Politics & Policy

Al-Qaeda in Rebel Syria

The Islamist inspiration of the Syrian opposition is obvious.

On Monday, in calling for airstrikes on Syria, Senator John McCain reprised much the same role he played one year ago at the outset of the Libyan war. Last April, during a highly publicized visit to the cradle of the Libyan rebellion in Benghazi, Senator McCain called for increased American military support for the Libyan rebels. The senator famously described the rebels as his “heroes.” Never mind that these “heroes” had been caught on video committing horrific atrocities, nor that one of their commanders had openly acknowledged his ties to al-Qaeda. At the time, such details were of no greater interest to the mainstream American media than they were to Senator McCain or to the Obama administration.

Senator McCain, of course, got his wish. Months of NATO bombing paved the way for the rebels’ conquest of Tripoli in late August. It was only then that the broader American public got some idea of the central role that al-Qaeda had been playing in the rebellion all along. As Tripoli fell, it emerged that the commander of the rebel forces that had taken control of the capital was none other than Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the historical leader of the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). In fact, no fewer than three al-Qaeda-linked militants who had at one time or another been in U.S. custody played key roles in the rebellion. The NATO bombing campaign would continue for another two months, until the last bastions of the old regime had fallen and Moammar Qaddafi had been killed. Just days after Qaddafi’s death in Sirte, the distinctive black flag of al-Qaeda would be seen flying above Benghazi and all along the Benghazi waterfront.

#ad#With Senator McCain again pushing from the right, America risks yet again lending support to its old nemesis on ostensibly “humanitarian” grounds. (For perhaps the only serious attempt yet made to assess the solidity of those grounds, see Sharmine Narwani’s analysis of the Syrian casualty figures here.) If, this time, the senator is not pushing on a fully open door, the door is clearly not shut either. Apparently in an effort to get out in front of the issue, the Obama administration has conceded al-Qaeda’s involvement in the Syrian rebellion. Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that al-Qaeda had “infiltrated” the opposition to Bashar Assad.

But video evidence emerging out of Syria suggests that “infiltration” is not the right word. At least three such videos depict anti-Assad forces or demonstrators posing unabashedly with al-Qaeda’s black flag — the same flag that was hoisted in Libya, but, in that case, only after the rebellion had triumphed. The flag features the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, “there is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is his messenger,” plus a circle that is said to represent Muhammad’s seal. It was first made famous by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The below video still below comes from a 2007 al-Qaeda in Iraq video. It shows the execution of Iraqi security personnel in front of the al-Qaeda flag.

#page#The following three stills are taken from recent YouTube videos that appear to have been posted by supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. The first of the anti-Assad videos is titled “Demonstration of people of the Tawhid in Deir Ezzor against Bashar’s regime 02/25/12.” The original name of al-Zarqawi’s group was al-Tawhid wal-Jihad or “Monotheism and Jihad.” According to a West Point study of al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters in Iraq, fully one-third of the Syrian recruits came from the city of Deir ez-Zor.

The latter two images appear to show jihadist brigades from Homs. Note the presence in the last image of both the flag of the Syrian rebellion and a modified version of the al-Qaeda flag.

#ad#Some pro-rebellion online commentators have suggested that the video from which the last image is taken is a fake intended to discredit the rebellion. But the fact that it has been linked to on jihadist Internet forums suggests that jihadists themselves regard it as authentic. (See here, for instance, on Muslm.net; note that the poster of the clip uses the al-Qaeda flag as an avatar.)

In any case, there is abundant corroborating evidence of al-Qaeda involvement in the rebellion. This evidence includes the recent appearance in Syria of lieutenants of the Libyan jihadist leader Belhadj and the statements of Sheikh Louay al-Zouabi, a self-avowed admirer of al-Qaeda who claims to have issued the fatwa that sparked the Syrian rebellion. The Lebanese news site Al-Akhbar recently interviewed a Salafi jihadist leader in Lebanon who made no secret of his group’s support for the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. Indeed, the Al-Akhbar reporter discovered six wounded members of the Free Syrian Army in the Salafi leader’s hideout. Salafism is the ultra-conservative form of Islam embraced by al-Qaeda.

Moreover, video footage of public anti-Assad demonstrations in Syrian cities such as Homs and Aleppo persistently reveals the presence of so-called “caliphate flags”: both a simple black flag with the shahada written on it in white, and a white flag that is its mirror image. The black “caliphate” flag was the first flag to serve as al-Qaeda’s banner (before the founding of al-Qaeda in Iraq). The white flag was used by the Taliban.

While expat figureheads like Syrian National Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun may well keep their distance from Islamism, the widespread presence of caliphate flags in the demonstration footage makes unmistakably clear the largely Islamist inspiration of the anti-Assad forces actually in Syria. See, for instance, the recent footage of a demonstration in a suburb of Aleppo here. Per the translation of Joshua Landis, the crowd chants, “Heroes of Islam, No to Bashar and no to Ghalioun. We want Islam to rule.”

— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.

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