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Al-Qaeda playing deadly role in Syria conflict: NYT

July 25, 2012 15:50 IST

Amid escalating violence in Syria, there is growing concern that Al Qaeda is trying to change the nature of the conflict against President Bashar Al Assad's regime and is resorting to frequent suicide bombings to "hijack" the revolution, a media report said on Wednesday.

The New York Times reported that there is growing evidence that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are "doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution," becoming a cause of concern and alarm for American intelligence officials as well as Iraqi officials next door.

The paper said while leaders of the Syrian political and military opposition deny that the extremists are playing any role in the Syrian conflict, "Al Qaeda has helped to change the nature of the conflict, injecting the weapon it perfected in Iraq -- suicide bombings -- into the battle against President Bashar al-Assad with growing frequency."

"The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda," it added.

It cited the example of a key border crossing with Turkey Bab al-Hawa, which fell into Syrian rebels' hands last week, becoming a jihadist congregating point.

Since December, there have been at least 35 car bombings and 10 confirmed suicide bombings, four of which have been claimed by Al Qaeda's Nusra Front, according to data compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.

The NYT said videos are being posted on the internet that show masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s.

With Al Qaeda flags hanging in the background, a speaker says in the video, "We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God."

Recently, presence of jihadists in Syria has accelerated due to a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country's long border in Iraq.

Al Qaeda, through an audio statement, has made an undisguised bid to link its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both as sectarian conflicts -- Sunnis versus Shiite, the paper added.

Iraqi officials have also expressed concern that the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the very same militants striking across their country.

"We are 100 percent sure from security coordination with Syrian authorities that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months," Izzat al-Shahbandar, a close aide to Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said.

"Al-Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria," he said.

The NYT quotes an al-Qaeda operative in Iraq as saying that the group has "experience" in "fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution."

"Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine."

The group's plans have been echoed by another major Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Al Baraa ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade.

Earlier this year, the United States' director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Congressional hearing that there were "all the earmarks of an Al Qaeda-like attack" in a series of bombings against security and intelligence targets in Damascus.

He and other intelligence community witnesses attributed that to the spread into Syria of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda.

Counter-terrorism expert Daniel Byman, who is a professor at Georgetown University, said that it was clear that Al Qaeda is trying to become more active in Syria on the lines they had done in Somalia, Mali, Chechnya and Yemen, trying to turn a local conflict to its advantage.

"There's no question Al Qaeda wants to do that, and they are actually pretty good at this sort of thing," he said.

"They've done well at taking a local conflict" and taking it global. Al Qaeda is increasingly relying on local fighters than on foreign ones.

Joseph Holliday, an analyst from the Institute for the Study of War who studies al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring, said: "The emergence of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cells working against the regime poses risks to the United States and a challenge to those calling for material support of the armed opposition."

"It's something to keep an eye out for, the convergence of Iraq and Syria. As the Syrian government loses the ability to project force on the periphery of its territory, what you're going to see is an emboldened Sunni opposition emerging in Nineveh and Iraq," he added.

The Syrian opposition is, however, in disagreement over the role of al-Qaeda in the uprising.

"Every now and then, we hear about Al Qaeda in Syria, but there is so far no material evidence that they are here," said Samir Nachar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Congress.

"The regime has talked about it, and there were political statements from the Iraqi government that Al Qaeda has moved from Iraq to Syria, but on the ground there is no information on the presence of foreign fighters."

A Free Syrian Army commander, Sayid, said he had heard rumors about Qaeda fighters, but had never actually seen one.

"If Al Qaeda comes to get rid of him," Sayid said, referring to Assad, "why not? But I personally have seen none of them."

Yoshita Singh in New York
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