Al-Qaeda challenges ISIS with an emirate in Syria
Beirut - Al-Qaeda emir Ayman al- Zawahiri plans to proclaim an Islamic emirate in north-western Syria in a direct challenge to the Islamic State (ISIS), which eclipsed Osama bin Laden’s worldwide network as the standard bearer of jihadism by declaring a caliphate in 2014.
The drive by al-Qaeda, largely written off as a relic of the early years of apocalyptic jihadism, could have a dramatic and wide-ranging effect on the Middle East, the war raging in Syria and on the direction of the extreme Islamist cause.
At the very least, it signals a likely escalation in the internecine jihadist conflict between al-Qaeda and its sibling that could further complicate the already bewilderingly complex Syrian war.
Al-Qaeda’s increasingly aggressive moves have gained momentum as ISIS reels from a string of military setbacks in which it has lost about 40% of the arc of territory it conquered in Iraq and Syria along with many of its veteran leaders and key economic facilities due to US air strikes.
If those ISIS losses continue, al- Qaeda’s establishment of a rival caliphate in Syria could have a potentially catastrophic effect on ISIS.
In a May 7th audio message titled Go Forth to the Levant, Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian jihadist and bin Laden’s successor, said al-Qaeda’s core leadership was planning a “rightly guided entity” in the Arab world to usurp the “counterfeit caliphate” established by ISIS.
Zawahiri and the al-Qaeda leadership based in Pakistan have been seeking to build support among the rebel groups fighting in Syria, particularly the Islamists, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jund Al Aqsa, for some time.
Other al-Qaeda operatives have been embedded within Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group that is more nationalist than jihadist and has attracted wide support. Its alliance with al-Nusra Front, the strongest of the non-ISIS groups that control much of Idlib province, gives it significant firepower and political status in Syria.
Al-Nusra Front has reportedly intensified contacts with other groups over establishing an al-Qaeda caliphate.
“Al Qaeda has big ambitions in Syria,” observed Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has spent years meeting Islamist and other leaders engaged in the Syrian war.
“For the past three years, an unprecedented number of veteran figures belonging to the group has arrived in the country, in what can only be described as the covert revitalisation of al-Qaeda’s central leadership on Europe’s doorstep,” he said.
“Now the jihadi group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front — having spent nearly five years slowly building deep roots in the country — is laying the groundwork for al-Qaeda’s first sovereign state.”
Lister, writing in the journal Foreign Policy, noted that al-Qaeda “has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria. Their mission is to assuage the concerns expressed by other Syrian Islamist movements and those members of al-Nusra Front who, for now, oppose the idea of an independent emirate.”
Indeed, support for an al-Qaeda caliphate is far from total. Some in al-Nusra Front do not like the idea and Ahrar al-Sham is divided on the issue. Some view al-Nusra’s strong ties to al-Qaeda to be detrimental and argue that without those links the jihadists would get greater support in the Gulf and beyond.
Lister concludes that the “presence of a militarily powerful and socially accepted al-Qaeda emirate in north-western Syria, led by several dozen veteran al-Qaeda figures and heavily manned by local Syrian fighters, could have significant consequences for the Syrian crisis and for international security.”
He said the “international implications” of an al-Qaeda emirate “would be even more significant. The combination of an al-Qaeda emirate and a revitalised al-Qaeda central leadership in northern Syrian would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organisation’s global brand.
“Al-Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims.”
But, Lister stressed, all this should not suggest that al-Qaeda had gone soft on bin Laden’s call for all-out holy war against Western powers and their Arab satraps.
“Eventually the decision would be made to initiate the plotting of foreign attacks, using Syria’s proximity to Europe and al-Qaeda’s regional network to pose a far more urgent threat than the group ever posed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Should the Islamic State continue to suffer losses to its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria, we might also see some defections to the emboldened al-Qaeda affiliate next door.”
The Americans are alarmed at this gathering of senior al-Qaeda cadres in Syria, many with multimillion-dollar US bounties on their heads, and including the Khorasan Group, which they say is plotting attacks against the United States.
Among the jihadist veterans Zawahiri has infiltrated into Syria since mid-2013 to bolster al-Nusra Front are some of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous and capable commanders, including Saif al-Adel, an operations planner and a former colonel in the Egyptian Army’s special forces.
He is one of several “senior management” al-Qaeda figures who have left Iran in the last two years. Adel was among 13 veteran jihadists who were held by Tehran after they fled to there in late 2001 when US-led forces seized much of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attacks.
They appeared to have enjoyed considerable freedom of movement and apparently were allowed to operate when it benefited the Tehran regime. They have mainly been released since 2014. Adel and some others were allowed to leave in September 2015, supposedly in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s wing in Yemen.
Adel, who was the third ranking leader in al-Qaeda, and several others who are turning up again in Syria are wanted for involvement in the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in that Zawahiri’s plans for an al-Qaeda emirate accelerated after Adel arrived in Syria, including plans to assassinate key figures among al-Nusra Front’s rivals who oppose its growing influence.