News / Middle East

Assessing the al-Qaida Presence in Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo wears a headband reading the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger."A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo wears a headband reading the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger."
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo wears a headband reading the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger."
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo wears a headband reading the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger."
Cecily Hilleary

Recent newspaper headlines say that al-Qaida or related jihadist groups are flocking into Syria to help the opposition bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The reports suggest that the militants want to foment chaos, fan sectarian tensions and, ultimately, shape a post-Assad era along strict Islamist lines.   

If true, the reports could bolster the Assad regime’s contention that the rebels are “foreign terrorists” and significantly impact international willingness to intervene or arm the rebels.

The latest such report came this week on the front page of the  Washington Post, which could influence how U.S. officials and lawmakers decide on helping the rebels.

VOA has spoken to analysts, activists and opposition members inside and outside Syria to gauge the prevalence of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups in the country — and what their long-term goals might be.  

Evidence of al-Qaida

The publicly stated goal of Syria’s main opposition is to bring down Assad regime and replace it with a civil and democratic state. The Free Syrian Army is the main fighting arm of the rebellion, a diverse mixture of military defectors, local militia and civilians from various religious backgrounds.

The FSA has been joined by fighters from countries all across the region -- Libya, Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf and beyond.   A March 2012 report  by the Institute for the Study of War found that the bulk of foreign fighters in Syria have come from Iraq -- among them, Syrians who had been fighting alongside Sunni insurgent groups there.   

Foreign fighters may help the insurgency by offering technical expertise and combat experience, but they can also bring radical ideology...
In January 2012, videos began surfacing on jihadist websites and YouTube, featuring armed masked men posed against black flags similar to those used by al-Qaida in Iraq.  The groups use various names, many drawn from Islamic military history, and call for a jihad against Bashar al-Assad.  But the main Syrian opposition claims that at least some of these videos have been fabricated by the regime in an attempt to demonize the rebels. 


Many analysts say that the flags and language of jihadism are clear indicators of al-Qaeda affiliation. Among them is Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation and author of Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa'ida Since 9/11

“I have spoken to multiple senior officials in governments in the region and gone through numbers of attacks, put together an organizational structure of Al Qaida in Syria, the command nodes, and run it back by a range of senior officials,” Jones said.  “I would estimate there are roughly in the order of 200 [al-Qaida operatives] that have been identified. We’ve identified whole cell structures.”  

What they [FSA] need most right now is international legitimacy and support, and there are some concerns ...that having al- Qaida in the al-Nusra unhelpful In fact, it’s poisonous, actually.
Jones says the involvement of al-Qaida fighters in Syria is of grave concern.   “If you’re Jordan, if you’re Turkey, if you’re Saudi Arabia, if you’re the United States, the United Kingdom — frankly, if you’re Syria itself,” he said, “there should be grave concerns about a strengthening extremist network whose long-term vision of establishing an emirate in Syria is very different from what the bulk of the Free Syrian Army is arguing.” 

Threat overstated?

Elizabeth O’Bagi is a research analyst with the ISW, a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization in Washington D.C. which studies military affairs.  “I think that especially in the media, there has been a tendency to confuse Islamic Salafism with Jihadism,” she said.  “They’re very different.”  

In the Syrian context, jihadists are those Muslims from outside Syria who believe it is their religious duty to take up arms against the Assad regime because it is oppressing fellow Muslims. 

“And even the groups that tend to be more Islamist and Salafist,” O’Bagi said, “are very clear that they are not terrorists.”

Infiltration a natural development

Col. Riad Al-Asa’ad, the FSA Commander in Turkey, stresses that the FSA “categorically rejects allowing any al-Qaeda elements in Syria.” However, he tells VOA that because the revolution is so protracted and the FSA has received such little Western support, he would not rule out the possibility that “some elements” from neighboring countries may have infiltrated Syria.  "The borders are open,” he said.  “That would be a natural development.”

However, he hints at what amounts to a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy when it comes to the intentions of allied fighters:  Any outside groups on the ground, he says, share the FSA’s goals of removing the Syrian president and establishing democracy.

“There are no religious groups on the ground,” he said.  “There are fighters joining the FSA.  All we have done is to unify all the fighters in Syria under the FSA.  Thank God, everything is under control.” 

If there are any groups or individuals acting as individuals, Al-Asa’ad says, that’s not the rule, but the exception.  “That happens in all Arab revolutions.”

VOA also spoke with Mouhamed Saeed, spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission in Aleppo, who said he has not seen any foreign fighters in that city.  “We don’t have jihadist groups,” Saeed said.  “There is just the Free Army in Aleppo, and any person who wants to fight against Bashar Al-Assad will be in the FSA.”   

In a conflict fraught with information and misinformation, only a few things are clear: 

The Syrian conflict is attracting fighters of various ideologies from across the region, and the longer the conflict continues, the greater their likely influx.  Many Muslims now believe that the solution to their political problems lies in Islam.  And, as one source told VOA, “if you’re there in Aleppo and you’re looking at Syrian army tanks ahead of you, do you really care what, exactly, the person next to you is believing?”

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Comment Sorting
by: Paul E. Ester from: USA
August 28, 2012 6:03 PM
There is open support in the west for al queda in Syria, while we restrict liberties in the United States to fight al queda.

The recent NYTimes video the "lions of tawhid" documents an al queda unit using a mentally retarded prisoner who had been tortured as an unwitting suicide bomber.

Seeing the NYTimes embedded with al queda unit, using suicide bombers passing it off as a noble struggle, you know the wrong people are in charge.

Time and time again we see Secretary of State Clinton and Ambassador Rice supporting these murderous zealots. Facts on the ground speak to fundamentalists muslims across the region gaining power with their help.

Death to al queda and all her supporters.

by: GOST from: US
August 24, 2012 10:06 AM
Bashshar and his regime from day-one claimed fighting Islamic extremists. Despots of Damascus knew that this is the bait that lures the West on their side, or at least not to support the rebels.
Those Syrians who came from Iraq and fighting Bashshar's regime are Syrian citizens fled the Ba'th oppression and now got the chance to have a gun and go against the regime. Large number of Syrians left their business and jobs in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states and joined the opposition.
Al-Qaeda extremists won't find a place among the Syrians. The Syrians are business oriented and globalized people by nature. Such people will never go for extremism, but surely will go against Bashshar's corrupt regime.

by: B72 from: America
August 22, 2012 2:19 PM
If you doubt the reality of straight up mujahideen fighters joining this "freedom movement," then just look up mujahideen on Youtube. They are putting up videos all the time. They are joining the fight. Because of this, we can not arm them. How can we possibly arm our enemies?

by: Anonymous
August 21, 2012 7:08 PM
I don't care much for extremists, but hell at least someone is god damn well helping these innocent civillians!!! Who looks bad here? The west for not doing anything? Or the Extremists for helping???

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
August 21, 2012 12:29 PM
The Arab Spring has been one of return to barbarism and I would not be surprised to see al qaida in full control out there. Al Assad did himself in by not quickly organizing a transition, but he must have been wary that the transition his islamist-drunk opponents want is not a healthy one. But however it comes off, now is the right time, having whipped up enough attention to Syria not to hand over to those mad dogs, to step down, declare a truce and hand over power to the army who should pick up the bits and pieces and fit them together again to continue Syria. Every fighting force should belong to the army; anyone that does not belong will be found out and flushed away. That way al qaida will have nowhere to hide.

by: CloudLion from: Canada
August 20, 2012 11:32 PM
What is this? Is this Concord? Is this Belfast? Is this Fort Sumter? Is this Edgehill?

It does not matter. This is another bloody issue where the flesh of the dead on both sides will feed the dogs in the streets. The Battle of Alepo is underway and it will stand out in time as a pivotal point where one side looked to the world for help while the other side looked to Moscow, China, and Iran to continue banging on tables and sword rattling. It doesn't matter who is right or wrong; people are still going to die. Russian and Chinese arms will be unloaded daily at Syrian ports. Others nations send their care packages of death through Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.

Where does the world go from here? God help Syria and the idea of peace. Spill more blood on the streets; it feeds global insanity. Eventually someone will claim there was a victor. Who will it be and when will that happen?

by: Mohammad from: Canada
August 20, 2012 10:36 PM
This is indeed a genuine revolution against 35 years of tyranny in Syria. A family from a minority clan has been ruling the country for 35 years. if this is not a revolution, then the meaning of revolution should be changed. Furthemore, the fear of Islamic recationries taking over the power in Syria is a propaganda that has been waged by Syrian regime aqnd its dictatorial master in Iran. Assad is doomed to fall. it is inevitable.

by: MZahza
August 20, 2012 9:11 PM
This entire "revolution" smells rotten... It is more an insurrection supported and financed by external forces, with the help of mercenaries and opportunists, far from a popular rebellion as portrayed in the MSM. I would like to review ALL the media coverage in hindsight and determine if the coverage has been "balanced" or "verified".

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