Anyone who delivered a eulogy for al-Qaida in the Middle East has been proven wrong by recent developments. Israel can deal with the renewed regional threat of jihadist organizations involved in Syria, but must retain all elements of its capabilities.
In the Daily Beast last week, Bruce Riedel, who served for years as a CIA analyst on the Middle East, wrote an important article with the dramatic headline, “Al-Qaida is back.” Riedel, who today works for the Brookings Institution, was taking a position against the conventional wisdom, that was widely heard in Washington prior to the 2012 elections, that the U.S. had al-Qaida “on the run”. Riedel’s claim was based on his examination of the outcome of a coordinated attack by al-Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate against two high security prisons, which led to the escape of at least 500 al-Qaida members.
In breaking into the Abu Ghraib and Taji Prisons, al-Qaida used mortars and suicide bombers. According to its own account, its forces detonated 12 car bombs. The Iraqi Army proved to be useless as it failed to stop the assault. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying that if al-Qaida could “take down Abu Ghraib,” it could also “take down the Green Zone in Baghdad”, where the U.S. Embassy was located.
In the meantime, internal security in Iraq has been deteriorating with about 80 car bombs and suicide bombing attacks employed. Over 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in May, the highest number in five years. Understanding that the escape of al-Qaida operatives from an Iraqi prison had broader implications beyond Iraq itself, Interpol issued an alert that the escape constituted a “major threat to global security.” The New York Times ran an editorial on July 29 with the title “Al-Qaida in Iraq scores big,” which reached the conclusion that the “attacks showed the fearsome and growing strength” of the organization.
Al-Qaida in Iraq was once a formidable terrorist organization, but until this year it appeared to be in decline. It was established in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had fought in Afghanistan, who was picked by Osama bin Laden to lead al-Qaida in Iraq. Zarqawi’s focus had always been broader and included the surrounding countries; the name of his first organization that he set up in Afghanistan was Jund al-Sham (the Army of the Levant) whose name gave away his territorial interests. His goal had been to support the emergence of a single Islamic state across the countries of the Levant. Zarqawi had been eliminated by U.S. forces in 2006. His organization was severely weakened when the U.S. increased its force levels with the “surge” in 2007, under Gen. David Petreaus, at which time it increased the pace of its operations in western Iraq.
The U.S. withdrew the last of its combat units from Iraq in 2011. The situation on the ground could not remain static. Moreover, with the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, a new opportunity for al-Qaida in Iraq was created. According to Riedel, al-Qaida in Iraq sent one of Zarqawi’s protégés, who used the nom de guerre Muhammad al-Golani, to set up Jabhat al-Nusra La’al al-Sham (the Assistance Front to the Residents of Greater Syria, known as Al-Nusra Front) as al-Qaida in Iraq’s Syrian affiliate. According to American and British analysts, al-Golani is believed to be a Syrian jihadist who fought in Iraq but did not go back to Syria until he was sent to lead Al-Nusra Front. Another emerging leader has been Zarqawi’s Jordanian brother-in-law, known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba. The same source asserts that Iraqis and Jordanians represent the largest component of foreign jihadists fighting for Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Al-Nusra Front quickly became the leading military force fighting the regime of Bashar Assad. It was responsible for the most daring bombing attacks in the heart of Damascus, like its use of car bombs against the headquarters of Syrian Air Force Intelligence in March 2012 and the July 2012 bombing attack that killed Syria’s security chiefs, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat. While the West remained indecisive about supplying weapons to the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, Al-Nusra Front was backed by al-Qaida in Iraq with arms, money and manpower. At one point the two organizations disagreed about their relationship with each other, since Al-Nusra Front sought more independence. Today both of them stress that they are united and work as one.
The revival of al-Qaida in Iraq is part of a global growth of the organization’s military capabilities. Much was written last year about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its operations in Algeria, Mali, and Libya. In Pakistan this week there was another prison break releasing jihadists from the Taliban and one of the most dangerous militant groups. It is no wonder that the U.S. decided this week to close American diplomatic missions across the Middle East in light of “credible” intelligence it received of new al-Qaida threats.
There are two important implications for Israel that come from al-Qaida in Iraq reconstituting its power. First, since it was formed, al-Qaida in Iraq has been a direct threat to Jordan. In November 2005, al-Qaida in Iraq attacked three Jordanian hotels in Amman, killing nearly 60 people. Zarqawi then issued an audiotape threatening King Abdullah personally. A year earlier, an associate of Zarqawi confessed to planning an attack by using chemical weapons near the headquarters of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.
This anti-Jordanian orientation of al-Qaida in Iraq and its Syrian affiliate is continuing. Both organizations use names that indicate that their aspirations extend to the area of Greater Syria, ignoring present-day borders. The Jordanians are clearly aware of the threat they face along their northern border; in October 2012, they arrested eleven Jordanians who had infiltrated from Syria and previously been trained by al-Qaida explosive experts in Iraq. They planned to launch suicide bombing attacks in two shopping malls in Amman and then move against a prosperous district where many foreign diplomats were located. A few days earlier, the Jordanians stopped two cousins of Zarqawi, who were crossing the border returning home from the war in Syria.
Second, the revival of jihadist organizations in Syria, like Al-Nusra Front, can evolve into a challenge for Israel. In a speech to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 18, Major General NItzan Alon, head of the IDF Central Command disclosed that the organization Al-Nusra Front had in fact tried to infiltrate Jordan. He explained that part of his mission was to make sure that the organization did not go through Jordan and enter the West Bank. The idea that an al-Qaida branch in Syria or Iraq could become a threat to Israel is not new. In 2005, al-Qaida Iraq set up a forward position in the Jordanian city of Irbid and from there it sought to recruit West Bank Palestinians. One such attempt was thwarted by Israeli security services back then. There is reason to believe that this remains the intention of al-Qaida’s Syrian and Iraqi affiliates. A book in Arabic outlining the plan of action of Al-Nusra Front, called the “Regional War Strategy for the Land of the Levant” stresses that “Syria is the key to a change in the Levant, including in occupied Palestine, and the Levant is the key to change on the Arab world and afterwards the Islamic world.”
Israel has the capabilities today to deal with a renewal of the rising regional threat of jihadist organizations involved in the Syrian conflict. But it must retain all elements of those capabilities and not assume that they are no longer needed. This observation holds for both the debate over Israel’s defense budget and its territorial requirements in any peace arrangement with the Palestinians. The return of al-Qaida is just another reminder how the security environment along Israel’s borders can rapidly change. Anyone who delivered a eulogy for al-Qaida in the Middle East has been proven wrong by recent developments. The point to be internalized is that what is going on in Iraq and Syria today can be consequential for Israel, even if it appears to be happening far off over the horizon.