Late last month, counterterrorism officials discovered a disturbing video on YouTube that showed what appeared to be a faction of the Syrian rebel army standing in front of a fluttering black banner. The mysterious flag — which read "no god but God" in white Arabic cursive — is thought to be a reproduction of the Prophet Muhammad's battle flag. It has also become al-Qaeda in Iraq's calling card in Syria.
"Obviously, Syria is a place where we are spending a lot of time," says Matthew Olsen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum over the weekend. "It is a difficult picture because of the nature of the opposition, and Syria presents a very difficult intelligence challenge for us. It is clearly one of the things we are very focused on trying to figure at what level, if at all, al-Qaida in Iraq is in Syria."
Since January, Olsen and other counterterrorism officials have been trying to figure out what proportion of the foreign fighters and Sunni extremists streaming into Syria are actually al-Qaida members. Al-Qaida in Iraq, responsible for the bloodiest month in Iraq in two years, has not only shown a resurgence after U.S. troops and local tribesman routed them in 2007, but is thinking bigger. Now it wants a piece of the Syrian conflict as well.
Its leadership has put out a call to jihadis around the world to drop what they are doing and come to Syria to fight. The growing sectarian nature of the battle in Syria has turned out to be tailor made for al-Qaida's followers. The U.S. State Department's top counterterrorism official, Daniel Benjamin, said that in many ways al-Qaida's possible move into Syria is no surprise. Syria is in chaos — and al-Qaida gravitates toward chaos.
"So long as [Syrian President Bashar] Assad refuses to go and Syria's transition is blocked, the danger grows of more foreign fighters, including extremists of the al-Qaida type, infiltrating Syria," Benjamin said this week.
He chose his words carefully. It isn't the fighters in videos flying black banners who are the most worrisome. Instead, it's the infiltrators.
"I think our concern is about individuals who are trying to pass themselves off as something that they aren't," Benjamin said, "and gaining a foothold in various organizations that way."
Bruce Hoffman, a professor of terrorism studies at Georgetown University, says that almost everywhere that al-Qaida has been active throughout the world, its strategy has been to embed their fighters in existing local forces.
"The key here is that al-Qaida is not waging these struggles as independent units, rather they are presenting themselves or offering fighters as force multipliers," Hoffman said.
Essentially, al-Qaida members who have had previous combat experience are offering to help the local forces be more effective — and that may be too good an offer for Syrian rebels to refuse as they battle the well-armed Assad regime.
U.S. officials worry that al-Qaida will be able to take advantage. If Assad falls, al-Qaida may be able to leverage its willingness to fight now into something bigger — like attacks against the West — later on.
"In the past, they have been very effective of co-opting the local agenda of these groups," Hoffman said. "We've seen it certainly with the Pakistani Taliban that staged the 2010 Times Square attempted bombing. We've seen it certainly with al-Shabab in Somalia.
"And the Free Syrian Army certainly wouldn't be the first who thought they could control terrorists."
The U.S. says it has spoken with the Syrian opposition and warned the rebels that al-Qaida fighters might be trying to sneak into their ranks, but in the confusion of the fighting, it might be hard to tell who is who.
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