Is Al Qaeda Actually Involved in the Syria Uprising?

By Blanford, Nicholas | The Christian Science Monitor, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Al Qaeda Actually Involved in the Syria Uprising?


Blanford, Nicholas, The Christian Science Monitor


Embattled President Bashar al-Assad is blaming Al Qaeda and its affiliates for a spate of suicide bombings around Syria's capital, but analysts are skeptical.

A recent spate of suicide bombings in the Syrian capital of Damascus is fueling a debate over whether Al Qaeda and its affiliates have infiltrated the 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Assad regime insists that the opposition protests that have rocked the country since March are being driven by "armed terrorist groups" and "Islamic militants." It has blamed Al Qaeda for three suicide bomb attacks over the past month against security offices in Damascus, which left 70 people dead.

Analysts say there is little proof - at least for now - that suggests that Al Qaeda, or its militant affiliates, are seeking to play an active role in the Syrian uprising. But the Assad regime has an ambiguous history with Sunni militants - serving at times as suspected patron and at other times as bitter enemy - and a descent into civil war could draw Al Qaeda and like-minded groups into the fray.

"I haven't seen any evidence of Al Qaeda being responsible for any of the events that have happened in the Middle East against these embattled regimes," says Imad Salamey, associate professor of politics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. "These leaders have an interest in exaggerating the role Al Qaeda is playing.

According to Lebanese cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri, former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had made the decision not to become involved in the uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East before he was killed in a US raid in May.

"If the Sunnis in Syria had called for Al Qaeda's help, Al Qaeda would be everywhere in Syria," says the Salafist sheikh. "But Al Qaeda did make research among Sunnis in Syria and found that they were not in favor of a violent uprising."

Nonetheless, Al Qaeda has clearly stated its support for the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime. The bulk of the opposition is composed of the majority Sunni community while the backbone of the regime is drawn from the minority Alawite sect, an obscure religion that follows some tenets of Shiite Islam and whose adherents comprise about 12 percent of Syria's population.

That sectarian polarization has intensified and aggravated the struggle in Syria, especially as some conservative Sunnis view Alawites as apostates.

In a videotaped message issued in July 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's new leader, applauded Syrian antiregime protestors, but implicitly admitted that his organization was absent from the confrontation.

"God knows that if it were not for the raging war with the New Crusades in which we are engaged, ... my brothers and I would be at your side today, in your midst defending you with our necks and chests," he said.

Militant websites call for jihad against the Assad regime

As the violence has steadily worsened, some commentators on jihadist websites are openly calling for waging a jihad against the Assad regime. In November, Osama al-Shehabi, the leader of Al Qaeda- inspired Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, called for an armed struggle in Syria.

"The regime's brutal oppression of the Syrian people proves that it is time to change direction and use real weapons against the regime," he wrote in an article that was published by the Shumoukh al-Islam online forum. "The revolution is a jihad; it is a war; prepare for jihad for God; scrutinize your intentions and take up arms, for they are your obligation."

Last month the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid Wa al-Jihad posted a fatwa, or religious edict, by an influential Salafist cleric, in which he sanctioned the use of violence against the Assad regime.

"Why do you insist on confining yourselves to peaceful protests?" wrote Sheikh Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti. …

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