Has Al-Qaeda made headway in Syria? Is the terrorist network taking root or is this merely media hype working to the advantage of the regime?
These questions not being raised here to bolster the Syrian regime’s arguments that the revolution is being led by terrorist groups, allowing them to question the peaceful nature of the demonstrations and the right of the protesters to take to the streets, whether armed or unarmed. Nor are these questions being raised to diminish the Free Syrian Army, or to downplay the courage of the defectors, whom the leadership continues to steadily kill. These questions are rather reflective of legitimate fears based on recent events and indicators that suggest that the Syrian revolution will likely be hijacked by al-Qaeda's Jihadists.
Let us not jump to conclusions and throw accusations around regarding conspiracy plots, especially in light of the escalating bloody clashes and given that attempts to improve the image of the Syrian revolution have become more harmful than helpful. After almost a year since the beginning of the revolution, which many thought they would not live to see, it has become necessary to quit playing the role of the victim and to focus on addressing the most crucial questions.
First of all, it is necessary to take into account al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s statement two weeks ago. In a video message, al-Zawahiri urged honorable Muslims in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Turkey to support the Syrian uprising, calling for a Muslim jihad — holy war — against Assad's regime. Al-Zawahiri was careful to play the Palestinian card by referring to the Syrian upheaval as an intifada. He accused the forces loyal to the regime of weakening Syria and pushing it toward the recognition of Israel and submission to the global system. He also promised a new Syria "which will be a Muslim jihadist state opposed to Israel" once al-Qaeda is victorious. There is nothing new about al-Zawahiri's statement; it falls within the same framework as his previous calls. Al-Zawahiri’s message included all the essential ingredients of a call to jihad: mention of a corrupt and repressive system, the duty of every Muslim to defend their brothers and a reference to the Palestinians, all very emotionally stimulating.
Al-Zawahiri's call did not elicit many reactions, except from those who deemed it tangible proof of the Bashar al-Assad regime's claims that the revolution is being controlled by al-Qaeda. Syrian activists responded by saying that al-Zawahiri does not represent any of them, and that he has no right to speak on their behalf. This may to a large extent be true. However, al-Qaeda — a "franchised" network — does not need any invitation to take the initiative. It seeks opportunities to break in and put its name on other movements.
Al-Zawahiri’s video message would have passed unnoticed had it not been associated with a series of questionable incidents. First, Abu Musaab al-Suri, a leading Jihadist figure, was unexpectedly released from prison. Al-Suri, who is considered a dangerous al-Qaeda leader, was arrested in Pakistan in late 2005 and handed over to the Syrian authorities, which have recently released him for unknown reasons. Al-Suri’s whereabouts are unknown. This news did not find its way into the headlines, but many saw it as part of the formal propaganda to be employed by the regime against the revolution.
Afterward, Washington made controversial declarations that the twin bombings in Aleppo and Damascus had hallmark characteristics of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. The declaration was based on "security information which cannot be disclosed at the moment." How and when this information was collected remains another missing piece of this jigsaw puzzle.
In conjunction with these events, Abu Qatada was freed in London. Abu Qatada, who was the "spiritual guide" of Osama Bin Laden and the "inspirational leader" of the Salafist jihadist movement in several countries, is likely to be handed over to the Jordanian authorities. The return of such a prominent leader at a time of high jihadist activity in Jordan might represent a golden opportunity for these organizations to resume their operations. Recently, many of these activities have come to light: According to media and security reports, militants from Iraq were arrested on the Syrian-Jordanian border, a large number of weapons were seized and many Salafist jihadist figures have been held under investigation.
Furthermore, Syria has witnessed many calls for jihad emanating from mysterious organizations and parties. The weight of these organizations on the ground remains obscure as their leaders are unknown. However, they are all fighting for a role during or after the Syrian upheaval. Calls for jihad are all over websites and online forums, not to mention the daily statements urging Muslims to support the Syrian rebels that are being spread via email. Observers have been circulating names such as the “Front of Victory," the “National movement" and the "Hezb al-Ahrar Free People's Party” without these names holding any particular weight.
The established jihadist groups abroad have begun to attract the interest of the media and are seeking to make headway in Syria.
"Since the second week of the revolution, we have been sending armed groups to Douma. We have carried out several operations and we made the last shipment of weapons during the invasion of Damascus Rif [rural Damascus]," said Sheikh Ibrahim Abdul Aziz al-Zoubi, leader of the Hezb al-Ahrar. Whether they are accurate or not, al-Zoubi's statements should not be taken lightly. Al-Zoubi, son of Deraa, has been living in Mecca for three years. He and certain Salafists do not deny that they rejected peaceful protests in Syria since day one. "The regime can only be fought with arms," said al-Zoubi to al-Hayat in a telephone conversation.
The Islamist leader rejects any link between his movement and the Syrian regime, and denies accusations that his activities are giving the Assad regime further justification to crack down on protesters. Al-Zoubi pointed out that the majority in the Free Syrian Army has an Islamic tendency, even if they do not operate under the banner of a certain party or organization.
"Jihad is the only way to bring down Assad's regime," said al-Zoubi. In response to questions about the size of his organization and the number of its members, he said "our numbers are not large because we have chosen not to attract media attention. Many fear declaring their political and religious affiliation. However, we are currently working on establishing a party that will be present and active at home in Syria."
Al-Zoubi's statements echoed in Lebanon, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli, a place especially sensitive to this type of dynamic. Some argue that the Salafist movements in Tripoli, al-Daniye and other northern areas have been limited to media platforms, and that they do not hold any considerable weight on the ground. However, this assumption directly contradicts the fact that Lebanon has played the role of a transit route for militants, even if it has not always been a central battleground. Many theories intertwine regarding the battle of al-Daniye in 2000 and the Nahr al-Bared Camp war against Fatah al-Islam in 2007. Reports suggest that militant groups were established with the knowledge of the Lebanese security services in order to carry out battles outside of Lebanon.
Whether al-Zoubi or other leaders of the recently formed movements seek financial or political gains, are pushing to play a role in the Syrian revolution or are trying blackmail the Syrian regime into cooperating with them, these eventualities all raise fears that Islamists want to hijack the Syrian revolution. This threat should not be taken lightly, as it may remind us of previous scenarios in which Islamic organizations proved their ability to cooperate with regimes only to turn against them later and follow their own agendas. The Afghan experience in fighting against the Soviets and the Iraqi scenario, where Syria itself ensured the transit of fighters and monitored car bombings, are prime examples of this possibility.
Thus, Washington's declaration that the bombings in Aleppo and Damascus carry trademark signs of an al-Qaeda operation should set off not one, but two alarms. This declaration is a stinging blow to the "political revolutionaries" represented by the Syrian National Council that are seeking international recognition while suffering from deep divides within their ranks. It is also a major hit to the "field revolutionaries" represented by the Free Syrian Army, which demands to be armed, but whose leadership is increasingly collapsing.
The answers to these questions will depend to a large extent on the National Council, as it is the political entity that will ostensibly formulate a clear vision for the coming phase. However, security and military vacuums represent a golden opportunity for Islamists — no matter how obscure — to gain a foothold in the Syrian arena. A few car bombs and a group of suicide bombers is all that it will take to blow the Syrian revolution off course.
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