US intelligence officials are concerned that Syria is becoming an al Qaeda haven, as the terror group becomes increasingly intertwined with Ba’athist groups operating from Iraq’s neighbor to the west.
Al Qaeda has refocused its efforts to build an infrastructure in eastern Syria after its network in Iraq was decimated by Iraqi and US security forces from 2007 to 2009, and now the organization is partnering with former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“A major concern is that eastern Syria will begin to look like northwestern Pakistan,” where al Qaeda has joined forces with the Taliban and directs attacks to destabilize Afghanistan, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
In late 2008, the situation in eastern Syria came to a head when US special operations forces struck at al Qaeda’s facilitation network in the town of Sukkariya near Albu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. US troops killed Abu Ghadiya, al Qaeda’s senior facilitator, and his senior staff during the October 2008 raid.
After Ghadiya was killed, al Qaeda sent a senior ideologue from Pakistan to Syria to partner with a dangerous operative who runs the network that funnels foreign fighters, cash, and weapons into western Iraq. Sheikh Issa al Masri is thought to have entered Syria in June 2009, where he paired up with Abu Khalaf, a senior al Qaeda operative who has been instrumental in reviving al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in eastern Syria and directing terror operations in Iraq, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Sheikh Issa is believed to be based in Damascus and is protected by the Mukhabarat, Syria’s secret intelligence service. The two al Qaeda leaders are thought to be behind some of the most deadly attacks in Iraq, including the deadly bombings in Baghdad in August and October that targeted government ministries and killed more than 230 Iraqis and wounded nearly 1,000 more.
The Iraqi government has implicated both al Qaeda and former Ba’athists as being responsible for these suicide attacks. Just one week after the August bombings, the Iraqi government asked Syria to turn over senior Ba’athists Sattam Farhan and Mohammad Younis al Ahmed, who were accused of ordering the attacks.
The top US military commander in Iraq said recently that al Qaeda in Iraq has “transformed significantly” and has begun to work more closely with former Ba’athist groups that still are fighting the Iraqi government and US forces.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq has transformed significantly in the last two years,” General Raymond Odierno told reporters in Baghdad last week. “What once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens.”
“There’s still a small foreign element to al Qaeda,” Odierno continued. “There are some who used to be Sunni rejectionists or ex-Ba’athists who are involved in this because of course they don’t want the government to succeed.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq and Ba’athist insurgent groups are known to have cooperated in the past. Between 2006 and 2007, units of the Islamic Army of Iraq, a group made up largely of former Ba’athists and soldiers, were subsumed into al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. Al Qaeda created the Islamic State of Iraq in the fall of 2006 to put an Iraqi face on its activities.