend to highlight the role of jihadi and Salafi groups, sometimes claiming that they are working with Nato — as the Libyan rebels indeed did last year. Financial support is said to come from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf, though the lines are blurred between governments, religious foundations and individual donors.

The presence of these groups, formed into a loose network, is now unquestionable. “The overwhelming majority of fighters in the network are Syrian, with the number of foreign fighters varying between 1200-1500 members,” Benotman says. He adds: “In most conflicts of which they are a part, jihadist groups represent a small percentage of combatants – this holds true in the Syrian case, where they represent less than 10% of all fighters. For these groups, militant uprising is seen as an opportunity to exercise their influence in Syria; particularly as the peaceful revolutions of the Arab Spring rendered their role irrelevant in the nations’ fight for freedom.”