In the shadow of ISIS’ barbaric rise in Syria and Iraq, another familiar terror group is experiencing a quiet renaissance: al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda officially entered Syria’s civil war in January 2012 with the explicit goal of dislodging President Bashar Assad and establishing an Islamic state. But the group soon saw a chance to reinvent itself amid Syria’s chaos, according to terrorism experts and security analysts. Now, five years later, concerns are growing that Syria could become a key base for al Qaeda’s global terrorist operations.
In the years since it entered the Syrian conflict, al Qaeda has established its local affiliate as one of the most dominant rebel groups in the country and has quietly amassed its “largest guerrilla army in history,” said terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
In 2011, Osama Bin Laden’s body was dumped at sea and al Qaeda’s strategic defeat was declared “within reach” by then–U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. But the terror group that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks has quietly evolved, with Syria the latest addition to its list of recent successes, including Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa. In recent years, al Qaeda has extended its influence through newly empowered local proxies, and in Syria’s Idlib province the terror outlet has won valuable territory in the heart of the Middle East.
Al Qaeda, through its local affiliate, the militant alliance Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, also known as Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), recently cemented its dominance in the northwest province of Idlib by seizing territory from rival rebel group Ahrar al Sham. The victory, which involved some of the heaviest fighting between rebels since the war began, was “part and parcel of everything they’ve been laying the groundwork for the better part of the last several years,” said Colin P. Clarke, author of “Terrorism, Inc.: The Financing of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare.”
Three key factors are driving al Qaeda’s success in Syria, experts say: the group’s unrelenting military opposition to Assad’s brutal regime, a muddled and distracted U.S. military strategy that half-heartedly backed moderate rebel groups, and a clever rebranding effort that has prioritized local issues over the group’s global ambitions.
Al Qaeda as the anti-Assad
Assad’s surprising durability and brutality against his own people has proved a lasting boon to al Qaeda.
In his bloody quest to hold power, Assad and his forces have been accused of gassing cities, barrel-bombing schools and hospitals, conducting mass torture and executions, and using starvation as a military tactic.
“The Assad regime’s draconian and heavy-handed approach to fighting this insurgency has breathed new life into al Qaeda in Syria in many ways,” said Clarke.
Assad’s brutality was matched only by that of ISIS, a bastard group of al Qaeda in Iraq that rose in Syria by reaping the spoils of a spiraling civil war. With the help of al Qaeda’s local affiliate, ISIS secured its “capital” in the central northwest city of Raqqa in March 2013, and rapidly gained ground throughout much of Syria with little pushback from Assad. (Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate formally broke with ISIS over philosophical differences a year later).
“They’ve portrayed themselves as the moderate alternative.”
Since then, al Qaeda has positioned itself between Assad’s ruthless regime and ISIS’ barbarity, presenting itself to Sunni Syrians as a more tolerable alternative. Over time, with few moderate rebel groups left to turn to, al Qaeda has increasingly become the best bet for Syrian rebels who are dead-set against the regime.
“They’ve set themselves up to be not only an anti-Assad force, but they’ve very much painted themselves to be in juxtaposition to the Islamic State,” said Clarke. “They’ve portrayed themselves as the moderate alternative.”
An incoherent U.S. policy
Al Qaeda’s rise to become one of Syria’s strongest opposition groups — and the dominant power in the major rebel bastion of Idlib — has been aided in no small part by an inchoate U.S. policy in Syria. Washington’s strategy has involved occasional, if increasing, strikes on al Qaeda training camps, meeting places and individuals, and a now-abandoned CIA program to “train and equip” supposed moderates among the rebels.
But the U.S. has overwhelmingly targeted its efforts in Syria against ISIS, not al Qaeda
“U.S. policy has been totally confused about all of this since the beginning,” said Joscelyn. “Everybody has been focused on ISIS, and there’s been no real strategy to combat this growing al Qaeda paramilitary force on the ground.”
In particular, the CIA’s covert “train and equip” program to support vetted “moderates” among the Syrian opposition was a disaster, said Joscelyn. Many of the supposedly vetted moderates turned out to be extremists, such as the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, which fought alongside AQ affiliate al Nusra before temporarily joining HTS. Last month, to little fanfare, the White House announced it is ending the program.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a major proponent in the Obama administration of arming Syria’s moderate rebels against Assad, has maintained that meaningful U.S. support early in the conflict would have likely produced a different outcome.
“I don’t think there was anything predestined that extremists would come to dominate the Syrian rebel groups, as most of the people who joined these extremist groups did it for money or ammunition,” Ford said in March.
Moderate elements were never given enough support to be able to effectively counter the threat of al Qaeda and other better-funded extremist groups, said Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian political analyst and resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. Al-Assil described the weakness of that support as “a strategic error in U.S. policy.”
“When those groups came under attack, the U.S. didn’t provide air cover or other types of support,” al-Assil said. That gave al Qaeda “the opportunity to decimate other groups and recruit more fighters.”
Al Qaeda 2.0
The group has undergone a strategic overhaul and several name changes to make its “moderate” appeal in Syria more credible.
Under the banner of HTS, the Syrian group has shed its outward connections to al Qaeda’s global network and de-prioritized international attacks in order to avoid pressure from the U.S. The shift has the group tapping into Syrian communities, for example appointing locals rather than foreigner fighters as representatives in the areas under its control, al-Assil said.
The Syrian affiliate first known as Al Nusra has renamed itself twice in the past year— Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July of 2016, then HTS in January — in a bid to convince outsiders it had actually cut its ties with the terror group, an association that was viewed as a liability to the Syrian project, Joscelyn said. Today it counts an estimated 10,000 fighters.
Few in Syria and abroad are convinced that the split is genuine, however, and locals in Idlib fear the group’s ascendancy will invite Russia and Assad’s eventual wrath. “For most Syrians, HTS means al-Nusra, and al-Nusra still means an al Qaeda-affiliated group,” said al-Assil.
“These guys get it, and that’s dangerous.”
The U.S. military has taken steps to counter the terror group in Syria, offering a $10 million reward for the capture of HTS’ “emir” Mohammed al-Jolani in May. It’s also launched sporadic airstrikes on leading al Qaeda figures, including members of the so-called “Khorasan Group,” an elite council responsible for the group’s global operations.
Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told VICE News that the U.S. would continue to take action against al Qaeda in Syria — a group he said remained “committed to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and the West.”
“What they want to do is eventually create a Syrian Taliban, something that is seen as legitimate because it has deep roots in Syrian society.”
But the U.S. military is fully engaged in its war on ISIS, experts said, and isn’t likely to shift its attentions back to al Qaeda until that war front is resolved. Nevertheless HTS’ recent dominance in Idlib has caused alarm among U.S. officials. On Aug. 2, Michael Ratney, the State Department’s top official on Syria policy, warned in an online letter that HTS’ success in Idlib put “the future of northern Syria in big danger.” If HTS gained hegemony in the province, he wrote, it would be hard for the U.S. to convince Syria, Russia, and Iran not to eventually respond with a punishing military campaign, potentially unleashing the kind of devastation seen in east Aleppo.
For now, though, the Syrian regime and its key military backers remain focused on fronts that are more crucial to their short-term goals, said Columb Strack, senior analyst at IHS Markit’s Conflict Monitor. He expected the regime to leave Idlib province — the last major stronghold for rebel fighters, and home to more than 2 million people — until last in its bid to retake the entire country.
“You could say the regime benefits that Idlib is dominated by jihadists, because it gives legitimacy to its narrative that the opposition are terrorists,” Strack said.
With no major military force bearing down on them, HTS is poised for a period of expansion of al Qaeda’s larger twin missions: creating a local political presence and building a base for global operations.
“What they want to do is eventually create a Syrian Taliban, something that is seen as legitimate because it has deep roots in Syrian society, but at the same time adheres to the jihadist principles and framework and governance of al Qaeda,” Joscelyn said.
Joscelyn cited reports saying some of al Qaeda’s top international operatives had been spotted in Idlib, raising the prospect the group could be laying the groundwork to eventually plot international terror attacks from a Syrian hub.
Such an approach would be in keeping with al Qaeda’s strategy for its international affiliates, as laid out in source documents recovered from the terror group, Joscelyn said. The vision puts priority on affiliates establishing a distinct local identity that quietly houses an al Qaeda “carve out” focused on international operations.
Clarke said the organization’s recent strategic pivots in Syria revealed a new, more mature terror group. “These guys get it, and that’s dangerous,” he said. “Turns out they’re a bit more savvy than we gave them credit for.”