Will the al-Qaeda affiliates ousting Assad turn to Israel next?

Jihadi warriors are fueling the violent rebellion in Syria. Some fear their successes are reviving wider regional ambitions

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Members of the Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is an affiliate of al-Qaeda and one of the stronger opposition groups in Syria. (Photo credit: wikicommons)
Members of the Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is an affiliate of al-Qaeda and one of the stronger opposition groups in Syria. (Photo credit: wikicommons)

On Tuesday evening, seven days after Israel reportedly struck a biological weapons development center in Damascus, Islamist fighters in Syria released another of their videos.

No longer standing on the horizontal tips of newly acquired Scud missiles, as they were seen doing last month, a group of four Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, their faces cloaked by kaffiyas, read from a statement. “We will put our hands on those weapons,” the man in the middle shouted regarding Assad’s biological and chemical arsenal. “We will attack and take over those sites and then use them against the Zionists, from Syrian territory, until we reach Jerusalem.”  

The State Department in December called Jabhat al-Nusra, literally the assistance front, “an alias for AQI” – al-Qaeda in Iraq – and added it to the US list of foreign terror organizations, freezing all of its assets and rendering it a crime to provide the organization with any and all aid. According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, the organization, representing nine percent of the rebel forces in Syria, has carried out 600 strikes since November 2011, including “over 40” suicide bombings and a string of successful guerrilla assaults.

The leader of the group is a man who goes by the name Abu-Muhammad al-Julani – the moniker itself indicating, at least rhetorically, the importance placed on the Golan Heights – and its goal, according to Nuland, is “to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”

The nature of these malign purposes is clear in the short term and murky thereafter. The Salafist groups in Syria – local and foreign, loosely and directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, experienced in battle and inexperienced – have set as their initial goal the toppling of Bashar Assad’s secular, Alawite regime and replacing it with a Sunni Islamist one.

But what after that? Will they follow the path of their poisonous rhetoric and target Israel? Will they stick to the initial focus of al-Qaeda at the time of its founding in the late 80s and focus on toppling the Arab regimes? Will they turn toward Jordan and the long-teetering Hashemite throne? Will they surge into Lebanon and battle the Hezbollah Shiites for supremacy? And in what way will the struggle in Syria, in the heart of the lands holy to Islam, impact al-Qaeda and its ilk in the age of the Arab Spring?

At 11:30 a.m. on December 17, 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, stood in the middle of traffic, humiliated and in debt, unable to adequately bribe the police, and set himself on fire. His self-immolation sparked the uprisings known as the Arab Spring. The rulers of Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt vacated their palaces without a struggle. Muammar Gaddafi, protected by a militia of mercenaries, required bullets and outside intervention.

All in all, the trend, for al-Qaeda and its affiliates, was bad news. “It was the repudiation of their thesis,” said Yoram Schweitzer, the director of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former head of the International Counter-Terrorism Department in the IDF. He referred to the fact that non-violent demonstrations had managed, in the span of weeks, to accomplish what two decades of jihadist warfare had not – the overthrow of the corrupt and impious Arab regimes. “But now al-Qaeda sees it as a blessing. Something along the lines of ‘the work of the righteous is done by the hands of others.’”

This shift, in part, is due to the way the struggle in Syria has developed. The unrest there began with demonstrations and protests. Before full blown civil war took hold of the country, a team of Navy SEALs, on May 2, 2011, killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The organization, once the vanguard of all Sunni terror groups, was bruised by democratization, depleted by drone strikes and stripped of its leadership.

At roughly the same time, Bashar Assad despaired of using the police to quell the protests in Daraa, Syria, and turned to the armed forces. For the civilian population this has been a disaster. Some 60,000 people have been killed. For al-Qaeda, it has been a blessing.

At first, in July, a loose alliance of non-Islamist fighters formed the Free Syrian Army. Their leadership was based in Turkey and their military gains, aside from the acquisition of arms, appeared minimal.

On December 23, 2011, the conflict began to shift. Two suicide bombers, apparently belonging to the Jabhat al-Nusra group, blew themselves up in Damascus, killing 44 people and wounding over 150 others.

Several weeks later, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor by training and the head of al-Qaeda by profession, called on “every Muslim and every free honorable one in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, to rise to help his brothers in Syria with all that he can.”

What followed was a string of deadly suicide bombings, claiming hundreds of lives and bearing what US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called “all the earmarks of al-Qaeda-like attacks.”

It remains unclear whether Jabhat al-Nusra was behind the July 18, 2012 strike against the Office of National Security in Damascus, a milestone in the conflict in which the defense minister, the head of the crisis management team and the deputy defense minister, Asaf Shawket, Assad’s brother-in-law, were killed. Conspiracy theories abound. But what is certain is that as the fighting has escalated into a gruesome civil war, the jihadi warriors’ role has increased.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in training (Photo credit: wikicommons)
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in training (Photo credit: wikicommons)

The Long War Journal, a daily publication of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank run by former CIA Director James Woolsey, reported that the Jabhat al-Nusra group has claimed responsibility for 48 of the 58 suicide attacks against Syrian soldiers, and civilians, since December 2011.

“The combination of battle-hardened fighters, along with the weaponry of a standard army, has proven itself as a formula for success for the jihadists,” said Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the IDC’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

Furthermore, operational successes, he said, and the perception of the Free Syrian Army as divided and corrupt, along with the sort of charitable community work practiced by Hamas, have helped the local al-Qaeda groups boost their credibility and advance their goal of implementing Islamic rule across the now-secular Syria.

To some veteran al-Qaeda watchers, the organization’s success in Syria is the exception to the rule. Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and the author of a book about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, argued earlier this week that the organization is, in large part, “going the way of the dodo.”

The group’s core, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he contended, has been devastated by the CIA’s targeted killings. During Obama’s term alone, 38 al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have been killed.

The organization has not managed an attack on US soil in 12 years and eight years have passed since the London bombings.

In southeast Asia, he wrote, the Jema’a Islamiya, is “largely out of business.”

In Saudi Arabia, a government crackdown has killed off al-Qaeda fighters and pushed many of those who remain toward Yemen, where the US, in 2009, launched one drone strike and, in 2012, a total of 46. Just last week the deputy head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Bergen wrote, was confirmed dead.

Even in Mali, where al-Qaeda-affiliated groups took over half of the country, the very fact that the advancing French troops, bearing the colonial colors that once occupied Mali, were cheered upon arrival, was proof, he wrote, of how deeply disliked the Islamist groups had become.

In Bergen’s view, this is the crux of the matter. The Islamist groups, once they’ve gained control of a certain territory, rule like the Taliban, banning smoking and singing, and cutting off the hands of thieves. Nor will they engage in modern politics. All of which, when bundled together, “is a recipe for irrelevance or defeat.”

This thesis is encouraging. But it leaves out one small yet central player in the Middle East, for whom the rules often do not apply: Israel.

Bergen mentions the country only once, in passing. Zawahiri, though, has harped on the issue of late.

In February 2012, in his first call to join the battle against Assad, he tasked his warriors with establishing a state that “seeks to free the Golan, and continues Jihad until the flag of victory is raised above the usurped hills of Jerusalem.”

In September, in an audio address, he reiterated the message, saying “supporting jihad in Syria to establish a Muslim state is a basic step towards Jerusalem.”

This reporter asked several experts if it did not make sense for a battered organization, newly entrenched in the high country to Israel’s northeast and the desert to the southwest, and in control of the sort of ungoverned country that terror requires in order to thrive, to shift the lion’s share of its efforts toward battling Israel, perhaps trying to pry the Golan Heights from Israel hands, and in that way to revive the organization.

Israel “is the glue,” said Dr. Boaz Ganor, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, of the shared animosity among all Islamist factions. “And it is possible that the rhetoric is like the gun in the first scene that must be fired in the last scene,” he added. “But I don’t think Israel will be the center of their efforts.”

Instead, Ganor predicted that al-Qaeda would stick to the first part of its mission – toppling the non-Islamist Arab regimes. “Personally, I’m worried about Jordan,” he said.

Barak Ben Zur, an intelligence analyst and counter-terrorism expert also at the ICT, described the global jihad groups as “pooling water,” saying that they act impulsively. “They’re not like the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “They want revolution now.”

Ben Zur, who agreed with Ganor that there would likely be a “certain drip” of fire toward Israel, estimated that the main thrust might be turned toward Lebanon or Iraq, taking up the battle with the organization’s Shiite foes.

Schweitzer, assessing the risks of al-Qaeda affiliates controlling the Sinai Peninsula, entrenching themselves in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and shaking the foundations of the Hashemite control over Jordan, wrote late last year in the journal Strategic Assessment that, “it appears that what was once considered a dark and unlikely scenario of al-Qaeda and the global jihad turning into a direct threat to Israel on its borders is becoming a reality.”

As to whether or not that reality would develop into the sort of battle spawned in the valleys and ridges of south Lebanon, which has led to two wars and a global battle against Hezbollah, Schweitzer said, “that is a question only history will answer.”

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