CAIRO – It is the sort of image that has become a staple of the Syrian revolution, a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s – with one unsettling difference. In the background hang two flags of Al Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field.
“We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God,” said a speaker in the video using the classical Arabic favored by Al Qaeda.The video, posted on YouTube, is one more bit of evidence that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American intelligence officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.
While leaders of the Syrian political and military opposition continue to deny any role for the extremists, Al Qaeda has helped to change the nature of the conflict, injecting the weapon it perfected in Iraq – suicide bombings – into the battle against President Bashar al-Assad with growing frequency.
The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands last week, Bab al-Hawa, has quickly become a jihadist congregating point.
The presence of jihadists in Syria has accelerated in recent days in part because of a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s long border in Iraq. Al Qaeda, through an audio statement, has just made an undisguised bid to link its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both as sectarian conflicts – Sunnis versus Shiites.
Iraqi officials said the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the very same militants striking across their country. “We are 100 percent sure from security coordination with Syrian authorities that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months,” Izzat al-Shahbandar – a close aide to the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki – said in an interview on Tuesday. “Al Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria,” he said.
One Qaeda operative, a 56-year-old known as Abu Thuha who lives in the Hawija district near Kirkuk in Iraq, spoke to an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times on Tuesday. “We have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution,” he said. “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”
Although he is a low-level operative, his grandiose plans have been echoed by Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, which military and intelligence analysts say is the major Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, with two other Qaeda-linked groups also claiming to be active there, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Al Baraa ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade.
Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian government has sought to depict the opposition as dominated by Al Qaeda and jihadist allies, something the opposition has denied and independent observers said just was not true at the time. The uprising began as a peaceful protest movement and slowly turned into an armed battle in response to the government’s use of overwhelming lethal force.
Syrian state media routinely described every explosion as a suicide bombing – as they did with a bombing on July 18 that killed at least four high-ranking government officials.
Over time, though, Syria did become a draw for jihadists as the battle evolved into a sectarian war between a Sunni-dominated opposition and government and security forces dominated by the Alawite sect. Beginning in December, analysts began seeing what many thought really were suicide bombings.
Since then, there have been at least 35 car bombings and 10 confirmed suicide bombings, 4 of which have been claimed by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, according to data compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.
In some cases, such as on June 1, when a bomb struck at government security offices in Idlib, or on April 27, when a suicide bombing killed 11 people in Damascus, Al Nusra claimed credit for the attacks in postings on a jihadist Web site, according to the SITE monitoring group. Al Nusra also claimed responsibility for a June 30 attack on Al Ikhbariya TV, a pro-government station, which it said “was glorifying the tyrant day and night.” Seven media workers were killed, to international condemnation. Syrian opposition spokesmen denied any role.
In February, the United States’ director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a Congressional hearing that there were “all the earmarks of an Al Qaeda-like attack” in a series of bombings against security and intelligence targets in Damascus. He and other intelligence community witnesses attributed that to the spread into Syria of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda.
Shortly before Mr. Clapper’s testimony, Ayman al-Zawahri, the apparent leader of Al Qaeda since the killing of Osama bin Laden, released an audio recording in which he praised the Syrian revolutionaries lavishly, calling them “the lions of the Levant,” a theme that has since been taken up repeatedly in public pronouncements by the group.
Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert who is a professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it is clear that Al Qaeda is trying to become more active in Syria. As it has already done in Somalia and Mali, and before that in Chechnya and Yemen, the group is trying to turn a local conflict to its advantage. “There’s no question Al Qaeda wants to do that, and they are actually pretty good at this sort of thing,” he said. “They’ve done well at taking a local conflict” and taking it global.
They have done this by relying more on local fighters than on foreign ones, except at upper leadership levels – correcting a mistake that cost them credibility in the early years of the Iraqi conflict. “They learned a lot from Iraq,” Mr. Byman said. “They even write about this – they say, ‘We got on the wrong side of the locals.’ ” In Iraq, the government is led by the Shiite majority, while a Sunni minority has been Al Qaeda’s early breeding ground.
On Sunday, one day before a wave of 40 attacks across in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the pseudonymous leader of the group’s Iraqi affiliate, issued a rare audio statement, not only predicting the next day’s attacks, but also praising Syria’s revolutionaries. “You have taught the world lessons in courage, jihad and patience,” he said, according to a translation provided by the monitoring organization SITE.
Joseph Holliday, an analyst from the Institute for the Study of War who studies Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring, said, “The emergence of Al Qaeda-linked terrorist cells working against the regime poses risks to the United States and a challenge to those calling for material support of the armed opposition.”
He added: “It’s something to keep an eye out for, the convergence of Iraq and Syria. As the Syrian government loses the ability to project force on the periphery of its territory, what you’re going to see is an emboldened Sunni opposition emerging in Nineveh and Iraq.”
For the moment, though, the mainstream Syrian opposition is nearly uniform in its opposition to a role for Al Qaeda in its popular uprising.
“Every now and then, we hear about Al Qaeda in Syria, but there is so far no material evidence that they are here,” said Samir Nachar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Congress. “The regime has talked about it, and there were political statements from the Iraqi government that Al Qaeda has moved from Iraq to Syria, but on the ground there is no information on the presence of foreign fighters.”
In hard-pressed Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, not far from the Iraqi border, a Free Syrian Army brigade leader, identified only as Sayid, said in an interview by Skype that he had heard rumors about Qaeda fighters, but had never actually seen one. In Deir Ezzor earlier this year, a massive truck bomb exploded near a military base – which the resistance attributed to the Assad regime, claiming it had bombed itself.
“If Al Qaeda comes to get rid of him,” Sayid said, referring to Mr. Assad, “why not? But I personally have seen none of them.”
Reporting was contributed by Duraid Adnan from Baghdad; Dalal Mawad, Neil MacFarquhar and Haida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Eric Schmitt from Washington.