QUICKTAKE: Al-Qaida Presence in Syria Overstated – Elizabeth O’Bagy
Video by a group calling itself Al Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, claiming responsibility for bombings in Aleppo and Damascus.
Recent newspaper reports suggest that al-Qaida and associated jihadist groups are flocking in large numbers to Syria to help the opposition bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with an ultimate goal of creating chaos, fanning sectarian tension and, ultimately, working to ensure the establishment of a Sharia-based government.
If these reports are true, they could further fuel the government’s contention that the rebels are foreign terrorists. They could also impact the international community’s willingness to intervene or arm the rebels.
Reporter Cecily Hilleary has spoken to analysts, activists and opposition members inside and outside Syria to gauge the extent to which al-Qaida and other jihadist groups are active in the country—and what their long-term goals might be. Elizabeth O’Bagy, research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, cautions against these claims. She says if there is an al-Qaida presence in Syria, it is limited.
There is a tendency to confuse Islamic Salafism with jihadism
“There are two things that are essentially pointed to as signs: The black flag and the Salafist beard, which for me is difficult because I think that especially in the media there is a tendency to confuse Islamic Salafism with jihadism. They’re very different. And even the groups that tend to be more Islamist and Salafist are very clear that they are not terrorists, that they do not believe in kind of this jihadist ideology and that they are in fact fighting for a Syria, the nation-state of Syria, which in every way, shape or form is against any sort of jihadist ideology because they obviously don’t believe in nation-states. They believe in an Islamic community.”
The actual numbers of jihadist elements infiltrating these groups is very low
“In the media, when they’re talking about al-Qaida, they are usually talking in connection to the Jabhat al-Nusra - or the Nusra front. What I’ve discovered upon looking at these groups specifically is that its core membership is actually mostly comprised of members from Fatah al-Islam and some of the other more Palestinian-oriented Islamist groups that were originally funded by the Syrian regime in 2006, 2007, sent into Lebanon and essentially were causing chaos and instability in Lebanon and now have turned that same direction against Syria because they’re no longer being supported by the Syrian regime.
So to an extent, especially the Nusra Front, a lot of its core membership is groups that have ties to the Syrian government and to especially the Syrian intelligence apparatus and have a long history of being supported by the Syrian intelligence apparatus.“
Cecily Hilleary, one of our senior reporters, curates our Syria Watch feature with materials from such sources as the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian News Agency SANA and a variety of others. She also routinely reaches out to entities of the Syrian government.
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