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.