Al Qaeda fighters moving from Iraq to Syria: report

Hoshiyar Zebari, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, went on the record to say that some members of al Qaeda in Iraq are moving into Syria to wage jihad. From Reuters:

“We have solid information and intelligence that members of al Qaeda terrorist networks have gone in the other direction, to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks,” he told a news conference in Baghdad.

Syria says that a 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad is not a popular revolt but a “terrorist” conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by the wealthy Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, also says much of the violence in Syria bears the fingerprints of al Qaeda and its Sunni Muslim Islamist ideology.

Iraq has reinforced security along its 680 km (422 miles) desert border with Syria, making it the most heavily guarded Iraqi frontier, Zebari said.

“Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of al Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. So they know the routes and the connections. It does not mean that these operations are done regularly in an organised way,” he said.

“This is our main concern – about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighbouring countries, to have a base,” Zebari added.

Given the sophistication of some of the attacks being carried out by the Al Nusrah Front, an al Qaeda-linked group, Zebari’s statements appear to be valid. For instance, Al Nusrah’s description of the complex attack on the Syrian military at a camp in Idlib in June indicates that experienced operatives carefully planned and executed the assault. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah front claims latest suicide attack in Syria, for details of the attack.] Al Nusrah was able to get a large suicide bomb into the camp and detonated it, and then ambushed the Syrian military relief column as it moved to conduct recovery operations. According to Al Nusrah’s statement on the attack, its fighters detonated seven IEDs and set up ambush points along the route (while you must take care when reading jihadist propaganda, Al Nusrah’s reports have so far been accurate; unlike the Afghan Taliban, they do not exaggerate the effects of their operations, and their statements match the press reports on the attacks).

Additionally, Al Nusrah is conducting operations at a pretty heavy clip, according to its own propaganda. The attacks have consisted of suicide bombings, ambushes, assassinations, car bombings, and IED attacks. See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front claims series of suicide attacks, ambushes in Syria, for more details.

The organized, sophisticated attacks we are witnessing in Syria today weren’t developed in the short 17 months of fighting since the rebellion began. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist groups have been honing their skills while fighting the US (up until late 2011) and Iraqi military since mid-2003. Al Nusrah appears to be poaching leaders and fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq. And the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which has a presence throughout the Middle East, including Syria, was formed at the behest of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi and al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist groups have been operating from within Syria for years, with the support of the Syrian government, and are now turning on their state sponsor.

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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  • jhenry says:

    Given the amount of activity in Iraq last month from AQI, it seems like they are able maintain their tempo of operations. Or, the increase of activity last month could be a last ditch effort to get rid of resources before pulling out and moving into Syria. Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens with AQI this month and the months after and compare that to Al Nusrah and Abdullah Azzam Bdes.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    At this point, nobody with an IQ above room temperature can deny that violent Islamist jihadists have firmly taken root in Syria.
    At this point they are well on track to completely hijack the rebellion. I think some could even say that has already happened.

  • Stephanie says:

    Of course, Al Qaeda will always go where the armed conflict is …. The fact that their propoganda videos come out in support of the resistance (Syrian Free Army) should tell you something.
    I agree with his comments and I don’t like the Syrian Free Army for the above mentioned reason.

  • mike merlo says:

    “The organized, sophisticated attacks we are witnessing in Syria today weren’t developed in the short 17 months of fighting since the rebellion began. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist groups have been honing their skills while fighting the US (up until late 2011) and Iraqi military since mid-2003. ”
    as opposed to:
    “We have solid information and intelligence that members of al Qaeda terrorist networks have gone in the other direction, to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks,”
    After a decade & Zebari, Iraq’s FM, has something solid. Huh! Is he trying to be cute or is he just that stupid?

  • space_pope says:

    @Sun & Steph –
    I don’t think anyone who is paying attention would deny that AQ affiliates and other extremists (so-called ‘third element’) are in Syria and want Assad gone. But I think we run into problems conflating the entire revolution with extremist groups within or alongside the rebellion.
    When you look at history, time and time again you’ll see unspeakable violence in revolutions, perpetrated by extreme elements (often would do not fall under the control of leadership). Though this tarnishes our view of the revolution, we should take care not to then equate, in this case, the FSA with groups like Al Nusra, for the sole reason of them both being anti-Assad. Their post-Assad plans look very different.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Well, from the amateur videos I’ve seen from the Free Syrian Army, they really like to carry around black flags, shout “Allahu Akbar” 1,000 times, and attack *anyone* they view as being a Shabiha or sympathetic to Assad in any way. They have the same tactics as the Salafist terror groups, just slightly less extreme.
    The difference between the FSA vs Al Qaeda and Al Nusrah, is like ice cream. The FSA is plain vanilla ice cream, while the Al Nusrah and Al Qaeda are like vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce on top. Yes they’re different, but they still have the same properties, Jihad being the focal point there.

  • space_pope says:

    A few things that I’ve learned from the recent revolutions: 1) The black flag of jihad is one flown for hundreds of years, AQ simply adopted it as their own in an attempt to cloak themselves in legitimate Islamic traditions to gain support. The black flag should make us wary, but not paranoid. 2) the FSA has done some brutal stuff, true, but non-terrorists have never had a problem with these things either (Balkans, Rwanda, even national armies in WWII)… we shouldn’t relate every barbaric act to terrorism (depending on your definition). 3) I was going to come up with a witty counter-analogy of food, but it’s been a long day… it should suffice to say that both have a similar objective (Assad gone), but they each have avowedly different plans for afterward. The local councils, the SNC, and the FSA military leadership (mostly defectors) have not fought this hard to let a few hundred jihadi tourists or chaos-creators take their revolution away and give them something worse. It likely wont meet our standard, but they have a neighbor with long ties and a big economic stake that could serve as a great example for them.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Yes but the core ideology today is in the hands of Al Qaeda linked militants. They hold the flag proudly, and they are the ones promoting it today. Al Qaeda has the most power among these black flag carrying groups, and when you see the black flag in relation to an act of violence, you know it is overwhelmingly likely Al Qaeda had something to do with it.
    When you say the FSA will not let a few hundred Jihadists ruin their struggle, I immediately thought of Afghanistan. I’m sure the traditional “Afghan Mujahideen” didn’t want the radical foreign Arabs to ruin their struggle either, but when the time came, they did, and they were helpless to stop them. Same with the Iraqi Sunni fighters, who welcomed Al Qaeda at first (much like the FSA are doing, letting Al Nusrah and foreign fighters embed with their units and attack checkpoints with them…) but then when Al Qaeda in Iraq showed it’s true colours, the Sunni fighters regretted ever bringing in Al Qaeda in the first place. They are STILL in Iraq today, by the way.
    Here is a video showing one example of Al Qaeda operating freely in Syria, announcing their plans:
    Now there is loads of other examples I could show you, but I really shouldn’t have to, and I don’t think Bill would allow such content to be posted here anyways.
    I just really can’t understand why westerners love to be naive these days. You know, black flags are cool. Raising guns in the air, planting explosives, and screaming “Allahu Akbar” 1,000 times is cool. Announcing on Youtube that you will form a brigade of “foreign mujahideen” is cool. Finding out that Al Qaeda has acquired Libyan weapons in Mali is cool. Seeing westerners being attacked in eastern Libya is cool. Training camps in eastern Libya are also cool. Oh yeah, and Salafists attacking police stations and killing people is very cool, as well. Digging up dead bodies of saints? That’s cool too.
    Forget all the sacrifices our troops have made against these types of fighters. Forget all the money spent fighting them, all the people who lost loved ones. They are now cool. Everything they do is a matter of “perspective”, as long as they’re not fighting us. But they’re still cool.
    I hope somebody gets my point.

  • wallbangr says:

    @sundoesntrise: I understand what you are saying. As much as I oppose the scourge of terrorism, I don’t think everyone opposing the rule of Assad (even those engaged in armed resistance) is a terrorist. Unfortunately, AQ’s involvement is making it easier for Assad to blame foreign elements. But let’s not conflate the legitimate resistance (which remained peaceful for much longer than I ever expected them to) with the rabble-rousers who have showed up for the Great Jihad. The Syrian population is primarily Muslim. There is a sectarian/religious divide between the regime and the resistance. But I find it awful convenient for Assad apologists to point to religion and raise the specter of Jihadi terrorism just because the opposition are primarily from a different sect. The sectarian component to this is something the Assad Dynasty itself created. After all, it is sect that has divided the haves from the have-nots. But that doesn’t make armed resistance terrorism per se. The fact that their religious beliefs (a major tenant of which is Jihad, whether we like it or not) play into it doesn’t necessarily make them Islamist extremists, either. I think one can read too much into the fact that they are repeating allahu akbar. If you were under fire and saying “Oh my God” nobody would accuse you of being a religious zealot. And they say there are no atheists in foxholes. Admittedly, there are elements in Syria who are no doubt linked to AQ and other undesirable groups. But unlike many regime supporters, I don’t agree that the resistance as a whole is being driven by extremists and foreign terrorists. To hear the defenders of Assad, the vast majority of Syrians are as happy as can be and the opposition is simply a minority that has hijacked the rest of the country. I’m not naive enough to go to the opposite extreme of believing that every young man in the opposition is a morally upright and noble freedom fighter for democracy. But like Space_Pope, I’m weary of painting the entire resistance with the same broad stroke. I think that the resistance has legitimate beef with Assad and his supporters. Yes, many in the West are overly optimistic and even naive about what would likely replace the regime. In all likelihood, like we’ve seen in Egypt and Libya, this is not a movement towards Western style democracy. But that doesn’t make the regime they are trying to shake off a good one. I agree that the resistance should be leery of who it invites to help it. Your examples in Iraq and Afghanistan are well taken. The real danger is in allowing the resistance to be hijacked by these groups. But given the pounding the resistance has taken and the impotency of the international community to do anything about it, I can see how they might have welcomed the help. They do so at their own peril, but I don’t think that makes their cause an illegitimate one.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Alright well as for the Allahu Akbar thing, that means “God Is Great” in Arabic, not “Oh My God”. Two completely different things in that language. As for there are no Atheists in foxholes, well I think that is a saying abused by religious people to overstate the power of a divine being. We truly don’t know what is going on in the heads of soldiers in combat; but I doubt that they ALL believe in a God once the bullets start flying.
    There is a difference between civilians being under fire and saying that, as opposed to insurgent groups detonating bombs at Syrian Army checkpoints and then screaming “Allahu Akbar!!”. That is what I meant, that is the context. And besides, I think we’re being too lenient on these guys. In the States, we get upset when someone speaks out against abortion. And yet we give these guys a break when they’re detonating bombs at checkpoints, killing people and saying “Allahu Akbar!!!”??? That doesn’t seem right. I remember that there was a time when we saw guys attacking and killing people and screaming “Allahu Akbar!!” and we rightly labelled them as extremists and religious bigots. Whatever happened to those days?
    And I’m not on Assad’s side either, if that’s what anybody is subtly trying to imply. His Alawite/Shia militiamen have also committed massacres, chanting Shia slogans while they do it and that is just as bad as the Sunni side in my view. Two different sides of the river, each side with polluted water.
    I find it interesting though that commenters such as wallbangr will use the term “resistance” to describe groups opposed to the Syrian Government, yet the same terms do not seem to be applied to other groups around the world fighting OUR interests. Although I am not directly accusing wallbangr of such things, we must take care not to be hypocrites when describing groups such as the ones we are talking about. At the slightest inclination that they are “pro western”, we will through in our lot with them, and offer moral (and even military) support and that is a mistake to make. Who knows who they really are? Who knows they will not pull the same stuff the Arab Mujahideen did in the 80’s? We don’t, and that’s why I’m warning against supporting them, among a myriad of other reasons I have already stated and couldn’t be bothered to repeat.
    I appreciate my point about the Arab Mujahideen being well taken, but yet still, nobody seems to really get it though. This could open the gates to another 9/11!!! Can’t we learn from our mistakes?


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