Joby Warrick, The Washington Post’s correspondent who specializes in intelligence, wrote a story on Dec. 3 about how the Syrian rebellion was already spilling over and having an impact on neighboring countries. He focused in particular on Jordan. According to interviews he conducted, last month Jordanian security forces arrested 11 men and thus foiled a massive planned terrorist attack in the heart of Amman.
The Amman attack was supposed to begin with suicide bombings at two shopping malls to be followed by strikes against luxury hotels used by Westerners. But the main target in Amman was the U.S. Embassy, which was to be assaulted with mortar shells. Most of the suspects captured were Jordanian Salafists, who fought in Syria, which served as their new training ground. Moreover, the same explosives that were to be used in the Amman attacks were found in Syria as well.
But the key player orchestrating many operations in Syria, and also now in Jordan, was the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida. It had been incorrectly assumed that al-Qaida had been vanquished in 2007 by General David Petraeus during the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. Recent events in Syria and Jordan demonstrate that it has been rehabilitating itself.
James Clapper, President Obama’s director of U.S. National Intelligence, noted this past February that al-Qaida in Iraq was infiltrating the Syrian uprising and extending its network into Syrian territory. This process was supported by the al-Qaida leadership. For at about the same time, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the global al-Qaida network, appeared in a video and urged jihadists in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Iraqi branch of al-Qaida was the natural partner to take up Zawahiri’s call. During the Iraq War, al-Qaida there used Syria as a rear base for its insurgency operations against the U.S. armed forces. It had a logistical network of safe houses and sympathizers it had built. Bruce Reidel, who specialized on the Middle East and counterterrorism when he served at the CIA, told The Washington Post recently that al-Qaida in Iraq was now rebuilding these old networks “at an alarming rate.” He also warned that the new Iraqi branch of al-Qaida was coming back as a “regional movement.” What he meant was that its targets would be in neighboring countries and not just in Iraq.
Specialists looking into the Syrian rebellion have pointed out that several of the jihadi groups fighting Assad rely on al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch. For example, there are the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (named for Osama bin Laden’s mentor), which was originally established in 2005 as a branch of Iraqi al-Qaida. Its current commander, a Saudi named Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, fought with the former al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It has been involved in Southern Jordan and in the Sinai Peninsula. It also launched rocket attacks on Israel. It is now also beginning to raise its profile in Syria.
There is also Jabhat al-Nusra, the most deadly of the Syrian jihadist organizations, which has been joined by operatives from al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch. The stature of Jabhat al-Nusra, in particular, has grown lately because of a string of battlefield successes in Aleppo and Damascus. When the U.S. designated the Jabhat al-Nusra as an international terrorist organization, most of the other opposition groups strongly protested, despite its al-Qaida connections.
The involvement of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida in the Syrian rebellion is important to follow for another reason. Al-Qaida has proven itself to be an organization with a strong interest in chemical weapons. In April 2004, Jordanian security forces foiled a plot by the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida to attack the Jordanian intelligence headquarters and the Office of the Prime Minister in Amman with tons of chemical agents. One captured terrorist confessed on Jordanian television to be part of Zarqawi’s al-Qaida network.
Should Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles fall into the hands of jihadi forces, with connections to al-Qaida in Iraq, it is likely that these non-conventional capabilities could spread further. The Zarqawi network operated in Europe and planned in the past to use chemical weapons in an attack on the Paris subway system. Thus given the ideological orientation of the groups currently operating in Syria, what happens in the next few weeks will have broader implications for the rest of the Middle East and even beyond.