Syria conflict could give Al-Qaeda its second wind - report

Syria conflict could give Al-Qaeda its second wind - report
Desperate to recoup following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and left without its terror mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda may have an opportunity to get back on track in Syria, according to a report by two US statesmen.

The report comes as the US Congress is in the process of considering whether to approve a military strike against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, who the Obama administration blames for a chemical attack on a Damascus neighborhood on August 21 that left hundreds of civilians dead or injured.

"The civil war in Syria may provide Al-Qaeda with an opportunity to regroup, train and plan operations,” concluded former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean in a summary of the report's findings. “Foreign fighters hardened in that conflict could eventually destabilize the region or band together to plot attacks against the West."

The report, entitled ‘Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment’, was published Monday by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

While admitting it is too early to predict the long-term threat posed by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the paper  warned that the “right set of circumstances in the unstable Middle East” could breathe life into the network.

This unpredictability on the part of the rebel forces, comprised as they are of known terrorist elements, is what Assad was referring to when he warned in a recent CBS interview that the United States should “expect everything” in the event Washington decides to go ahead with an attack.

The report harkened back to the circumstances of the Iraq war, arguing that the highly controversial US military operation “revitalized the [Al-Qaeda] network and gave it new relevance.

Similarly, Syria's conflict could offer a convenient safe haven for Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate, it warns, while adding that Al-Nusra "is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in Syria."

A man walks through a destroyed residential area of the Syrian city of Saraqib, southwest of Aleppo, on September 9, 2013.(AFP Photo / Giovanni Diffidenti)

Meanwhile, it seems that the group has learned a thing or two about public relations, refraining from imposing mandatory Islamic law on the populace, opting instead for providing social services to the war-torn region  

"For the moment, Al-Nusra is not imposing Taliban-style rule on the population as [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] did in Anbar province during the first years of the Iraq War," the report says. Instead, Al-Nusra "is operating in a Hezbollah-like manner as a large-scale provider of social services," such as food distribution points and hospitals.

"This is something of a first for an Al-Qaeda affiliate; developing a Mao-like 'population-centric' approach to implementing a successful insurgency," it added.

Meanwhile, there are other groups fighting on the side of the rebel opposition that are every bit as dangerous as Al-Qaeda.

In January, a leaked memo provided a shocking look at how Saudi officials commuted the sentences of 1,200 death row inmates on the condition they join the rebels and fight against Assad in Syria, according to the Assyrian International News Agency.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up a shooting position in Ogiwl, Aleppo, September 8, 2013.(Reuters / Hamid Khatib)

The memo read: “We have reached an agreement with them that they will be exempted from the death sentence and given a monthly salary to their families and loved ones, who will be prevented from traveling outside Saudi Arabia in return for rehabilitation of the accused and their training in order to send them to jihad in Syria.”

Saudi officials, anxious to have Assad removed from power, reportedly gave the prisoners a choice: decapitation or participating in Syria’s civil war on the side of the rebel forces.

Inmates from Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, and Kuwait were said to have accepted the offer.