Al-Qaeda challenges ISIS with an emirate in Syria

Sunday 22/05/2016
A general view shows the wreckage of a government warplane which al-Nusra front (al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate) reportedly shot down over the northern Syrian town of Al-Eis, on April 5th.

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.