Al Qaeda and the threat in Syria

Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, on al Qaeda in Syria and the threat it poses to the US. Al Qaeda affiliates and allied jihadist groups dominate the insurgency in the heart of the Middle East.

Chairman McCaul, Ranking Member Thompson and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the potential threats to the U.S. emanating out of Syria. Obviously, the situation inside Syria is grim, with a despicable tyrant on one side and a rebellion compromised by al Qaeda and like-minded extremists on the other. In between these two poles are the people who originally rose up against tyranny in search of a better life. As we’ve seen time and again in this long war, Muslims embroiled in violence in faraway lands are often the first line of defense against an ideology and an organization that pose a direct threat to the West. There are many Syrian families who deserve the free world’s support today, beyond the prospect of limited airstrikes.

We should have no illusions about the nature of the Syrian war. What we are witnessing right now is a conflict that will have ramifications for our security in the West. The fighting in Syria and the terrorist campaign in Iraq are deeply linked, feeding off of one another in a way that increases the violence in both countries and potentially throughout the region. American interests outside of Syria have already been threatened by the war. We saw this late last year when al Qaeda repurposed a cell of Jordanian citizens who had fought in Syria for an attack inside their home country. They reportedly had the U.S. Embassy in their crosshairs and were planning a complex assault that involved other targets as well.

In my testimony today, I focus on the threat posed by al Qaeda and allied groups inside Syria, recognizing that al Qaeda did not start the Syrian rebellion. Moreover, there are many groups fighting on the side of the rebellion, making any clear-eyed analysis difficult. However, we can distill a number of observations.

Al Qaeda and its extremist allies have grown much stronger since late 2011. Al Qaeda does not control the entire rebellion, which is made up of a complex set of actors and alliances. However, al Qaeda and its allies dominate a large portion of northern Syria and play a key role in the fighting throughout the rest of the country. These same al Qaeda-affiliated forces have fought alongside Free Syrian Army brigades. There is no clear geographic dividing line between the most extreme fighters and other rebels. For example, al Qaeda’s affiliates played a key role in the fighting in Latakia, an Assad stronghold on the coast, in early August. And within the past week we saw al Qaeda-affiliated fighters lead an attack in Malula, a Christian village not far from Damascus. These are just two examples chosen from many.

Al Qaeda has made the fight for Syria a strategic priority. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, has repeatedly called on jihadists to concentrate their efforts on the fight against the Assad regime. But al Qaeda desires much more than Assad’s defeat. Al Qaeda wants to control territory and rule over others. This is consistent with al Qaeda’s desire to establish an Islamic Emirate in the heart of the Levant. In his book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, Zawahiri discussed at length the importance of creating such a state. Al Qaeda and associated groups have consistently pursued this goal in jihadist hotspots around the globe and this is especially true in Syria today.

Two known al Qaeda affiliates operate inside Syria: Jabhat al Nusrah [Al Nusrah Front] and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (or Levant). The leaders of both groups have sworn an oath of loyalty (bayat) to Ayman al Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The heads of these two affiliates openly bickered over the chain-of-command in early April 2013. This forced Zawahiri to intervene, but the head of the ISIS initially rejected Zawahiri’s decision to have the two remain independently-operated franchises. It appears that some sort of compromise has been brokered, however, as the two al Qaeda affiliates fight alongside one another against their common enemies, including Kurdish forces in the north.

Al Qaeda is not just a terrorist organization. Al Qaeda’s leaders are political revolutionaries seeking to acquire power for themselves and their ideology in several countries. They have a plan for Syria. Al Qaeda’s affiliates inside Syria are not just fighting Assad’s forces, or committing various other acts of terror. They are seeking to inculcate their ideology within the Syrian population. Many Syrians have no love for al Qaeda’s ideology, or its harsh brand of sharia law. But al Qaeda knows this and has adjusted its tactics accordingly. Jabhat al Nusrah and the ISIS are providing local governance in the areas they control, and are seeking to win hearts and minds by making various social services available to the population. This is a continuation of a trend that we’ve seen elsewhere, beginning in Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched Ansar al Sharia as its political face. Ansar al Sharia does more than fight al Qaeda’s enemies. It has provided food, electricity, medical care, and various other necessities to Yemenis. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria have copied this strategy in Syria, and are increasing their popular support in some areas (especially in the north and east) in this manner. This model is being implemented in Raqqah, Aleppo, Deir al Zor.

Syria has become the central front in the global jihad. Other al Qaeda-linked groups have joined the fight in Syria, thereby strengthening al Qaeda’s hand. Groups including the Pakistani Taliban (Tekrik-e Taliban) and the Muhajireen (Migrants) Brigade are fighting in Syria. The first group sent fighters and trainers from South Asia to Syria, while the second is comprised of Chechens and other foreign fighters. Indeed, several thousand foreign fighters from around the globe have joined the fight. Countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East have supplied a large number of jihadist recruits. In addition, a significant number of Europeans have traveled to Syria for jihad.

Some of the more powerful Syrian rebel groups are closely allied with al Qaeda’s affiliates. Ahrar al Sham and its coalition of like-minded groups, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), fight alongside al Qaeda’s fighters regularly. Brigades belonging to another Islamist coalition, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), have coordinated their operations with al Qaeda’s affiliates and Ahrar al Sham in key battles as well. For example, fighters from Nusrah, the SIF, and the SILF overran the Taftanaz Airbase in January. The collective strength of these groups is easily in the tens of thousands of fighters nationwide.

As the 9/11 Commission recognized, there is a direct connection between terrorism “over there” and the terrorist threat to Americans “over here.” Most of al Qaeda’s assets are devoted to acquiring power in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. However, some portion of their assets is always devoted to terrorist plots against the West. Before the 9/11 attacks, most al Qaeda recruits were trained to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan or as part of insurgencies elsewhere. Only a small number of al Qaeda members were selected to take part in international operations. Since 9/11, al Qaeda has greatly expanded its overall footprint by directing or supporting various insurgencies. This increases al Qaeda’s potential recruits, with a small percentage of them being repurposed for operations against the West. We have seen this in Yemen, for example, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula simultaneously increased its capacity to wage an insurgency against the government, while also increasing its ability to launch attacks on the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, which spawned the Al Nusrah Front, has dedicated a small part of its resources to attacking the West as well. The Department of Homeland of Security announced in 2004 that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was ordered by Osama bin Laden to assemble a cell capable of attacking the U.S. In 2007, failed attacks in London and Glasgow were tied back to AQI. It should be noted that during this same time-period AQI was mainly focused on winning territory, not attacking the West.

Al Qaeda has talent inside Syria today, including top operatives who currently pose a threat to the West. According to credible press reports, a top al Qaeda terrorist named Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (a.k.a. Abu Musab al Suri) was freed from prison in the wake of the rebellion. Nasar has been tied to al Qaeda’s terrorist plotting inside Europe, including the networks that executed the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 attacks in London. Nasar played a prominent role in al Qaeda’s operations prior to being detained in 2005 and transferred to Syrian custody. Nasar is a widely influential jihadist thinker and a key advocate of small-scale terrorist attacks inside the West. He was reportedly freed by the Assad regime in the wake of the current rebellion. One of Nasar’s closest colleagues, known as Abu Khalid al Suri, was appointed by Zawahiri to a key position within the region. We should wonder what happened to Mohammed Zammar, an al Qaeda recruiter who helped convince the 9/11 Hamburg cell to travel to Afghanistan for training. Zammar was once imprisoned by the Assad regime and may very well be free today. In addition to this “old school” talent, al Qaeda has been recruiting Westerners who could be used in attacks against their home countries or elsewhere in the West. In recent months, European officials have openly worried about this possibility.

Al Qaeda’s affiliates are seeking possession of chemical and biological weapons in Syria. On May 30, the Turkish press reported that an al Nusrah Front cell had been arrested and was found to be in possession of about two kilos of sarin gas. The following day, June 1, Iraqi officials announced that they had broken up an al Qaeda cell that was seeking to launch sarin nerve gas attacks in Iraq, Europe and possibly North America. If the Iraqi government’s claims are accurate, then we already have evidence that al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq and Syria intend to use chemical weapons in an attack the West. I encourage the Homeland Security Committee to investigate these claims and ascertain for itself the extent of al Qaeda’s efforts in this regard.

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

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  • DR says:

    This is an excellent unbiased analysis of the current situation and should be required reading for the kids in the White House.

  • jhenry says:

    Great assessment. Separating AQ supporters from the mix is a must for any strategy in Syria.
    As stated al Nusrah Front came from AQI. AQI was only given breathing room in Iraq after the full removal of US forces in 2010 and dumping the problem on the Iraqis (who, in turn, looked to Iran for international support).
    One of many possible policy options here would be re-engaging the Iraqi government with support for training, logistics, and intel. They’ve proven capable in conducting CT operations, but could use the capabilities available ca. 2007- 2010.
    Sometime around 2005- 2007, SITE released a product on the “Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons”. From the look of it, it seemed like AQI had their hands on chemical weapons.

  • Collector says:

    “On May 30, the Turkish press reported that an al Nusrah Front cell had been arrested and was found to be in possession of about two kilos of sarin gas. The following day, June 1, Iraqi officials announced that they had broken up an al Qaeda cell that was seeking to launch sarin nerve gas attacks in Iraq, Europe and possibly North America.”
    And this Administration is “CRYING Wolf” that Assad launched a Chem Attack, the Writing on the Wall is… The Administrations Hero’s..FSA, AQ in Syria and all the other Jihad minded “Freedom Fighters” are the Perps to this Attack.
    This whole thing “Stinks to High Heaven” of the “Exact Method they tried with Libya and the Benghazi Attack.”
    I’ve heard the arguments Assad launched it…..
    And I call BS!!
    The portrait is Crystal Clear that FSA/AQ in Syria did it and WE gladly accepted “There Video” as proof to get involved.
    The lesson in all this Alleged “Arab Spring” Shtuff should be…
    Stick with the Dictators you know and Control!
    Because since we have gone on this M.E. Régime Change roller coaster ride….
    There has only been a Singular Consistent Outcome… Mass Death that is worse than Pre-Dictator Days and TOTAL loss of Control of “said countries!!” Egypt,Iraq,Libya,Somalia,Afghanistan..etc etc!!
    If we arent Prepared to Occupy,Re-Educate,Re-build and Reintergrate these Countries…then we GD well shouldn’t be willing to Pillage,Destroy and cause Anarchy!!
    NONONO…” The Enemy of my Enemy is my friend” mentality is 100% A Total Failure!! There lies decades of proof for this.
    “The Enemy of My Enemy is Another Target!! Tango!!Problem!! And ENEMY!!” – this is a fact that CAN be depended on..100%

  • B says:

    @jhenry: Is there any way to do this that would be politically feasible? I doubt there is much popular support for an expansion of the US role in Iraq at this point.
    @Collector: What point are you trying to make? I am fairly certain that stream-of-consciousness may not be the best way to communicate your message here.

  • Paul D says:

    There is no doubt We fund Sunni extremist for geo political reasons. When this comes to killing Christian communities in the middle east we must stand up against this injustice.
    Watching Sky news tonight the Christians in Syria cannot believe the West are attacking the Assad regime who they feel are protected by and replacing them with sunni jihadis who will eliminate them.
    Why do we support religious intolerant countries like Saudi,UAE and Qatar who have terrible human rights and no democracy?

  • . says:

    Thomas Joscelyn’s article and House testimony regarding Syria and al Qaeda reinforces what some security analysts have been saying all along. Al-Qaeda is an organization that can adapt to almost any political or security situation.

  • Scott J says:

    Excellent testimony. Thank you for presenting that to Congress, Mr Joscelyn.

  • JT says:

    I just read the transcript of the President’s Sept. 10 address on Syria (much easier to understand what is really said by reading it instead of seeing a speech).
    My take on it is this: Taken by itself, it sounds great. However, given context, I see two huge problems with it.
    1. If you are trusting Putin to be on your side, you are missing something big.
    2. This sounds just like what we have been trying to do with Iran for years.

  • JRP says:

    It is undisputed that Syria has neither attacked nor threatened to attack either the United States or a U.S. ally that by treaty the U.S. is obliged to defend. Nor has the United Nations or any other multi-national organization to which the U.S. belongs authorized military action against Syria. Does anyone know if any of the treaties banning chemical weapons have enforcement provisions? If they don’t, then wouldn’t any U.S. attack on Syria constitute an aggressive as opposed to defensive act of war against a sovereign country triggering that country’s right under generally understood concepts of international law to defend itself by retaliation against the U.S. and any U.S. interests wherever found? On this 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I am reminded that in the ensuing years we’ve had the Detroit airliner underwear attempt; the NYC Times Square car bomb attempt; and the successful attacks at Fort Hood in Texas and at the Boston Marathon. The gas attack in Syria proves that someone over there has Sarin gas and is willing to use it. Why invite similar retaliation against us on our own soil by attacking Syria without any recognized legal right to do so? Since no one will or can give the American people an ironclad foolproof guarantee that it won’t happen here, why get involved with them when they haven’t first gotten involved with us?

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Tom Jocelyn is a LWJ jewel. He and the two Bill’s are remarkable resources in understanding that important and dangerous region. This is a great site.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    What is maddening is that if this testimony was conducted as usual, Mr. Jocelyn was likely appearing before a virtually empty committee. The fecklessness of our political class is unreal.

  • jhenry says:

    Obviously gaining solid political support for anything overseas today would be difficult. Any deployment would have to be “incredibly small”.
    If I was sitting in the National Security Council, my plan would be to:
    1- Negotiate with the Iraqi Govt. Apologize for abandoning them, understand that AQI is set to rip the country apart again, and offer them support and goodies (the F-16s we aren’t selling to Egypt).
    2- Gain acceptance. This will take continued diplomatic support and pressure. This pressure will need to displace Iranian support.
    3- Get a new SOFA signed. Maybe that would be nice. Possibly, a USMC MEU stopping by for training. A USAF MQ-1 squadron would really be nice. Joint combined exercises.
    4- On an even lighter footprint, send in an intel fusion group to support CT activities in Iraq and contractors to help with the logistics and planning. This would be 100 people max.
    Folks can dream can’t they?

  • Gerald says:

    We did not abandon the iraqis! We asked to stay and they asked us to leave. So we left.

  • dronestriker says:

    What I don’t understand is why we are not taking advantage of having AQI consolidated in northern Syria to strike and take them out in massive numbers.
    At the very least I would hope that the influx of foreign fighters has givin our Intel agents an ability to infiltrate the ranks of AQI in Syria.
    while there are so many problems there also come opportunity to exact a cost from our enemy and collect valuable intelligence.
    I also think we should work with the true Syrians of the fsa who want freedom under one condition of working arm in arm together on counter terrorism to eradicate AQI from their lands.

  • B says:

    @jhenry: Thanks for the reply – I think of what you listed, #4 is probably the most do-able from a political blowback standpoint.
    An issue issue I would foresee would be detention authorities – why put in so much effort if the Iraqi government would continue their usual catch-and release? Any agreement would have to address this problem, in my opinion.
    @ Mr. Joscelyn – Excellent testimony overall, my only nitpick would be that the Turkish government has since stated in the press that the “Sarin” that was found in the possession of the al-Nusrah Front cell was later determined to be antifreeze. Completely agree with your overall assessment of the serious threat that al-Nusrah and ISIL poses to western interests, however.
    @ Mr. Roggio: Just a suggestion, but I think this site might benefit greatly from having an associated forum for discussion. This could make discussion/debate of articles more robust, as opposed to the one-liners that the current comments section tends to generate. (It would probably do good things for number of page views/ad revenue as well, since it could increase the number of repeat visits, etc.) Just some unsolicited advice from my end.

  • Anthony Celso says:

    This is largely factual and accurate understanding of Al Qaeda’s activities in Syria which is designed to acquire territorial space for an Islamic emirate devoted to the implementation of Sharia and terror activities. I do question at least in the short term how dangerous these activities are for U.S. security. Whom are these people fighting and killing? Assad regime soldiers and Hezbollah fighters. This help blunt Iranian influence in the region and at least in the short term assists U.S. security interests.
    Secondly, I would add that Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant have committed numerous atrocities in the zones they have been fighting which casts severe doubt on the hearts and minds argument which Al Qaeda talks about but seems having difficulty in implementing. Their ideological zeal and extreme organizational fracturing combine to limit the ability of central commanders to curb excesses. We saw this in Iraq and Mali and it is underway in Syria and will only become works.
    Thirdly, Al Qaeda has “grown” but any jihadi organization can claim allegiance the AQ brand is elastic but weak.
    Fourthly, what have AQ and its affiliates achieved they continue to be plagued by internal conflicts, sectarian passions, ideological extremism, local and international enemies. We are at a new stage that some have called Al Qaeda 3-0 which is a decentralized network fixated on local enemies, driven increasingly by enmity toward Shia enemies, takfiri extremism and an inability of AQ Central to control their numerous appendages.
    This takes us far afield from Bin Laden’s far enemy strategy which in the post 9-11 has killed a grand total (assuming that the Little Rock and Ft Hood shootings were loosely linked to AQ and its affiliates) of 14 American.
    The expansion of the AQ Network masks its internal weakness and chronic divisions which principally threaten local and regional enemies.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Counter point:
    There are no good guys. I suggest watch “Savior” with Dennis Quaid as it reflects in many ways what is going on in Syria today.

  • Stu says:

    This article by Thomas Joselyn and the Congressional Testimony is brilliant in every respect. Mr. Joselyn stays with the narrative and provides evidence for his assertions. I certainly hope our representatives read every word and then ponder the implications.
    Mr. Joselyn does not venture what actions should be taken going forward. But anyone with a brain should see the conclusion. Since all these sworn jihadists have gathered in one area, what is our hesitation in hitting them? If this is their moment, then it ours as well. We’ve got to find a way to cut the cancer out.
    This report is what our strategy in Syria should be based on, not the naive emotionalism of leaders that have already proven themselves incompetent.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Dear Anthony Celso,
    We all should learn from the past. To allow AlQaeda in Iraq and Syria to thrive, grow and control vast swaths of “liberated” land with plenty of resources (including oil wells) and to turn a blind eye to the stream of advanced weapons they are receiving is just to Play with Fire.
    US played with fire before, notably promoting afghan islamic terrorists and arab fanatics like Osama Bin Laden… we all know what followed.
    I doubt very much that veterans and families of those fallen battling Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda allies would approve such tolerance towards these criminals just because they are fighting an Iran ally.

  • Foursteps says:

    Thanks for highlighting Thomas’s testimony. I have struggled to understand the various motives of the participants in the “problem from hell” that is Syria and really appreciate the balanced commentary.

  • jeankey says:

    Al Qaeda 7 easy steps by 2020:
    Phase 1: Phase 2: Phase 3: Phase 4: Phase 5: Syria Phase 6: Phase 7:


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram