Al-Qaida has managed to recover from the wave of U.S. assassinations of its senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and begun to reestablish itself throughout the Middle East, while concentrating most of its power and efforts in the Syrian civil war.
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The organization’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, considers the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights a staging ground for Jihadist activity against Israeli targets – activity that is expected to increase if Al-Qaida and groups affiliated with it manage to win their struggle against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
These are the conclusions of two Israeli researchers, who have for years specialized in researching international Jihadist organizations affiliated with Al-Qaida.
The researchers, Yoram Schweitzer and Aviv Oreg, published a new comprehensive study on Al-Qaida activity through the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Schweitzer and Oreg write that, in contrast to predications made after bin Laden’s death in May 2011, Al-Qaida did not suffer an irreversible blow and is nowhere near defeat.
According to the researchers, the organization (and other international Jihadist groups affiliated with it) have made use of the turmoil in the Arab world to advance their agendas, increase their influence and continue their violent efforts aimed at achieving their vision.
The upcoming withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan later this year is expected to take some of the pressure off Al-Qaida and its affiliates, much like the withdrawal from Iraq did.
Schweitzer and Oreg believe that new opportunities are coming into focus for Al-Qaida, most of which are based in Syria, where two of its affiliates – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – have taken a leading role in the opposition against Assad.
According to the researchers, Zawahri is interested first and foremost in organizational image and structure through leadership. The two write that he is trying to “utilize the Arab Spring, and turn it into an Islamic Spring, showing preference for local, internal Jihad over international Jihad” – meaning focusing on the struggles within Muslim states, as opposed to attacking Western nations and targets.
The two researchers add that Al-Qaida will try to exploit instability in Muslim states, in order to set up bases of power in areas controlled by Jihadists. The organization will only grow stronger as combatants gain experience in the various internal wars currently raging throughout the Arab world, fighting alongside Arab terrorists.
Al-Qaida sees the civil war in Syria as “an historical opportunity of the first degree,” according to Schweitzer and Oreg. Also, they write that contrary to popular belief, last summer’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will ultimately strengthen Al-Qaida, as Islamist rule can only be achieved by armed struggle.
Schweitzer and Oreg quote Zawahri in a video he released last May, for the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Zawahri claimed that Jihad against Israel is a commandment that every Muslim must fulfill, Palestinian or not. In order to free Palestine, Zawahri stated, Muslims must go to Syria and use it as a staging ground for Jihad activity against Israel.
Zawahri believes that as soon as Assad falls, Syria will have the optimal conditions for founding an Islamic state, which will attract lots of Muslims looking to practice Jihad against Israel. Such a state would be supported logistically, financially and militarily by the Al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq. Zawahri calls on Jihadists in Syria to refuse to lay down their arms until all of Al-Qaida’s goals are achieved, including the “release of all Palestine.”
Schweitzer and Oreg expect an increased presence of Jihadist combatants and activity on the Israel-Syria border, especially if Zawahri declares Israel as the next target for Jihad, in the event that the Syrian regime falls.
“If an operative opportunity presents itself,” opine the two researchers, “the Jihadist groups are likely to take advantage of it and attack Israel,” even as the fighting against Assad and generals in Egypt continues.
They write that Israel’s Syria problem is especially complicated, as these Jihadist groups do not seem to exercise any restraint as they have no fear of Israeli reprisal, unlike other organizations.
Schweitzer and Oreg expect that Syria will continue to be a central focus of Jihadist activity, and the fighting will attract volunteers from throughout the world. The outcome in Syria, they write, will affect stability in neighboring states.
Al-Qaida sees Syria as a greenhouse for creating new cadres of Jihadists with battle experience. The organization plans on recruiting many Syrian combatants into its ranks, and using them to set up terrorist cells throughout the world. Schweitzer and Oreg believe that, in coming years, Al-Qaida will eventually resume attacking Western states and targets.
The duo believes that Western powers must continue assassinating Al-Qaida leaders, primarily Zawahri himself. The United States must also maintain its efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan – even after the planned withdrawal – by forging agreements with the two states to train their security forces, and improve their abilities to deal with Al-Qaida.