September 28th, 2012
09:47 AM ET

Will Syria enable al-Qaeda resurgence in Middle East?

By Bilal Y. Saab, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Bilal Y. Saab is a visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This article is based on a recent analysis by the author that appeared in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst. The views expressed are the author’s own.

With evidence of jihadist activity in Syria surfacing over the past several months, the issue now is not so much the likelihood of al-Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian conflict, but the nature of its involvement and the threat it poses to Syria’s future, regional security, and Western interests in the Middle East.

In a recent analysis in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on al-Qaeda in Syria, I revealed evidence of the multiplying jihadist cells operating in the country. Indeed, based on secondary Arabic sources and recent interviews in Europe and the Middle East with Western and Arab intelligence officers and analysts working on Syria, the Syrian battlefield now appears awash with al-Qaeda-linked jihadist cells. And even if some of these cells do not have a clear connection to al-Qaeda’s franchises in the region, or to the central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have the same goals and operate in the same religious universe. The reality is that there is money, there are men, there is dedication, and there is some awareness on the part of al-Qaeda that the crisis in Syria presents an opportunity to expand in the Levant.

But for the jihadists’ presence to morph from a disorganized and cellular structure to a harmonious, powerful insurgency, it will need a charismatic leader capable of unifying the various cells and providing a clear sense of direction.

No less important for the potential establishment of an al-Qaeda insurgent movement in Syria is a clear commitment by al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, to invest and create a durable foothold in Syria. While al-Zawahiri issued a statement in February calling for jihad in Syria (this statement being much far combative than his remarks in July 2011), his level of commitment to the conflict is still questionable. The al-Qaeda leader has a clear interest in fulfilling his organization’s mission in the Levant, but little suggests that he has instructed his operatives and followers to go “all-in” on Syria. Perhaps he is not in a position to do so given the aggressive global campaign against his organization and the massive setbacks it has had to deal with over the past 2 to 3 years with the killing of Osama bin Laden and several other terrorist masterminds. But if he starts making more statements on Syria, singles out a particular jihadist group, sends a veteran operative or a close advisor to unify the ranks and supervise jihadist activity in Syria, and instructs al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to provide further financial and logistical assistance to the jihadis in Syria, it would suggest al-Zawahiri has set his sights firmly on Syria.

Yet even if al-Zawahiri does not commit, and no unifying leader emerges, the course of events in Syria could be enough for jihadists in Syria to establish a more solid foothold. “They will figure it out eventually,” one Lebanese military intelligence officer in Beirut told me. With Islamist radicalization broadening across the country, sectarian warfare escalating between Sunnis and Alawites and Christians taking up arms for the first time to protect themselves, the conflict could eventually cause the complete disintegration of the country if outside powers do not intervene. Under such anarchy, al-Qaeda has tended to flourish, at least if the Iraq experience is any guide. “What we’re seeing in Syria is another Iraq in the making, I swear,” lamented one Jordanian intelligence officer.

Still, knowing what kind of presence al-Qaeda has in Syria is one thing, but devising a strategy and mustering the necessary political will to combat it – or at least contain it – is a different matter altogether. Terrorist cells are usually countered through a sophisticated law enforcement and counter-terrorism strategy, the backbone of which are good intelligence. A terrorist insurgent presence, in contrast, has to be fought with a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign that operates in parallel with a state-building exercise. Far more resources go into the second strategy given the formidable long-term threat that insurgencies pose, but that does not mean that the threat posed by cells is less severe or easier to counter. Cells are harder to break because they live and plan away from public eyes and have focused and limited goals. The authorities can hit, miss, but still learn when tackling insurgencies. However, with terrorist cells, the margin of error is almost zero.

Al-Qaeda’s potentially changing status in Syria poses challenges to those who have an interest in countering the group, namely the Syrian government, regional states, and Western powers. The challenge is that any effective strategy to fight the jihadists, given the mixed and fluid status of their presence, has to incorporate elements of both counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. The problem is that under the present circumstances, neither strategy can be properly implemented given the absence of Western boots on the ground in Syria, the Syrian government’s differing priorities from the West (its first and foremost goal is to crush the uprising, not fight al-Qaeda), and the inability and/or unwillingness of regional states to pursue a more aggressive policy on Syria and enter Syrian territory to hunt down terrorist networks. The result is that al-Qaeda has been allowed by default to operate freely in this relatively open Syrian space using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey as a major transit point.

With the total absence of any domestic or foreign force able to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a strategic base in Syria for the entire Levant, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time before another al-Qaeda insurgent movement is born in the Middle East. Those who believe al-Qaeda is dead should closely watch events in Syria: if Ayman al-Zawahiri plays his cards right, the terrorist organization could be reborn in that part of the world.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria • Terrorism

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    Will Syria enable an Al Qaeda resurgence in the Middle East? It's quite dubious since Al Qaeda was never that powerful to begin with but then again, one never knows.

    September 28, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
  2. Steve

    These uprisings are the perfect platform for AlQaeda and other extremists forces to proliferate. It was totally wrong for the West to encourage and support these insurgencies, because the outcome may be far worse for Western interests than the former regimes ever were.

    September 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Isaac

      You are assuming the USA had control over the Arab trip and fall.

      September 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      I disagree. Under the Assad regime, the following groups were state sponsored (all of these are considered to be 'terrorist by 1 or 2 countries at the very least): Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Abu Musa Organization, and the Popular Struggle Front, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PKK & PYD. There's currently a civil war in Syria. If the FSA manages to defeat the Assad regime, at least there's the possibility of establishing a new democratic government. Whether the new government will sponsor terrorists remains to be seen. On the other hand, we all know that Assad sponsored terrorists and still does.

      September 28, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    True, Islamists linked to Al Qaeda can move around in Syria without being harassed. The regime forces are more interested in fighting the rebels and have no time to eradicate the Islamists. For the moment the rebel fighters in Syria are grateful for whatever help they get from outsiders to oust Assad. Most of them of wary of these Islamists sprawling around, yet they put up with them, but they vow to get rid of them, once the conflict is over.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  4. Matt

    The difference between now and say pre-9/11 is the money is not going through al-Qaida, so you have radical, weapons and money, Zawahiri has not got control over it. Before they would get the donations, to fund Jihad, pay fighters, weapons etc and that gave them control. You have to remember the types of operations that al-Qaida tasked themselves at. What you have in Somalia, North Africa, Yemen and even Iraq are affiliates under the banner. The core of al-Qaida does not fight civil wars, in Afghanistan it was al-Qaida that drew the west in, but it is the Taliban that do the fighting. In Iraq a small core of al-Qaida but with the bulk made up of Sunni fighters in a sectarian war, you had the disbanded Iraqi army fighting for place in the new Iraq, aligned with al-Qaida. The JSOC video showed the Jordanian was stood in Iraq, not the brains.

    Keep that in mind in relation to al-Qaida and Syria. They way that al-Qaida strength is gauged, money is money, a gun is gun and radical is radical. al-Qaida operation are designed to destabilize and draw their enemies in to fight proxies. Taliban, start a sectarian war in Iraq. Use Lashkar el-Tobia to start a war between India and Pakistan so get a Pakistan nuclear warhead of secure storage. al-Zawahiri tried to start a war between Egypt and Israel, in Sinai.

    I would that other than statements you have not actually seen al-Qaida operation Syria, not the core. al-Qaida have three main objectives, create instability to draw in their enemies to fight a proxy and WMD's, terror attacks to cause such outcomes, safe havens to train small compartmentalized cells for such attacks. So they are yet to play their hand in Syria and how Syria fits into their overall objectives.

    What it has done is in the interim allowed them to bypass what has eluded them, funding, fighters and weapons. Ideology they have and it is free, it is the add on's that are the problem. I would say al-Zawahriri see's Syria as opportunity, but he does not know how yet or how to use it. Clearly WMD's, not likely to draw in foreign forces, safe haven to train small cells, there are plenty places to do that.

    It is very hard for al-Qaida to give birth to a Taliban or al-Shabab, these are formed groups that then franchise the al-Qaida brand. al-Qaida in Yemen is small but connect to wider tribes, via bloodlines, the Iraqi example, once Saddam was dead and the Sunni awakening, al-Qaida was reduced to a small core that was easily contained so it could not threaten the state. Which is to keep sectarian war going with the US in the middle of it.

    So it is very much what are the Jihadist on the ground, with guns, the money in Syria going to do, which will shape what al-Qaida central does once Assad is defeated. So what you can say is there 45 percent foreign fighters, with money and weapons that influence the Syrian brigades, if you want the weapons and money you accept the radical agenda.

    That is like Afghanistan they are not al-Qaida, they are just religious radicals, which does take much to turn to al-Qaida ideology and action. And at what stage does that happen during the life of a conflict. So you look at Afghanistan and the birth of al-Qaida and the time line of attacks. So you have indigenous remembers and foreigners and you have turning point in the life of conflict. In which this core al-Qaida can harness a wider radical movement, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. At what point does that occur in Syria, post Assad for starters, but at what point post Assad. And how do you stop it. Bin Laden was Nomad but you look at when he left and then returned to Afghanistan, look at the time line of attacks against the US. In that puzzle is your answer, because al-Qaida is his creation, his psyche.

    And right up to that point in time that was missed, the foreign fighters, the money, weapons both to al-Qaida and Taliban kept flowing into Afghanistan, which led to 9/11 and a 11 year occupation.. 9/11 was near end of the conflict. How did al-Qaida harness the insurgency in Iraq another key point in time, that was missed, at the beginning of a conflict. In the life of a conflict at what point. And at what point will be in Syria. It is not random timing, certain things allow it, it not just one thing it is numerous factors. And it is as complex as the whiteboard on COIN, with all those elements, it's point when they all align. That is when al-Qaida play their hand and it is very calculated, almost forensic. That is why such small core organization at some points in time is very powerful, appear to be very power. But in reality it is still that small core not capable of direct military conflict. That is why we can eventually defeat them in conflicts, because in reality it is that small inner core, nucleus and you strip away layers and it is exposed and appears weak on the verge of annihilation, in capable of retaliation or rebirth. You see that in Afghanistan only to rebirth in Iraq and that is separate from the franchises.

    It is a two fold threat, you also have people return with connections, ideology, training to their homelands, some of the fighters just go an renew their visas in neighboring countries every 3 months and return to fight. That is what happened in Afghanistan, they were all meant to be in Pakistan.

    September 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Reply

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