For Bashar Assad, at least one old friend developed the nasty habit of joining his enemies. Take Al Qaeda, whom he welcomed as generous paying guests in the mid-2000s, providing them with a comfortable jumping-off base for hitting US forces fighting in Iraq in the rear. His former guest is now coiling back to strike his regime’s vital parts.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) this week formalized its ties with Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamist front battling the regime in Damascus at the forefront of the Syrian rebel movement.
The two jihadists factions are moving back and forth through the same back door the Syrian ruler opened in the 2000s for al Qaeda to reach US forces fighting in Iraq.
Only now, both are gunning for their former host.
To make the merger official, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, released a recorded audio message on the Internet Tuesday, April 9, naming Jabhat Al-Nusra the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
According to al-Baghdadi, the Al-Nusra front’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and “a group of men” relocated to Syria from Iraq at an early stage of the civil war and connected up “with pre-existing cells in the country.”
New al Qaeda offspring: The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant
The front had been amply supplied by the “Islamic State of Iraq” with plans, strategy and weapons for fighting in the Syrian Civil War, as well as funds on a regular monthly basis, said the Iraqi terrorist chief in his taped message.
The new alliance was fighting as “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” It is time, he said, to declare to the Levant and to the world that the Al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq. It was willing to ally with other groups “on the condition that the country and its citizens be governed according to the rules dictated by Allah”.
The al-Baghdadi statement offered a perspective which directly challenges the Obama administration’s effort to present post-Osama bin Laden al Qaeda as a disassembled, headless machine, bereft of the capacity it possessed in the early 2000s to directly harm the West.
In actual fact, Al Qaeda in Iraq is a division of the international Islamist organization, which is alive and kicking in more than one hot spot, aside from Syria.
The many-named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri – and more commonly Abu Dua, also known as Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarra, was listed by the US Statement Department on Oct. 4, 2011 in the name of “Dua” as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. A $10 million reward was posted for information leading to his capture or death.
Syrian al Qaeda: Brainchild of the notorious Musab al-Zarqawi
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources judge the taped speaker was not al-Baghdadi in person from his voice and gestures, but a professional announcer reading out a text prepared by the AQI chief, who wished to avoid giving his voice print to the Western and Arab intelligence agencies monitoring Al Qaeda in Iraq.
His message devoted 30 minutes to expressions of piety and citations from Prophet Mohammed’s life and the remaining ten minutes to solid content, which exposed the hitherto hidden origins of the organization’s ties with Syria which go back 14 years.
In the late 1990s, the notorious Jordanian master terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad movement in his home town of Zarqa, northeast of Amman.
Surfacing in Iraq after the US 2003 invasion, Zarqawi and his organization embarked on the bloodiest carnage, bombings, beheadings and terrorist atrocities the Iraq war had seen – until the Americans caught up with and killed him in June 2006. He died in the service of al Qaeda, but he arrived in Iraq on his own initiative without asking Osama bin Laden for permission or even funding.
In late 2004, Zarqai abandoned his independent status, joined Al Qaeda and pledged allegiance to bin Laden. He renamed his al-Tawhid wal-Jihad “Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)” and as its leader, was awarded the title of "Emir of Al Qaeda in the Country of the Two Rivers."
Opening the Syrian pipeline for al Qaeda in Iraq
As an al Qaeda chieftain, the savage terrorist leader achieved special, even iconic, prestige beyond Iraq among Islamists at large. And because of the scale of his operations against the US-led forces in Iraq, his notoriety reached the West too.
Bin Laden profited from his acquisition of the Jordanian master terrorist by demonstrating that, after escaping from the Americans in Afghanistan in Nov. 2001, he was far from being a spent force and in good enough shape to launch a new, bloody front against them.
The raising of Zarqawi to jihadi star status was deeply opposed by Bin Laden’s first lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, who has since succeeded him, mainly because of the extreme brutality of his methods, such as the beheading of American hostages.
But the new jihadi talent was unfazed and went on to strike a deal with Damascus, the end-product of which was the formal Iraqi and Syrian al Qaeda merger announced this week.
Zarqawi turned to Damascus because he was running short of fighters and weapons as a result of his expanded campaign of terror and “victories” in Iraq in the years 2003 to 2006. His Jordan-based underground al-Tawhid wal-Jihad had been penetrated by Jordanian intelligence and was no longer a reliable source of manpower.
Bashar Assad’s Syria, was a more promising option.
Jabhat al Nusra secretly ran Zarqawi’s Syrian enterprise
In his recorded audio message, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi credits AQI, i.e. Zarqawi, with establishing in Syria a broad network of cells and secret training camps for the recruits al Qaeda mustered for jihad in Iraq across the Muslim world in the first half of the 2000s.
Al-Baghdadi names Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, then an underground body with hidden ties to al Qaeda, as the organization which managed the training courses and ran the flow of weapons through Syria into Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources affirm that al-Baghdad’s version reveals only a small part of the truth.
Zarqawi did not act in a vacuum. Without the connivance of Syrian military intelligence, the main prop of he Assad regime, there is no way he could have built training camps, set up weapons stores for a steady flow of arms to Iraq, arranged for the rapid transfer of injured fighters to Syrian medical facilities and for incoming recruits to land at Damascus airport without being checked.
For his extensive Syrian operation, our sources reveal, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi forged a private, unwritten pact in early 2004 with the two most senior Assad clan members after the president. They were
Rami Makhouf, the wealthiest man in Syria and the president’s maternal cousin, and the president’s brother-in-law, Military Intelligence Chief Assef Shawqat. He later served as Deputy Defense Minister until his assassination in a bomb attack in Damascus on July 18, 2012 along with a group of Assad insiders.
The deal with al Qaeda in Iraq made the Assads rich
The business arrangement agreed between this pair and Al Qaeda’s man in Iraq was simple: A huge sum of money was paid out in dollars to the two Syrian officials for every secret cell, training camp, weapons shipment or fighter using Syrian territory either as an al Qaeda base or a transit corridor into Iraq.
The immense wealth of the Assad clan, estimated at $20 billion, is believed by Western and Arab intelligence and counterterrorism sources in the Middle East to have been mostly accumulated from Al Qaeda payments for the services Syria rendered as al Qaeda’s logistical hub for its operations in Iraq.
The audio released by the AQI leader Tuesday explained why, for many years, no one had heard of the Jabhat al-Nusra’s existence and clandestine operations as the Syrian arm of al Qaeda. It was one of the organization’s most closely kept secrets.
Al Baghdadi’s motives for uncovering this secret now as the Syrian civil war enters its third year are revealed in a separate article. But although his audio appearance Tuesday was carefully choreographed, his plans nevertheless ran into a last-minute glitch the next day.
No sooner had Jabhat al-Nusra stepped forward as a formal branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq than two Syrian Islamist leaders came out with reservations.
So what about our Syrian creds? asks the al-Nusra leader
On Wednesday, the al Nusra front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani released this statement: It is true that we were part of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that we learned to fight from them and they are helping us in our current war. But the attempt to make us a part of al Qaeda in Iraq cannot work.
The second objector was Abu Baseer al-Tartusi, a respected voice in the Syrian Islamic Front (a hardline group not quite as radical as al-Nusra), who said the merger “could lead to infighting among rebels groups and give pro-Assad forces a rallying cry.
“The biggest losers from this announcement are the oppressed and violated Syrian people and their blessed, orphaned revolution,” he said in his message.
The second statement offers the context for the reservations voiced by Al Nusra’s chief over his group’s formal identification with Iraqi al Qaeda, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report. Al Golani fears it will cause a split with fellow-Islamist groups at a critical juncture in their common war on the Assad regime. He therefore chose to put his group’s Syrian credibility ahead of its al Qaeda solidarity for the sake of closing ranks in the Syrian cause.
For years, al-Nusra operated in Syria as an undercover Al Qaeda arm, referred to by the Iraqi leader as “pre-existent cells.” Now, Al-Golani seems to trust in his organization’s ability to carry on fighting as a separate faction.
But he has not burned his bridges to the international jihadi organization. He is reported to have left the final decision about Jabhat al-Nusra’s status to al Qaeda’s supreme leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.