Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2019 | Permalink

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White House weighs increased CIA involvement in Syrian war

Syrian rebelsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The government of the United States is considering plans to augment the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine role in Syria, amid fears that similar efforts by the US Department of Defense are failing. The CIA’s involvement in the Syrian civil war began in 2012, when US President Barack Obama issued a classified presidential finding that authorized Langley to arm and train opposition militias. The clandestine program was initially based in training camps in Jordan before eventually expanding to at least one location in Qatar. The CIA currently vets and trains approximately 400 opposition fighters every month with the help of commandos detailed to the Agency from the Pentagon. But the program may be about to escalate considerably, according to The Washington Post. The paper said last week that the option of expanding CIA arming and training operations in Syria was on the agenda at a recent meeting of senior national-security officials in Washington. The paper said that the proposed escalation of CIA operations in the region “reflects concern” about the slow pace of similar programs run by the US Department of Defense, which aim to train and arm anti-government militias. The latter have so far proved unable to counter the dominance of a host of al-Qaeda-inspired groups operating along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Earlier this month, a major CIA-backed armed group, known as Harakat Hazm, abandoned many of its positions in northern Syria, after it came under attack by Jabhat al-Nusra, an official al-Qaeda affiliate. Along with territory, Harakat Hazm left behind significant amounts of war material supplied to it by the US Pentagon. The Post said that other moderate opposition militias are beginning to view al-Qaeda-linked groups as their most viable option in defeating the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, something which is worrying the White House. Spokesmen for the US government refused to comment on the report of a possible increase of CIA operations in Syria, or on whether the White House had reached a decision on the matter.

Opposition fighters leave Syrian Free Army to fight for al-Qaeda

Syria's Deir ez-Zor governorateBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Few outside Syria’s pro-government Alawite and Christian communities share the regime’s claim that it is fighting a war against Islamist terrorists. Clearly, the core membership of the Free Syrian Army consists of rebels whose grievances against the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad are primarily ethnic and political, not religious. At the same time, it would be equally naïve to disregard the documented existence of several armed Islamist groups currently operating all over Syria. A case in point is the Deir al-Zour governorate, one of Syria’s largest provinces, which borders Iraq. Al-Qaeda-linked groups have operated in that region for at least a decade, far from the reach of the government in Damascus or the United States military stationed across the border in Iraq. The Syrian uprising has breathed new life to the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Eastern Syria. One of the most active such groups is  Jabhat al-Nusra, which translates into English as “Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant”. Al-Nusra, known informally as “Solidarity Front”, is widely considered al-Qaeda’s main branch in Syria. It has hundreds of members in Deir al-Zour’s towns and cities, including in Mohassan, where Solidarity Front vehicles can currently be observed patrolling the streets while bearing the black banners of al-Qaeda. British newspaper The Guardian, whose editorial position is unreservedly in support of the Syrian uprising, has managed to place one of its special correspondents, Iraqi-born Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, inside Deir al-Zour. While there, the journalist met a senior Jabhat al-Nusra commander who goes by the name Abu Khuder. A former Syrian army officer, Abu Khuder was one of the first Syrians in Deir ez-Zor province to join the Free Syrian Army. He soon quit, however, accusing the Free Syrian Army of operational ineptness and amateurism. He soon joined Jabhat al-Nusra, whose core leadership consists of hardened veterans of the Iraqi insurgency against the US military. According to Abdul-Ahad’s report, Abu Khuder now leads a Jabhat al-Nusra battalion calling itself “the strangers”, after a well-known Islamist madih (poetic eulogy) that celebrates al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s operations in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. He told The Guardian that his “clear instructions” from the al-Nusra leadership are to actively assist the regional command of the Free Syrian Army, whose members he meets “almost every day”. Read more of this post