With the 15-month old demonstrations in Syria descending into a civil war, the mounting death toll has topped 10,000. Accompanying the chaos on the ground is a sharp increase in suicide bombings since December 2011. The May 10 twin suicide car bombing in Damascus was the deadliest blast to date as it detonated outside a regime military intelligence building, killing 55 and wounding some 372 people, according to Syrian officials.
As in the case of the previous terror attacks, Syria's interior ministry was quick to point the finger at "foreign-backed terrorists" who in the case of the May 10 attack used two cars "loaded with more than 1,000kg of explosives driven by the suicide bombers." Syria's Foreign and Expatriates Ministry announced "the escalating crimes prove that Syria is facing a terrorist attack led by groups which received arms and financial support by sides that announced support to these terrorist crimes and encouraged committing them."
Since the protests began in March 2011, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been quick to blame "foreign elements" in an attempt to cast his brutal crackdown as part of a wider fight against Islamist militants and al-Qaeda-affiliated cells. And the foreign conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the diversion tactics often employed by Middle East dictators. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak blamed foreign terrorists as his regime began to crumble and Libya's bombastic tyrant, Muammar Qadhafi, did the same. So it is no surprise that aside from trotting out the traditional canard—"it's Israel's fault"—Assad is playing the al-Qaeda card as well.
Recognizing the problem, last week in Washington U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al-Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are." The question analysts are asking is to what extent are foreign jihadists infiltrating Syria and committing terrorist attacks?
As in several of the recent terrorist attacks in Syria, a new Salafi jihadist organization called Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front) or the al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the May 10 car bombing in a statement posted on a jihadist website a couple days after the attack. The organization first appeared in a video statement in January 2012 taking credit for an attack in the city of Idlib in northwest Syria—a city known for its more conservative and Salafi (Sunni) leanings. And since its creation, the group's sporadic media output usually issued by its own media group, al-Manara al-Baida (The White Minaret), has grown in both quantity and quality, as the terrorist attacks they claim credit for have grown in sophistication and lethality.
Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra was busy before its May 10 bombing. The group took credit for a January 6 suicide bombing in Damascus; a February 10 double suicide car bombing in Aleppo that struck a military security building and the barracks of the Security Preservation forces killing 28; a March 17 bombing in Damascus that struck the Air Force Intelligence and Criminal Security department killing at least 27; an April 20 suicide bombing near Hama as revenge for the Latamnah Massacre; an April 24 bombing at the Iranian Cultural Consulate in the al-Marajah Square in Damascus, accomplished by attaching a sticky explosive device to a Syrian Army vehicle which they detonated when it reached the cultural consulate; an April 27 suicide attack in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus during Friday prayers; and a May 5 twin suicide bombing on a central Damascus highway. In fact, al-Nusra claimed credit for nine attacks in Damascus between April 20 and May 3.
And they are not without important religious backing. To help rally Muslims to its banner, on March 6, 2012, senior Salafi jihadi cleric Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti released a fatwa on the Salafi website, Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, urging all capable Muslims to join the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra. Other important jihadi ideologues have also given their approval, including the prominent online essayist Sheikh Abu Sa'd al-'Amil, the prominent Jordanian Salafi Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, and the popular Lebanese Sheikh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi. While information on the leadership of the terrorist group is scarce, according to their own propaganda, al-Nusra is led by Sheikh al-Fatih Abu Muhammad al-Julani—undoubtedly a last name chosen to play up the angle of Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, a handy tool in appealing to the masses.
Nevertheless, many in the Syrian opposition are skeptical that these acts were carried out by anyone other than the regime itself in order to justify its constant claim that they are battling al-Qaeda terrorists and armed terrorist gangs. And doubt about the genuineness of the group is not limited to more secular Syrians. Even the senior Salafi-jihadist Syrian expatriate cleric, Sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartousi (who is rumored to have recently returned to Syria after living in London), has doubted the authenticity of the organization in an online dispute with jihadists over the criticism he posted on his Facebook page.
Also contradicting the claims of the regime and al-Nusra are two of Syria's opposition parties, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. Moustafa el-Sheikh, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army's (FSA) military council was quick to point out that "no other parties in Syria ... are technically capable of making such a huge explosion, except for the regime itself. Not even al-Qaeda can do that." In fact, most leaders of the FSA are quick to deny any involvement in terrorist activities as it would jeopardize the support they hope to receive from the West.
The fact remains that Jabhat al-Nusra is a real Salafi organization in Syria and it is unlikely that it is controlled by the Assad regime. As Bill Roggio, Managing Editor of The Long War Journal points out, "their propaganda is released through official jihadist media outlets, which means that members of the group are linked into the jihadist propaganda network. It is possible that Syrian intelligence is good enough to penetrate the jihadist propaganda circles to that degree, however I doubt it." Nor does it appear likely that the attacks were carried out by foreign jihadists. Roggio notes that when al-Nusra has named their martyrs, those that they mention are Syrians.
None of this means, however, that foreign jihadists will not flock to Syria in the coming months. In fact, the longer the uprising continues, the more likely Syria will turn into Jihad Central. Two factors make Syria an attractive target. The first is the Alawi nature of the Assad regime—a ninth century heterodox offshoot of Shi'a Islam that is considered heretical by most Sunnis and as extremist by most Shi'a. The second reason is that the Assad regime created a jihadi Frankenstein by arming, training, financing, encouraging, and transporting foreign jihadists to fight against Coalition forces in Iraq since the fall of Hussein's regime in 2003. With Syria descending into a sectarian civil war, foreign jihadists are sensing the opportunity.
Today, the Syrian uprising is mostly comprised of homegrown protestors. There are reports of foreign jihadists joining the battle, such as the Reuters story about a band of Tunisians making their way to Homs, but foreign Islamist fighters still remain a fringe element. There are other reports of fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) crossing Syria's border, undoubtedly using the same networks that Syria's intelligence utilized in the previous decade. To that end, al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement on February 11 urging Muslims inside and outside of Syria to fight against the Syrian government: "I appeal to every Muslim and every free, honorable one in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, to rise to help his brothers in Syria with all what he can, with his life, money, wonders, opinion, and information."
All of which means that the longer chaos reins in Syria, the more foreign jihadists will make their way into the country. At some point Jabhat al-Nusra may merge with AQI, but there would appear to be no rush to do so at the moment as many other jihadist groups may enter the scene and take advantage of the situation. As more images of dead Syrian Sunni Muslims killed at the hands of the Alawi regime continue to circulate on televisions and online jihadist forums, the easier it will be to recruit jihadists. It will further complicate the more secular FSA's quest for international legitimacy and military assistance—which unlike the jihadist terrorists cells could overtake the Assad regime if provided with more than non-lethal Western assistance.
In the meantime, penetrating these Salafi terrorist cells will remain a priority for Bashar al-Assad, who sees a benefit in the false claim that what his regime faces is only foreign conspiracies and fighters aligned with al-Qaeda. And creating internal terrorist distractions fits a pattern employed by Assad since 2004. In this equation, however, one thing is becoming clear: Bashar al-Assad's marriage of convenience to the region's worst terrorist groups is ending in an ugly divorce.