Eastern Syria becoming a new al Qaeda haven

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.

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for both the August and the October attacks in statements released on the Internet.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • KaneKaizer says:

    Fantastic… it does explain how AQI has managed to survive these past couple of years though.
    I don’t imagine the current administration has the guts to attack more AQ targets inside of Syria, nor do I imagine the Syrian government will ever do anything about it. So we can expect to see more attacks and little really done about it.

  • ed says:


  • Grahamr says:

    How does this site define “Al-Qaeda”? I know it’s Bin Laden’s gang but there are countless organizations across the planet with that name and some of them just use the label for effect.
    That’s not good if they’re setting up in Syria. I imagine the Mossad is watching this very closely.

  • Don Vandervelde says:

    This problem should be turned into an opportunity. The US, with the tacit cooperation of the Iraqis, should covertly “cede” Northern Syria to the Kurds, where they already make up the population, as their long-sought homeland. Their vaunted Pesh Merga with a little covert help could give the Syrians fits and possibly drive al Qaeda out of eastern Syria to extend their influence.

  • ayamo says:

    Brilliant. Just what we need.
    Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and now Syria.
    al Qaeda is like fluent water. They’ll just seek the path of weakest resistance.
    But that’d be a lovely excuse for Israel to target Syria. I doubt that the Syrian government will allo al Qaeda to use its eastern terrirtories because of the fear from an Israelian intervention.

  • ramsis says:

    I think this article sums up Malikis frustration for both Syria and the current U.S policy towards Syria.
    In not so many words Maliki has served Assad a warning that what he’s doing in Iraq can easily be applied in his own backyard!

  • Alex says:

    This isn’t good. I could easily see this turning into Assad calling for Western help and aid to fight al-Qaeda, with the result being that instead of isolating the Syrian regime, we’re propping it up.
    It sounds nuts, but there is a precedent: Egypt. Although Egypt is significantly less autocratic than Syria, it’s the same idea, where you have a one-party “republic” where true liberal democrats (in the classical sense of the term) face oppression, so the only opposition force are Islamists.

  • Rosario says:

    Very interesting post. One wonders at what point Iraq can project power across its borders. Just one incident would make all errant neighbors think twice about interfering with Iraq’s internal affairs.

  • Joe Six-Pack says:

    This does not surprise me. I have felt for a long time that the “axis of evil” should have been Four.
    1) Iran
    2) Iraq
    3) North Korea
    4) Syria

  • T Ruth says:

    Joe Six-Pack, did you intentionally leave out Pakistan?
    What about Saudi Arabia (and its money-power)?
    Recommend you read the blog dt 11/26 athttp://www.orbat.com/

  • Cordell says:

    Over a year ago, intelligence sources estimated the number of AQ operatives at 3500 or less. Meanwhile, the reported number of new foreign AQ operatives joining the fight in Iraq has fallen to less than a dozen per month. If Iraq and Coalition forces are rounding up 10 to 20 AQ operatives per day, (~3000 in 200 days), how can the organization survive in Iraq? Is this a problem of catch and release, either ongoing or an artifact from earlier this year when the U.S. released or transferred 12,000 prisoners to Iraqi control? Or has AQ and Baathists been able to recruit new members from disaffected, unemployed Sunnis? This later case likely represents are far more serious threat to Iraqi stability.
    Thanks again for your excellent reporting here. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Does AQI really have any hope of regaining some form of power in Iraq? If they try to move back in, first of all the government is stronger than it was in 2006-2007 and the Sunni tribes still won’t offer them safe haven. Can they really do anything other than orchestrate mass-casualty bombings inside Baghdad from across the border?

  • tingtang says:

    Cordell: Have you ever thought about the possibility that these so-called AQI operatives that get killed and captured almost every day are not necessarily AQI operatives, but sometimes or even most of the time other insurgents or just some random people?

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there are a whole lot of easy solutions here. War is hard.
    What is probably going to happen is the Iraqis step up border security and we and them push the Syrians to deal with their Al Qaeda problem. If this worked it would signal that we had successfully driven a wedge between Iran and Syria – that the Syrians were more concerned about the consequences of jerking the US and Iraq around than about scoring points in Tehran by working against us.
    Syria is very weak, very poor and very surrounded by American allies, any one of which could curb-stomp Assad’s regime. The only thing that keeps it afloat is the notion that Iran is somehow ascendant in the region, and that is a meme that is ours to break at will. Iran seems to be “rising” on the idea that the US must inevitably “fall”, which is ridiculous.
    Now, what I wonder is whether eastern Syria is actually going to turn out like northwest Pakitstan as a major threat to the stability of Afghanistan or like eastern Iran, where insurgents enjoy safe havens but nobody really seems to regard it as an existential threat to the Afghan state. This whole Syrian angle seems to be relatively minor as far as fueling conflict so far, although we all know that can change very fast.

  • Alex says:

    Not yet. Wait until Iraq has armor parity with Iran (still a long way to go), air parity with Syria, and enough air defense to handle Iran.


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