As the United States and its allies attempt to tighten the screws on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is eager to take advantage of the conflict.
Apart from a few mass casualty attacks on Iraqi Shia pilgrims, AQI has been largely absent from media coverage—at least compared to six years ago, when the terror group captured headlines nearly every day. Yet a degraded terrorist organization does not mean a defeated one, as Iraq’s Shia community can attest. Now it appears Al Qaeda’s associates in Iraq are trying to branch out into neighboring Syria, where the continuing conflict makes fertile ground for an Al Qaeda franchise.
According to several U.S. intelligence analysts who recently spoke to McClatchy, AQI commanders—with the blessing of Ayman al-Zawahiri himself—are making a desperate attempt to take advantage of Syria’s internal unrest by infiltrating the opposition and turning the conflict into another front in the global jihad.
Iraq’s deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, supported this claim with his own assessment in AFP. “We have intelligence information that a number of Iraqi jihadists went to Syria.”
All of these remarks, while not incontrovertible evidence, should nevertheless be taken seriously, for Al Qaeda continues to prove that it can be versatile and adaptive when backed into a corner. Just ask the interim leaders of Yemen and Libya, where the organization is either consolidating its control over territory (Yemen) or is seeking to influence the post-conflict transition (Libya).
With Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest announcement of support for the anti-Assad opposition, we may very well be witnessing yet another attempt by Al Qaeda to exploit a significant chapter of Arab history for its own purposes.
Daniel R. DePetris is an intern in foreign and defense policy at AEI.