DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

Civil War in Syria Could Revitalize al-Qaida

9/9/2013
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

As the bloody civil war in Syria continues, some experts worry that the conflict, and others like it in the Middle East, could revitalize a diminishing al-Qaida.

While targeted-drone attacks have decimated al-Qaida's central leadership in Pakistan, its affiliates could use the conflict in Syria as a talent pool for new recruits, experts said Sept. 9 at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"It's too soon to predict the long-term threat posed by al-Qaida and affiliated groups. As the movement is undergoing a transition, that may end up proving to be it's last gasp. But the right set of circumstances in the unstable Middle East could also revive the network," says Lee H. Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, a co-chair on the 9/11 Commission and the center's Homeland Security Project.

A recent report by the think tank,"Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment," evaluated the current state of al-Qaida. Despite the terrorist group's diminished stature, it could be poised to make a resurgence as conflicts in the Middle East rage on, the report said.

Given recent upheavals in the Middle East, from Egypt's recent military coup, to Syria's civil war, the time may be right for a revival of al-Qaida forces, said Peter Bergen, a national security analyst at CNN and co-author of the report.

"Al-Qaida central — the organization that attacked us on 9/11 — is basically on life support," said Bergen. "The bench in Pakistan is more than decimated, it's almost empty."

During President Barack Obama's administration, 33 leaders of al-Qaida have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Bergen said.

However, a volatile Middle East could work to al-Qaida's benefit, he said.

One of the main al-Qaida narratives is that a true Muslim government will never be allowed to come to power, Bergen said. With the overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt this year, that narrative of oppression is playing out, he said.

Furthermore, sectarian violence throughout the Middle East will play into al-Qaida's favor, he said.

"As we've seen in Syria, but also in Iraq and in Lebanon, these kinds of sectarian tensions in the Middle East are being amplified. If you look at what's happening today in Syria, who is lining up behind the United States in a war against Assad? It is important Sunni states — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey," said Bergen.

If a wider regional war does come about, it could look like Sunni states against Shiite states, such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and that could cause the conflicts to spread, Bergen said.

The war in Syria could also make it ripe for future al-Qaida training grounds, he said. It could also become a place where foreign fighters go to become martyrs.

Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, said Syria's close proximity to allied nations is worrisome.

"I would argue, as we do in the report, that al-Qaida has hitched its fortunes onto Syria. Syria, unlike Afghanistan for example, is not some landlocked backwater [country], but rather is in the heart of the Arab world," said Hoffman, a co-author of the report.

"It used to be that you had to go to Afghanistan or Pakistan to do jihad. Now you can get in the car and drive very easily from Paris to Damascus," he said.

Ultimately, Hoffman said he doesn't believe that al-Qaida wants to dominate Syria, but wants to assert itself and develop a presence.

"I don't think al-Qaida necessarily wants to take over the entire country, it certainly wouldn't be undesirable, but I think what it wants to do is carve out sanctuaries and safe havens, and I think that has historically always been the oxygen to al-Qaida," said Hoffman.

Hoffman pointed to recent developments that showed al-Qaida offshoots in Syria working on propaganda and social welfare programs, which is problematic because the organization is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

"In Syria, we see arms of al-Qaida … engaging in precisely the social welfare activities that are designed to win friends — providing food, running bakeries — all kinds of things that the mainstream, core al-Qaida could never do, or never did effectively," said Hoffman.

This is enormously troubling, he said, because it means that al-Qaida is learning from its failures in Iraq.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Defense Department, DOD Policy, International

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