U.S. officials have reportedly confirmed that deadly bombings in the Syrian cities of Damascus (in December and January) and Aleppo (Friday) were the work of al Qaeda in Iraq, whose members were acting with authorization from al Qaeda central head and Osama bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to McClatchy:
The Iraqi branch of al Qaida, seeking to exploit the bloody turmoil in Syria to reassert its potency, carried out two recent bombings in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and likely was behind suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 28 people in the largest city, Aleppo, U.S. officials told McClatchy.
The officials cited U.S. intelligence reports on the incidents, which appear to verify Syrian President Bashar Assad’s charges of al Qaida involvement in the 11-month uprising against his rule. The Syrian opposition has claimed that Assad’s regime, which has responded with massive force against the uprising, staged the bombings to discredit the pro-democracy movement calling for his ouster.
The international terrorist network’s presence in Syria also raises the possibility that Islamic extremists will try to hijack the uprising, which would seriously complicate efforts by the United States and its European and Arab partners to force Assad’s regime from power. On Friday, President Barack Obama repeated his call for Assad to step down, accusing his forces of “outrageous bloodshed.”
The U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the bombings came on the orders of Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian extremist who assumed leadership of al Qaida’s Pakistan-based central command after the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden. They suggest that Zawahiri still wields considerable influence over the network’s affiliates despite the losses the Pakistan-based core group has suffered from missile-firing CIA drones and other intensified U.S. counterterrorism operations.
More will be said about this in the near future, and it remains unknown just how the U.S. government confirmed AQI’s involvement. However, the expansion of al Qaeda in Iraq beyond that state’s borders – evidently for the first time – demonstrates AQI’s strength in Iraq’s post-America phase. Despite years of hunting terror cells and individuals within AQI, the U.S. was not only unable to defeat the AQ franchise, but left it in good enough condition that it has now begun to carry out acts on an international (if still regional) scale.
Along with a testament to AQI’s resilience, the three deadly attacks in Syria over the course of three months show the risk of assuming the makeup of the centers of protest or the active anti-regime population. The risk of al Qaeda and other criminals and terrorists having a presence among the Libyan opposition was intentionally ignored or glossed over during the NATO action there, and the ongoing fighting within that nation and the steady stream of weapons across its borders into neighboring countries in the weeks and months since NATO’s involvement ended demonstrate the problematic nature of that decision. As discussions about aiding the Syrian rebels in any number of ways (from arming them to intervening militarily on their behalf) continue, the likelihood that AQI is operating among the rebels (even without their approval) will need to be taken into very serious account.
Finally, it is worth noting (even if only for its ironic value) that Assad played a role over the last near-decade in arming and supporting al Qaeda in Iraq. Additionally, counterterror analyst Leah Farrall notes that “the most recent place [al Qaeda] is known to have held a “summit” of leaders [circa 2004] was Damascus.”
As with the rest of the developments in Syria, this will bear watching. However, the presence of an active AQI in revolutionary Syria should give all of us pause – particularly those calling for support of the rebels through such means as arms shipments, which have the distinct potential to put firepower in the wrong hands.