On 9/11, al Qaeda looks to Syria to revive its fortunes
September 11th, 2012
05:32 AM ET

On 9/11, al Qaeda looks to Syria to revive its fortunes

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister

As al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri takes stock of the terrorist network’s fortunes eleven years after 9/11 he is likely to have mixed emotions.

Many of al Qaeda’s senior figures, including Osama bin Laden, are dead or captured as a result of counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan. Those lost include many of its operational experts, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Younis al Mauretani and Rashid Rauf. Most of al Qaeda’s terrorist plots against the West since 9/11 have been aborted or broken up. It’s unclear how far al Qaeda ‘central’ even knew about significant attacks such as that in Madrid in March 2004 – although Rauf appears to have been intimately involved in the London bombings the following year.

The group's sources of finance in the Gulf have come under remorseless attack from the U.S. Treasury and encrypted documents discovered last year by German intelligence revealed an organization under pressure, scrambling to find new ways of attacking the West.

One of the documents, entitled "Future Works" and thought to have been written in 2009, suggests al Qaeda was in a hurry to prove its relevance, amid intense pressure from western counter-terrorism agencies.

"The document delivers very clearly the notion that al Qaeda knows it is being followed very closely," according to Yassin Musharbash of the German newspaper Die Zeit, who first reported its existence.

"It specifically says that Western intelligence agencies have become very good at spoiling attacks, that they have to come up with new ways and better plotting."

One idea discussed was attacks on cruise ships. There was also a recommendation to train European jihadists quickly and send them home - rather than use them as fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan - with instructions on how to keep in secret contact with their handlers. But al Qaeda's barren run continues.

Now al Qaeda’s continuing relevance depends to a great extent on its ‘franchises’ – and on the course of events in the Middle East, where the iron-fist of dictators has given way to shades of democracy (Tunisia, Egypt); uncertainty (Libya); and bloodshed (Syria, Yemen and Iraq once again.)

In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya militant, Islam has found greater room for maneuver – not the least in Egypt's Sinai peninsula where Salafist cells have launched rocket and gun attacks against military and police outposts in recent weeks. According to western counter-terrorism sources, Zawahiri has also tried to influence militant Islamic groups in eastern Libya, dispatching an envoy to the area. But al Qaeda and Salafist extremism face a growing challenge from newly-formed governments hostile to their interpretation of Islam.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a substantial threat, both in Yemen and beyond its borders. But a military offensive in recent months has driven AQAP out of southern towns and an aggressive U.S. drone campaign has begun to erode its leadership. In the last few months, AQAP has lost deputy leader Said al Shehri and one of its most senior operatives, Fahd al Quso. An April plot to smuggle a bomb on board a U.S.-bound airliner was disrupted thanks to a Saudi double-agent who has penetrated the group.

Africa in the past few years has been a bright spot for al Qaeda affiliates, with the growth of al Shabaab in Somalia, now formally part of al Qaeda, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb taking advantage of a security vacuum and plentiful weapons in the Sahel. But al Shabaab is under pressure from both the Kenyan and Ethiopian military and beset by internal dissent. It’s at risk of losing the port of Kismayo, its hub and main source of funds.

The seizure of much of northern Mali by Ansar Dine [Defenders of the Faith] - a group sympathetic to al Qaeda - has sent shockwaves across the region. Ansar's occupation of Timbuktu – and the imposition of sharia law in a city long accustomed to a more gentle interpretation of Islam – serves as a reminder of the feeble hold of governments in the region. But Ansar’s alliance with Tuareg militia, always tentative, fell apart weeks after they had found common cause in rebelling against Mali’s central government, and its grip on the region looks uncertain at best.

All of which makes events in Syria of growing importance to Zawahiri and al Qaeda “central.”

"Whenever you have a case of civil strife and instability, as you have in Syria, it makes it extremely attractive to extremists," State Department Counter-terrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month.

Zawahiri’s ultimate aim of creating a theocratic Islamist order in the Arab world has for many years rested on two foundations: creating a safe-haven for fighters in the Arab world and winning the support of the Arab masses. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq provided al Qaeda with an unprecedented opportunity, but the barbaric sectarian-driven attacks of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia under the leadership of Musab al Zarqawi led to a rapid erosion of support on the Arab street.

Syria may offer al Qaeda a second chance - an opportunity to regain support across the Arab world by portraying itself as the defender of Sunnis against a merciless Alawite regime. But it has to be careful not to be perceived as trying to co-opt or impose itself on the uprising. That was its mistake in Iraq. The growing sectarian complexion of Syria’s violence may portend the fracturing of a state long held together by repression and an ubiquitous security service, providing al Qaeda with the opportunity to thrive amid a meltdown of authority – and taking it right up to Israel’s border.

"Establish a state that defends the Muslim countries, seeks to free the Golan, and continues Jihad until the flag of victory is raised above the usurped hills of al-Quds [mosque in Jerusalem]," Zawahiri urged jihadists fighting in Syria in February 2012.

The Al Qaeda Presence in Syria

Zawahiri’s vision is however still a long way from fruition. To date, there are probably at most a few hundred committed al Qaeda fighters in Syria, a small fraction of the tens of thousands who have joined rebel ranks.

U.S. officials have downplayed al Qaeda’s presence in the country. "I would put the numbers in the dozens to 100-plus. You know, we don't have that much granularity that we can say with any certainty exactly how many are there," Daniel Benjamin told CNN last month.

Many analysts believe that Jabhat al Nusra, a group founded by Syrian jihadists in January 2012, is affiliated with al Qaeda in all but name. Though the group has not pledged loyalty to al Qaeda nor been recognized by Zawahiri, its propaganda is hostile to the West and non-Sunni groups. Al Nusra propagandists also appear to have received privileged access to password protected web forums used by al Qaeda and its affiliates. Al Nusra has also claimed responsibility for a significant number of suicide bombings, long the signature tactic of al Qaeda.

Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Jihadist now with the Quilliam Foundation in London, has been closely tracking Jihadists in Syria. He told CNN that al Nusra probably has several hundred mostly Syrian fighters, has developed a presence across Syria, and has emerged as one of the most effective groups in waging urban warfare.

Unlike other jihadist cells fighting in Syria, al Nusra has a strict vetting process for recruits and is focused on building up an organized committee structure, Benotman told CNN. He also believes it is collaborating with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), newly revived by growing sectarian fissures there. U.S. intelligence agencies began to detect the presence of AQI operatives in Syria earlier this year and believe they may have had a hand in a number of vehicle-borne bomb attacks against Syrian security services.

The growth of hardline Salafism in areas such as Deir Ezzor and Idlib in the last decade has provided both groups with a potential pool of recruits, according to Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based international security expert. Hage Ali told CNN there are also a significant number of Syrian veterans of the Iraqi insurgency present in these two areas, including some skilled in urban warfare. He said sources on the ground spoke of "thousands" of returnees from Iraq.

Constraints to Expansion

Analysts say al Qaeda may nevertheless hit a recruitment ceiling in Syria. In Iraq the deeply unpopular U.S. occupation helped al Qaeda spread its global Jihadist ideology, but there are no U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

Another drawback for the group, says Benotman, is the memory of the barbaric violence of al Qaeda in Iraq and its killing of so many Muslim civilians in attacks across the Arab world. He says most Salafist groups in Syria - even if their goal is to create an Islamic state, have been determined to keep their distance from al Qaeda because they are not motivated by global jihad. One such group is Sukur al Sham, a Jihadist fighting force which may have several thousand fighters, including some Western recruits, and which has carried out a number of attacks against Syrian security forces, including suicide bombings.

"The Arab uprisings has ushered in what I call the era of the new Jihadists – they are complete newcomers to the scene. They’ve dropped a lot of the old al Qaeda concepts and don’t want to be part of the al Qaeda narrative – we’ve already seen this in Libya. This is a very important development," Benotman told CNN.

Benotman nevertheless warns that if regime brutality and sectarian violence escalate, al Nusra could expand its influence over other Jihadist groups.

Reports suggest al Nusra is already impressing other Jihadist rebel units and even rank and file members of the Free Syrian Army with its fighting prowess.

"When it comes to al Qaeda you need to look at the impact, not the number of fighters. The capability to carry out operations is key and here it may not be easy to compete with al Qaeda," said Benotman.

Al Qaeda elements in Syria are already taking advantage of a regional support infrastructure which stretches from Lebanon to Jordan to Iraq and is mobilizing fighters to travel to the country, he said. Despite the arrival of fighters from al Qaeda affiliates such as the Lebanese Fatah al Islam, analysts say foreign fighters still represent a small minority of those fighting in Jihadist ranks in Syria.

However, regional security analysts say that al Qaeda elements in Syria, like many other rebel opposition fighting groups, are struggling to obtain weapons and explosives, which may blunt their ability to make an impact. In Iraq by contrast, Sunni insurgent groups were able to build explosive devices from looted regime stockpiles.

Western officials have been concerned that Jihadist groups, including those supportive of al Qaeda, may become better equipped as a result of funds raised by private donors in some Gulf countries. The fear that weapons may end up with jihadists has been one of the key reasons why Western countries have been reluctant to arm rebel forces in Syria.

The Saudi authorities, conscious of al Qaeda tapping into private sources in the Kingdom in years past, have moved to take control of fundraising efforts for Syria's rebels.

So for Ayman al Zawahiri and what remains of al Qaeda's leadership, Syria may represent the best opportunity to raise the flag.

Filed under: Al Qaeda • Al-Zawahiri • Libya • Syria
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. ClarkClurn

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    April 24, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  3. Mohammed

    I like the answer of this German Scholar when he was asked about terrorism and Islam: He said:

    · Who started the First World War, which killed 37 million and injured 22, 379, 053 that includes 7 million civilians? Muslims?
    · Who started the Second World War, which killed over 60 million, which was over 2.5% of the world population? Muslims?
    · Who killed about 20 million of Aborigines in Australia? Muslims?
    · Who drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 166,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki? Muslims?
    · Who killed more than 100 million Red Indians in North America? Muslims?
    · Who killed more than 50 million Indian in South America? Muslims?
    · Who took about 180 million African people as slaves and when 88% of them died, threw them into the Atlantic Ocean? Muslims?
    They weren’t Muslims! First of all, you have to define terrorism properly…. If a non-Muslim does something bad… it is crime. But if a Muslim commits the same, he is a terrorist. So first remove the double standard… then come to the point.
    *** Just for your information ***

    October 8, 2012 at 2:15 am | Reply
  4. Heath

    Hey isn't this guy the Prime Minister of India with face whitewashed !!!!! LOL !!! yeah the name comes to me now.... Mo Singh

    September 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  5. Karl from Wash DC

    ARE INDIANS UBER TERRORISTS OR WHAT???? Forget the GDP, focus on these murder statistics.
    In India, millions of girls are strangled, slowly starved or simply tossed in the trash. Moreover, in India, at least 1,370 girls are aborted every day. As a comparison, some 250 Indians die every day in road accidents. Terrorists killed about six people, on an average, every day in 2009. In the last two decades of economic progress, 10 million girls have died as such in India.
    Indians have killed more human beings (girls particularly) than Al Qaeda and Talibans put together.

    September 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  6. spcjrc

    Reading some of the comments here you can really understand why some countries can't stand you americans and that some of the evil you bring on yourselves.

    September 11, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • Clinton

      spcjrc – I can't help but wonder if you're from a country that has limited access to the internet. Because if you really think that the views expressed in a CNN forum represent the views of mainstream America... you're either ignorant or you want to believe negative things about us. It's the internet, the majority of people that express their views on the internet are those who would not say the same things in public because they know they're crazy. If you're really that naiive that you believe the comments of 20 or so folks on an internet forum represents the views of an entire nation of 300 million... i guess it doesn't make much sense to argue with you, you've proved you're a dunce already.

      September 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Very well stated, spcjrc. These uneducated lemmings here are what one would call "Mainstream America" as they take every government statement here to be Gospel! They know no better!!! Just ignore them!

      September 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  7. John

    To Phil,
    Hatred toward Drones is justified! I don't need to explain why! There is nothing Al Qaeda about this. Your response seems to imply that you are a Drone sympathizer. BEWARE! Because if you are, we will find you and send an Al Qaeda your way.

    September 11, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Taskmaster

      To John: I'm dot a drone sympathizer. I am a 25 mega ton thermo-nuclear advocate. I don't believe in using a fly swatter when I have a sledge hammer at my disposal.

      September 11, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
      • George Patton

        Gee whiz Taskmaster, do you really harbor that much hatred? Are you truly that jaded? Just because this country possesses god awful weapons, no one should feel any sympathy at all toward them. They are built for one purpose only, and that is to slaughter people!!!

        September 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  8. Chuk

    Shouldn't the US be helping Syria fight off Al Qaeda instead by blindly supporting the "freedom fighters" in the name of "democracy"? One gets the feeling the US is making the same mistakes it did in Afganistan, supporting groups that habored Bin Ladin to fight for "democracy". See how well it worked out.

    September 11, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Chris

      I really wish people like yourself would actually study history and not just repeat what another trolls says. I mean we supported the Afghan Mujaheddin which isn't the same thing as the Taliban or AQ, those that we supported in the 80's are some of the same people that helped the U.S. in Operation Jawbreaker which was the swift strikes conducted by the CIA in the opening of the Afghan war which saw us remove the Taliban from power only to return because of our former presidents bone headed move to start another war in Iraq before shoring up things in Afghanistan. Also things were very much different in the 80's and the Soviets were a much bigger issue than a ragtag group of fighters in Afghanistan.

      September 11, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • aitreyan

        atleast in case of afghan mujahideen there where two brands one deobandi and another sufi/shia.

        It was the sufi and shia mujahideen who were part of Northern alliance and it was they who helped US...not Deobandi or Salafi groups.

        In case of syria most are salafi and that too those who fought against americans in iraq or are still fighting against shia twelver cousins of alawi in iraq.

        Recently rebel battalion called ansar al-islam claimed responaiblity for attack in damascus the same people who were a year ago killing american troops and are still killing Iraqi's in northern iraq.

        first study thoroughly about groups then comment whether they can be managed.

        September 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • aitreyan

      very true US should help syria in containing islamist forces .

      September 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  9. JOKES



    September 11, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
    • aitreyan

      India being a secular country must ban these organisation....its a shame that they are not doing so.

      September 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
      • Heath

        Forget the ban, drone these terrorists

        September 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  10. JOKES

    India poses a clear and present danger to the regional security of the world. ...to USA...NATO...Pakistan and Afghanistan people and armed forces. Hindu cult extremism is on the rise and fanning all terrorism worldwide. Indians are the bankers to and financing terrorism and supporting Talibans and Al Qaeda and harboring them in India. These terrorists are being entertained in the Indian parliament building in New Delhi where they are residing and then smuggled over to Pakistan in Indian Army helicopters. Shame on these Indians. Like the NAZI's they need to be stopped forcefully and immediately. If it takes bombing lets bomb India, if it takes Drones...lets drone New Delhi

    September 11, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
    • You appear quite silly

      ....and of course you fail to produce any shred of evidence to back your theory. Nor does it matter, you won't incite action on India from one of her staunch allies. You can quit trying to squeeze lemon juice out of an apple now, unless of course you enjoy looking the part of the fool.

      September 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • Desi Munda

      INDIA: On a Goat and a Stick:

      The problem with India is that is built on a system of cultural and societal values based on Hinduism which is a cult. Nations built on a cult seldom survive in the long run. You can only take it so far based on symbolisms of a goat and a stick with a skinny little man aka gandhi banging boys at night and spinning wheels during daytime.

      September 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  11. aitreyan

    I think there is delebrate attempt not to empacize about expanding alqaeda presense in iraq....since US cannot do anything about it.

    September 11, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
  12. JOKES

    I'd love to be reincarnated as a girl Paki.

    I mean, imagine how cool it would be to have a moustache at 5 years old

    September 11, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
    • Jack 63

      Not to mention being raped by your uncle at 6.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:55 am | Reply
    • Derp

      I can almost hear the distinct whine of jealousy in your post. Don't worry little Timmy eventually you will go through the change of life and your tiny coconuts will drop. Then you may actually get some scruff on that ugly little mug of yours. You still won't be a man, but hey, it's OK nobody will fault you for being a bit *special* in your tiny head and for having such a tiny head elsewhere as well... Contrary to what your mom told you it is not a 2nd belly button.

      Rule of thumb: each troll gets one counter-trolling then gets flushed as they scream FUUUUUUUUUUU!

      September 11, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  13. $audi $upport

    The Saudi authorities, conscious of al Qaeda tapping into private sources in the Kingdom in years past, have moved to take control of fundraising efforts for Syria's rebels.

    September 11, 2012 at 9:17 am | Reply
    • aitreyan

      saudi are funding sunni tribes.

      September 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  14. posrkistan land of impure

    i bet he saying... I KILL YOU ....

    September 11, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  15. posrkistan land of impure

    hahahahahha all these mullas look hilarious .. do they wear all these dresses24/7 ?

    September 11, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
  16. michaelfury


    September 11, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
  17. Ayb Lyncoln

    Thats right Al Qaeda, the US stronger then ever! (well,with the exception of our congress)...but,non-the-less you mess with the US you'll lay like the rest!

    September 11, 2012 at 6:14 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Good grief Ayb, you sound like another hateful, ignorant, right-wing Tea Partier. Are you one by any chance? This hate must somehow end along with all this ignorance here!!!

      September 11, 2012 at 8:51 am | Reply
      • Phil

        To George Patton,
        Hatred toward Al Qaeda is justified. I don't need to explain why! There is nothing Tea Party about this. Your response seems to imply that you are an Al Qaeda sympathizer. BEWARE! Because if you are, we will find you and send a drone your way.

        September 11, 2012 at 9:49 am |
      • Taskmaster

        To George Patton, Good grief you sound like left wing liberal food stamp patron.

        September 11, 2012 at 10:47 am |

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