WASHINGTON: Al-Qaida’s top leadership in
, badly weakened after a decade of CIA drone strikes, has actually decided that the terror group’s future lies in Syria and has actually secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there, according to senior US and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
The movement of the senior al-Qaida jihadis reflects Syria’s growing importance to the terrorist organization and most likely foreshadows an escalation of the group’s bloody rivalry with the Islamic State, Western officials say.
The operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a considerable shift for al-Qaida and its affiliate, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready. Such an entity could also pose a heightened terrorist threat to the United States and Europe.
Al-Qaida operatives have moved in and out of Syria for years. Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s supreme leader in Pakistan, dispatched senior jihadis to bolster the Nusra Front in 2013. A year later, al-Zawahri sent to Syria a shadowy al-Qaida cell called Khorasan that US officials say has actually been plotting attacks versus the West.
But establishing a more enduring presence in Syria would present the group with an invaluable opportunity, Western analysts said. A Syria-based al-Qaida state would not only be within closer striking distance of Europe but also benefit from the recruiting and logistical support of fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Al-Zawahri released his first audio statement in several months in early May, and it seemed to clear the way for the al-Qaida figures to use the Nusra Front to form an emirate in Syria with his blessing. Some Nusra leaders, however, oppose the timing of such a move, so the affiliate has actually not yet taken that step.
“The combination of an al-Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al-Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote this month in Foreign Policy.
“Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims,” Lister wrote.
Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have the same ultimate objective to create an Islamic state, but they have used different tactics, Lister and other scholars said. The Islamic State moved quickly to impose harsh, unilateral control over territory in Iraq and Syria and declare its independence. The Nusra Front has actually painstakingly sought to build influence over areas it wants to control and with other Syrian rebel groups opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad.
US officials say the Islamic State has actually largely eclipsed al-Qaida in the global jihadi hierarchy, with al-Qaida hemorrhaging members to its more brutal and media-savvy rival. Numerous of the Khorasan operatives, including their leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, have been killed in eight US airstrikes in northwest Syria since September 2014.
The Islamic State has actually between 19,000 and 25,000 fighters, roughly divided between Iraq and Syria, US intelligence analysts estimate. The Nusra Front has actually about 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, all in Syria.
An emirate would differ from the Islamic State caliphate in the scale of its ambition, in that a Nusra emirate would not claim to be a government for all the world’s Muslims.
Some senior US and European intelligence and law enforcement officials say the small but steady movement of important al-Qaida operatives and planners to Syria is a desperate dash to a haven situated perilously in the middle of the country’s chaos. These officials say al-Qaida operatives in Syria are determined but largely contained.
“There’s always been a steady trickle, and it remains,” said Col Steve Warren, a military spokesman in Baghdad for the US-led campaign in Iraq and Syria.
Nonetheless, the presence of a senior cadre of experienced al-Qaida leaders in Syria — some with multimillion-dollar US bounties on their heads — has actually raised alarms in Washington as well as in the allied capitals of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
“We have destroyed a large part of al-Qaida,” John O Brennan, director of the CIA, said this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It is not completely eliminated, so we have to stay focused on what it can do.”
The evolving assessment about al-Qaida and the Nusra Front in Syria comes from interviews with nearly a dozen US and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials and independent analysts, most of whom have been briefed on confidential information gleaned from spies and electronic eavesdropping. They also analyzed the public statements and social media commentary among al-Qaida and Nusra Front members.
One of the operatives Western intelligence officials are focused most intently on is Saif al-Adl, a senior member of al-Qaida’s ruling body, known as the Shura Council, who oversaw the organization immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011. It is unclear whether al-Adl is in Syria, North Africa or somewhere else, US intelligence officials said.
The government of Iran released al-Adl and four other senior members of al-Qaida early last year as part of a secret prisoner swap with al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, the group holding an Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht.
Al-Adl, a former colonel in the Egyptian military who is believed to be in his 50s, is listed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list and was indicted in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa. He is the subject of a $5 million US bounty.
“As a senior adviser to al-Qaida’s networks in Syria and proximate environs, al-Adl could be especially useful in helping to define strategies that will help the group achieve confidence-inspiring successes,” said Michael S Smith II of Kronos Advisory, a terrorism research and analysis firm.
The other four men released by Iran are also suspected of being in Syria. They are Abdul Khayr al-Misri, an Egyptian who formerly led al-Qaida’s foreign relations council; Abul Qassam, a Jordanian who was a deputy to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the organization that later became the Islamic State; Sari Shibab, a Jordanian operative; and Abu Mohamed al-Misri, an Egyptian who helped orchestrate al-Qaida’s major attacks before September 11, 2001, according to US officials briefed on details of the transfer. They agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s confidential nature.
It is unclear how and when al-Qaida might form an emirate in Syria that would hold territory and most likely harden its position toward more moderate Syrian opposition groups. The Nusra Front was created in 2012 as an offshoot of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq — which under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi later declared itself the Islamic State — to fight Assad’s government. That same year, the United States designated the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.
But in 2013, the Nusra Front balked at joining al-Baghdadi when he announced the creation of the Islamic State, also known as
or ISIL, and instead pledged allegiance to al-Zawahri in Pakistan. This ignited an often bloody rivalry between Nusra and Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Now al-Qaida’s top leadership is looking to stanch its losses in Pakistan and score a propaganda coup in Syria by establishing a formal emirate. A portion of Nusra’s leadership, however, supports continuing the group’s more pragmatic strategy of cultivating local support.
“The fundamental disagreement is over how far al-Qaida’s long-game strategy should be sustained before revealing more and more of Nusra’s real face and solidifying territorial control through the formation of an emirate,” Lister said in an interview.
Many of the Syrian rebel groups that are fighting alongside Nusra versus Assad’s government reject the idea of forming an emirate, fearing it would further splinter the opposition to Assad.
“From al-Qaida’s religious perspective, the declaration of a state or of an emirate should only happen in a context where it is possible to govern effectively,” said Firas Abi Ali, a senior principal analyst with IHS Country Risk in London. “It would be ironic for al-Qaida to declare an emirate while there’s a caliphate that it rejects.”