Rumors of the emergence of a jihadi threat in Syria surged with the twin bombings that shook the city of Aleppo earlier this month, leaving 28 people dead. US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the US Congress that he believed that the car bombs involved in the blasts "bore the earmarks" of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Aleppo bombings were not the first to take place in Syria since the uprising began last March. Last month, three bomb blasts targeted Syrian security offices in the heart of Damascus, leaving some 70 people dead. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed Al-Qaeda for the attacks.
Thomas Pierret, a professor of Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and the author of “Baath Islam in Syria,” said that though the vast majority of people in Syria are very religious, they adhere mostly to a moderate form of Sufi Islam. “You may find at one end of the spectrum radical Salafists, but in a smaller number than Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq,” he told NOW. “It is true that people are becoming more radical, but this has nothing to with religion; secular people are taking up arms against the regime. The fact that the Syrian army is operating like a collective sectarian [Alawite] force on a rampage is only making things worse.”
Indeed, as the Syrian crisis lingers on, sectarian tensions are on the rise. In spite of the secular aspect of the pro-democracy protests, the movement is essentially comprised of Muslims, while other minorities have cautiously remained on the sidelines. In addition, the rivalry between the Sunnis and Alawites (an off-shoot of Shia Islam to which the Assad clan and around eight percent of the population belongs) has been aggravated by the violent crackdown.
Colonel Aref Hamoud of the opposition Free Syrian Army underlined the role of Iran in the Syrian repression. “Iranians are supporting the Syrian army in specialized missions, namely sniper operations and the enforcement of repressive measures,” he told NOW Lebanon.
In recent weeks, photo-shopped pictures of a bloody Assad, Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah have also been circulating on radical blogs, an indication of the growing divide between Sunnis on the one hand, and Alawites and Shia on the other.
The Salafist terror group Fatah al-Islam has also reportedly come out in support of the Syrian uprising.
It seems Al-Qaeda sees the uprising as an opportunity to expand in Syria. Last Monday, the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent an appeal to every Muslim “in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, to rise to help his brothers in Syria.”
In addition, last week a blogger calling himself a “Free Syrian Muslim from Aleppo” pondered, “Where are the men of Islamic Iraq? Where are you, our prince Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?” a reference to the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Hamoud said that the FSA has arrested some radicals operating around Syria. “I can also confirm news of the release of Fatah al-Islam and Al-Qaeda members from jail by the regime, which seems willing to take any risk to stay in power,” by letting known terrorists onto the streets to stir up trouble so it can blame the conflict on radical elements, he added. “As the crisis lingers on, it will be more difficult to put a stop to them,” Hamoud said.
Among the Al-Qaeda members said to have been freed from jail is Abu Mussaab al-Suri, a prominent member of the terrorist organization. This information was confirmed by a Salafist source in Tripoli who spoke to NOW Lebanon on condition of anonymity.
“Even at this late stage, Assad appears willing to toy with Al-Qaida either as a proxy for the regime’s dirty work as a warning against Western intervention in Syria,” said Michael Weiss in a report published by the Henry Jackson Society last week.
According to the report, the Syrian intelligence, if not itself responsible for the two Damascus bombings, might have lured jihadist into carrying out terrorist operations by feeding them misinformation or even luring them to normally secure locations and then turning a blind eye to what happened next. “After all, it’s easy enough to exploit terrorism once you’ve abetted it,” added Weiss.
In the meantime, jihadi fighters were trickling into Syria from Iraq, reported the Lebanese Salafist source.
“Unfortunately, Al-Qaeda has a good card to play as the street is radicalized by the repression,” concluded Pierret.