Amid intensifying violence in Syria, concern is mounting that al-Qaeda is trying to change the nature of the conflict against President Bashar al-Assad’ regime and is resorting to suicide bombings to “hijack” the revolution, the New York Times (NYT) reported on Wednesday.
According to the NYT, while the Syrian opposition continues to deny any role of the extremists in the conflict American intelligence officials and Iraqi officials next door are concerned al-Qaeda is deeply involved in the conflict, injecting the weapon it perfected in Iraq —suicide bombings—into the struggle against Assad with increasing rate.
The paper said evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of al-Qaeda. The paper gave the example of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with turkey that fell into rebel hands last week, but has quickly become a jihadists gathering point.
The NYT said videos are being posted on the internet that show masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s.
With al-Qaeda flags hanging in the background, a speaker says in the video, “We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God.”
Recently, presence of jihadists in Syria has accelerated due to a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s border with Iraq. The extremist group has since made statements linking its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both conflicts as Sunnis versus Shiites.
Iraqi officials have said the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the very same militants striking across their country.
“We are 100 percent sure from security coordination with Syrian authorities that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months,” Izzat al-Shahbandar, a close aide to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, said.
“Al Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria,” he said.
Monday marked the deadliest day in Iraq in two years as at least 111 people, including security forces, were reportedly killed in bomb attacks and shootings carried in the capital Baghdad, the northern city of Kirkuk and 17 other cities.
A man identified by NYT as Abu Thuha who lives in the Hawija district near Kirkuk in Iraq, said “we have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution,”
“Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine,” he said.
Abu Tuha’s plans have been echoed by Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, which military and intelligence analysts say is the major al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, with two other Qaeda-linked groups also claiming to be active there, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Al Baraa ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade.
Since the beginning of the conflict 16 months ago, the Syrian regime has attempted to portray the opposition as dominated by al-Qaeda and jihadist allies, something the opposition has denied and independent observers said just was not true at the time.
But earlier this year, the United States’ director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Congressional hearing that there were “all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-like attack” in a series of bombings against security and intelligence targets in Damascus.
He and other intelligence community witnesses attributed that to the spread into Syria of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda.
Shortly before Clapper’s testimony, Ayman al-Zawahri, the number one man in al-Qaeda since the killing of Osama bin Laden, released an audio recording in which he praised the Syrian revolutionaries , calling them “the lions of the Levant,” a term that has since been taken up repeatedly in public pronouncements by the group.
Syrian state media routinely described every explosion as a suicide bombing. But beginning in December, analysts began seeing what many thought really were suicide bombings.
Since then, there have been at least 35 car bombings and 10 confirmed suicide bombings, 4 of which have been claimed by the Nusra Front, according to data compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.
On Sunday, before the wave of 40 attacks across Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the pseudonymous leader of the group’s Iraqi affiliate, issued a rare audio statement, not only predicting the next day’s attacks, but also praising Syria’s revolutionaries. “You have taught the world lessons in courage, jihad and patience,” he said, according to a translation provided by the monitoring organization SITE.
The Syrian opposition is, however, in disagreement over the role of al-Qaeda in the uprising.
“Every now and then, we hear about al-Qaeda in Syria, but there is so far no material evidence that they are here,” said Samir Nachar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Congress.
A Free Syrian Army Commander, Sayid, interviewed by NYT, said he had heard of Qaeda fighters in Syria but had never actually seen one.
“If al-Qaeda comes to get rid of him,” Sayid said, referring to Assad, “why not? But I personally have seen none of them.”